Constructive Rest: Not an Oxymoron

This entry was posted on Apr 27, 2021 by Charlotte Bell.

There’s a popular meme going around on social media. It goes something like this: “If you haven’t learned a new skill in the past year, it’s not because you didn’t have enough time. It’s because you didn’t have enough motivation.” The COVID pause has been a challenge, but it’s also borne fruit for many of us. Some of the more common COVID-inspired skills include artisan or sourdough bread baking, a new exercise regimen, revisiting a long-forgotten musical instrument. Here’s another one I’m guessing you hadn’t thought of: constructive rest.

Be honest: does the above quote inspire you, or does it bring you down? If you’re inspired, it’s probably because you did indeed try something new. If you’re feeling a little guilty, I’m guessing that it’s because you took the time to chill.

What’s Wrong with Rest?

So what’s wrong with taking time to rest? Many of us—myself included—entered the lockdown in a state of exhaustion. Before COVID, many of us spent altogether too much time being “productive” in the Western culture sense of the word. We ran from one responsibility to the next with little time to stop and breathe. The requirement to stay home was a welcome, and much needed opportunity for some of us.

On another note, I’m not fond of the quote above. It doesn’t take into account the multitude of varied situations we’ve all found ourselves in during the pandemic. It assumes a level of privilege many do not enjoy. People who have lost loved ones or livelihoods, or suffered their own health issues, for example, probably aren’t sitting around thinking about starting a new hobby. Nor are people who are juggling work responsibilities with kids at home.

Running On Empty

Western culture generally frowns on rest. We often consider taking time to rest as lazy, unproductive. As a result, many of us go, go, go until we drop. This is not a state of balance. While productivity, in the Western sense of the word, is important, balance is even more important. Intentional rest can help us restore our energy so that we’re not constantly running on empty.

When we run constantly from one thing to the next, we end up living in our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system (SNS). The SNS is a useful mode when we’re in a situation of real danger. When the SNS is activated, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes shallower, blood is pumped away from our organs and into our large muscles so that we can escape whatever might be pursuing us.

But we’re not designed to live in this system constantly. When we do, we wear out. Our lives become a cycle of running until we collapse in exhaustion. This is not a state of equilibrium, and it is not optimal for our health and wellbeing.

It’s the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) side of the nervous system that’s supposed to be our baseline. This is where our bodies generate and store prana, through digestion and breathing.

What Is Constructive Rest?

I believe there is such a thing as constructive rest. A good night’s sleep is one way to get the rest you need. But resting throughout our days can also help us emerge more alert and refreshed. A recent article in Forbes says this:

“The human body is built to thrive in a series of short sprints. This is why taking a break—even only for a few minutes—can offer you the refresh you need to persevere through your day. Breaks are brief cessations to work, physical exertion, or emotional stress. They promote mental health, boost creativity, increase productivity, promote well-being, reduce stress, improve mood, and strengthen relationships.”

So what might constructive rest look like? Here are some thoughts:

  • My own COVID routine includes taking an afternoon nap. My body loses energy and my brain fogs up in mid-afternoon. If I don’t take a power nap, I feel sluggish and heavy. After as little as 20 minutes, I always wake up refreshed.
  • Another fun break is to get up from the computer to play with my cats. It keeps them active, and gives my brain a rest.
  • Sometimes I take a walk around my neighborhood. It’s especially lovely at this time of year, when bulbs and fruit trees are in bloom. This often takes the form of an informal walking meditation. In walking meditation, I pay special attention to all the sights, smells, sounds and sensations coming in through my senses.
  • My spouse recently bought me a nice Yamaha U3 piano. I studied piano for nine years. It’s a meditation for me. My skills are a bit rusty at the moment, since I haven’t lived with a piano for decades. So I do have to practice. In “piano meditation,” I play pieces I’m completely comfortable with. Playing like this shuts down my thinking brain, and catapults me into a different realm.
  • Yoga breaks are an essential part of my rest routine. They don’t have to be a full-on practice. A few minutes can do wonders. This could include one or two Restorative poses. Or it can be a more active practice.

How to Practice Constructive Rest Pose

Finally, there’s also an actual yoga pose called “Constructive Rest Pose.” Here’s how to practice:

  1. Lie on your back on a yoga mat. Place a small pillow or folded yoga blanket under your head for a little extra support.
  2. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor. Your feet should be a comfortable distance from your hips, so that your spine is resting in a neutral position (with all its natural curves). If your feet are too close to your hips, your back will round toward the floor. If they are too far away, you will have to strain to keep them upright. Find a distance that feels relaxed, but requires a bit of energy to keep your knees upright.
  3. Relax your arms, palms up, a comfortable distance from your sides, 45 to 90 degrees from the body.
  4. Relax and breathe. That’s it. Stay as long as you like.

Why Practice Constructive Rest Pose?

This pose is called “Constructive Rest Pose” because it is ultimately restful, but requires a bit of intention to keep your knees upright. Your body is supported by the floor, but the energy it takes to keep your knees upright keeps you from completely falling into a tamasic stupor. (Tamas is one of yoga’s three gunas.) In the language of yoga’s gunas, it’s a sattvic (balanced) pose.

I also find breathing deeply to be easiest in Constructive Rest Pose. Sitting pranayama can be tricky because of postural issues. Lying supine with your legs stretched out limits the natural pelvic movement that goes along with breathing. Constructive Rest Pose strikes the right balance. The pelvis can easily rock forward and back as you inhale and exhale, and maintaining a healthy spine is easy.

I build Constructive Rest Pose in to my practice as a time to pause and integrate. When I’m practicing supine poses, I pause in between sides and in between poses. This gives me time to feel the residue of the previous pose and to integrate the benefits before moving on.

The Skill of Resting

If you chose to learn how to bake artisan bread or relearn the piano during COVID, enjoy your newfound skills. But take time to rest too, in whatever way is compatible with your body/mind on any given day. Rest is constructive, after all. It’s a skill that you can continue to develop now and for the rest of your life.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.