Yesterday, Sisarina tweeted a link to an article about why relaxing is such hard work. It talks about how few Americans return from a vacation feeling rested, how many become ill when they try to take a proper break, and how we're developing an inability to simply sit still and be.
As a society, we're taught to maximize our time, to stimulate ourselves to keep going, non-stop, through the workday. The importance of our presence at work, at meetings, at class, at social engagements, is stressed to the point that often, even illness isn't enough to keep us in bed. At the end of the year, our meager allotment of vacation time still hasn't been used. We are all taught, from a young age, the importance ofpowering through, but we are no longer taught to relax.
We don't think of relaxation as something that needs to be learned or taught, but after our nervous system becomes conditioned to maintain a constant state of arousal--a low level fight-or-flight response--we really do have to re-learn how to let go.
The point was driven home for me last night. During Savasana at the end of a yoga class, I realized I was going over my mental to-do list instead of settling my mind and focusing on my breath. The ironic part is that we had spent the past hour or so of class discussing Santosha, the observance of contentment--the idea that one should be happy and grounded in the moment.
This is something that I see--or rather, that I see a lack of--in my clients on the massage table. While a person comes in for a relaxing massage and generally expects to lie passively for an hour, one of the hardest things they will do all day is let go.
Some clients find themselves laying there, as I did, worrying about the things that they need to accomplish and trying to work out a plan. These are often the same clients who take their laptop on vacation and sit at the poolside checking their email. Other clients are more physically guarded. I lift their arm, and they hold it stiffly in the air. I slide my hands under their shoulders to prepare to cradle their head, and they lift their upper body off the table. Often, these are the clients who suffer from chronic headaches or tension and pain in their shoulders.
Massage can be a great tool for those people who find themselves unable to just sit and be. By physically assisting our bodies in the process of shifting from "fight or flight" to "rest and digest" (or, in more technical terms, from our sympathetic nervous system to our parasympathetic nervous system), we remind them of what it is like to be in that state. And, on a more conscious level, we remind ourselves that nothing bad will happen if we allow ourselves a bit of time to recharge. Over a mumber of sessions, those guarded clients stop "helping" me support their weight, and the mentally alert clients find themselves in a deeply relaxed state where they are no longer conscious of time passing.
Relaxing and recharging is so important, and so undervalued in our culture. Its easy to believe we don't have time to take for ourselves, but I promise you this: after you take an hour for a massage, or a day to sit by the pool or go for a hike, your newly centered mind and body will be more equipped to deal with whatever you need to accomplish, and you will be able to handle it more efficiently. Its a win-win situation.
And so, I challenge you to take some time to truly relax over the next few days. Take a totally frivolous book to the pool. Turn off your phone and computer screen and spend five minutes at your desk focusing on deep, expansive breathing. Lay in Savasana for fifteen minutes before bed. Get a massage. Carve out a little time for yourself, and be mindful of how it makes you feel. If you start practicing relaxation now, you'll be able to call on that response when you need it.