The Yoga of Rest

Mar 10 2013

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The Yoga of Rest

Recently I was assisting Ana Forrest during her Advanced Teacher Training Program in New York City at Pure Yoga. This 9-day program is an incredible whirlwind of breakthroughs and development for the students who take it, and an equally incredible challenge to development for the teachers like me who assist it. Our days began early – 3am to be exact – and ran through 11:30am including a long practice for the assistants and then a practice for the students that we helped with. There was a short break and then back to business for the afternoon until 5:30pm. I’ve taken this course many times and reaped incredible benefits from it, but this was the first time I was assisting it. I was nervous about the schedule, nervous about being a good assistant, nervous about working with new people, and more.

Things started off great: I didn’t oversleep for the early AM practice sessions, I learned new hands-on assists, I met very interesting and kind new students, I worked alongside my mentor and lifelong teacher. It was a great experience.

Fast forward to day 5: in the middle of the day I started feeling quite ill. By the next morning during practice I was feeling much worse. My teacher looked at me and she said, “If you need to go and rest, please go to your apartment and rest.” This might sound like a simple phrase to you, but inside my mind this was revolutionary. In my mind, rest was not an option. If I left, my mind told me the story that I was a failure, that I was not completing my obligation to assist the program, that I was weak, that I was letting Ana/the other assistants/the students down, and that there was something wrong with me because this was the 7th time I had been sick in as many weeks. I was floored – stopped in my tracks – that I was having such thoughts about myself.

In the maelstrom of energy that coursed through me along these trains of thought in a single moment, pulling me down into a spiral of despair, Ana in her wisdom and stepping into Spirit turned back to me and said, “What would you have said to your student if they came to you and were sick like this?” This blew the doors open. I started crying and said, “I would tell them not to worry at all and to go home and rest, and to get better, and I would mean every word.” It’s the truth.

In delving deeper into these issues for myself, I realized that I have trouble resting. I joke about it, but I really have been conditioned throughout my whole life to “just keep going no matter what.” There are a lot of threads weaving into the tapestry of that pattern in my life, but in feeling deeper into the pattern I came up with some wisdom for myself that I hope will help you too.

Fast forwards to coming home to Chicago. When I came back to teaching after being sick for weeks, I was struck by several things. First, that so many sick people were coming to class with full-on influenza, stomach virus, colds, strep, and more. Second, that suddenly I could see very clearly students who were pushing beyond their edges into a danger zone when they needed to back off, but they simply would not stop pushing ahead even though they were in pain and even though I encouraged them not to. Third, that no one seemed to think either of these patterns were odd or injurious, but the opposite: that by practicing while VERY ill or pushing hard and fast ahead they were actually helping themselves….This left me unsettled as I realized I had some of this pattern in myself.

In light of these experiences, I think we need to re-evaluate the yoga practice of rest!

Ana Forrest teaches about discerning when you need to rest by feeling into your current state honestly without getting sucked into your “rackets.” Sometimes when we “rest” in a pose like embryo or child’s pose, we are actually doing it out of avoidance or because we have a story about the sensations that are coming up in another pose. Likewise, when we are in a challenging pose and we keep pushing ahead, Forrest says sometimes the story is that we have to push through the pain to get ahead – and how false and potentially damaging this kind of internal story really is. Using feeling as a discerning tool to sift through the stories we tell ourselves about our practice to get to the truth of the matter will allow us to learn when and how to actually rest. Sometimes this means changing alignment, other times changing the pose entirely, other times staying home from a group class altogether. But feeling into the truth of your state of being is the key to making the decision.
Another of my teachers, Scott Sonnon, talks about rest as active recovery. He has been through a wide variety of instances in which he needed to keep moving to heal from his injuries and conditions. When he says “active recovery” he means tailoring the movement modality to what is actually going on in the body at any given time – whether that is a neck fracture or the flu. He recommends the practice of Intu-Flow (functional joint mobility training) solo to address where the body’s energy is stuck as a result of fatigue, illness or injury. He also recommends neither too much sleep, nor too little, but the amount of sleep that actually helps you to feel your best – and how this is different for everyone. He speaks to the need to eat not only high quality, whole foods, but nutrient dense foods that actually provide what your life schedule and activity levels ask of you as a form of “rest” or replenishment.

From my teachers I walk away with some tips for you:

1. If you are sick with a fever, are just getting over the stomach flu or food poisoning and feel weak, are dizzy to the point of feeling like you are going to pass out, have a bacterial infection not yet treated and cleared by the your doctor, stay home and rest up! Know that you are doing a huge service to yourself by resting. And you are keeping those around you from getting sick.

2. When you are fatigued, know that sitting around will probably make you more fatigued. If you usually take Power Yoga or something kick-your-asana because that is the practice you like, consider taking a steadier or more energetic based practice like Forrest Yoga or Slow Flow Vinyasa to learn about replenishing your supply of Self.

3. When you are in a pose, become finely attuned to your edge: the space where you feel something is happening, but you could stay for a while and not fall over into the abyss of overwhelm and abandon.

4. Reframe the negative internal dialogue that comes up for you related to resting, taking breaks, backing off, bailing out, etc. Congratulate yourself for becoming aware that you are even having these patterns of reactions! Once you cultivate awareness you can finally begin to cultivate change.

I leave you with some final tips!!

Eat well for your body and schedule. Sleep enough for your constitution. Move every day. Give yourself time for silent contemplation. Turn off Facebook from time to time (and Twitter!). Go for a walk instead of surfing the net. Read something that inspires you. Call a friend. Stay home when you are sick and recuperate. Learn your own “rackets” and stories, and be the best writer as you recreate yourself one pattern at a time. Delight in your process of being – this is the only go you get.