This January, don’t resolve — repose

 

It’s interesting that January 1st brings on a frenzy of promises to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking and similar action-oriented resolutions when I always feel like all I want to do is hibernate like a bear. So I was happy to find out when I went to my yoga studio last week that the pose of the month is Savasana.

Savasana (shah-VAHS-anna), also called Corpse Pose, usually is done at the end of every yoga practice, and it looks deceptively easy. After all, what could be that hard about lying flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out away from the body, and closing the eyes for 10 minutes or so? But I say “deceptive” because Savasana can be the most difficult yoga pose of all — first, because it’s hard for many of us to truly relax, and second because Savasana is about relaxing “with attention”. Yoga Journal says that in Savasana we attempt to “quiet the physical body and pacify the sense organs”, so we need to pay particular attention to relaxing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It asks us to surrender to the point where the boundaries of the body begin to dissolve, where we can symbolically “die” to old ways of thinking and doing. savasana_in_yoga_gembira_community

Savasana is the bridge that allows you to take the benefits of class into your everyday life. This is why yoga teachers tell people who have to leave class early that they should plan to stop the regular practice with enough time left to take a few minutes in the pose before going. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Not forcing anything, we just do our best to line up with the warp and woof of body and mind, floor, and world, staying in touch.” Savasana brings together all the disparate pieces of the yoga class and gives you time for processing them and absorbing their benefits.

Sleep, which we tend to crave during the cold winter months, is like Savasana in that it is important for integrating the separate pieces of our days. We can be more effective the next day if we’ve spent time in sleep, regrouping and consolidating everything that we learned and experienced during the day. In addition, sleep sometimes helps us problem-solve because the useless information that came in during the day is forgotten, and only the crux remains. While there is still much to learn about the purposes of sleep, some researchers theorize that it helps the brain be “plastic”, to dial down synaptic activity for a while and use less energy. We are literally resting the brain, perhaps more so than resting the body.

Animals hibernate in the winter as a way of saving energy too, because food resources are scarce. Most of us don’t have that problem, but there’s still a case to be made for looking at January as a month of repose. It’s the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and has some of the shortest days, so why not sleep a little more and yes, get down on the mat in Savasana? Use the darkness to gather energy, reflect on where you’re going and prepare for the longer days ahead. The word “January” comes from the Latin word meaning “door”. Consider opening the door to the new year slowly rather than abruptly. Take the time to first figure out what’s on the other side.

Indira Gandhi said that, “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” That’s not only the challenge of Savasana, but also the way we manifest it in our everyday lives.

 

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Three “meals” a day for the soul

It makes sense that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help us sleep better at night and be more resilient in the face of stress. But consider the flip side: managing stress and sleeping well can support efforts to eat better and move more.

I recently spent a day counseling people on healthy eating, but I found myself more often than not talking with them about how much sleep they got, and what their stress levels were like. They invariably said that their jobs were stressful and the hours were long. They got home later than they would like, and found it challenging to think about preparing a healthy meal. The stressful day made them feel like they “deserved” the calorie-laden dinner. And by the time they ate, and spent a couple of hours winding down, they got to bed too late to get enough sleep. They often felt fatigued and low in energy.

Most of the people I talked to were relatively young and pretty healthy. But they were struggling with maintaining healthy behaviors in the face of increasingly demanding jobs and hectic lifestyles. Suggesting complicated or time-consuming changes won’t work for them. But what about something that takes only 5 minutes?

Spending 5 minutes once, twice or three times a day doing something that brings you back to the present moment, refreshes your mind, or relaxes your body, can be incredibly restorative. Most of all, in those few minutes, you’re engaged in caring for yourself. While the idea that you deserve care seems like it should be a no-brainer, many people have a hard time embracing it. But a practice that affirms your love and care for self can be the foundation for other health behaviors.

These 5-minute fortifiers come from many sources, including my own practice. Some are adapted from a little book called Five Good Minutes by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine. I have divided them into morning, day and evening practices:

Morning

  • Resist the urge to jump right out of bed. Stay still for a moment. Listen to the sounds outside and in your home. Smile. Set an intention for the day, such as being kinder to the people who challenge you.
  • Sing in the shower. As Brantley & Millstine say, “Music and song can make you feel giddy, bubbly, euphoric, and joyful.”
  • Slow down. Ever notice how when you rush, you are more likely to drop things, spill things, and make mistakes; and less likely to find things you need? Taking the extra two minutes to get ready with care will not make you later.

Daytime

  • Breathe at the traffic lights. Too often when we’re rushing to get somewhere, especially in traffic, we chafe at the time spent waiting. Turn it into an opportunity to notice your breath. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly. You will feel calmer when the cars start to move again.
  • Take a break to look at nature. Whether it’s the view out your office window, or a picture on the wall, this practice will rest your eyes and your brain, and shift your perspective.IMG_0117
  • Eat lunch mindfully. Stop working for the time it takes to eat. Chew slowly, really taste the food and think of how it nourishes you.
  • Spend 5 minutes talking with a friend or family member outside of your work. Hearing the voice of someone who loves and cares for you helps ease the stress of the day.

Evening

Relaxing rituals in the evening help separate day from night and work from rest:

  • Make yourself a cup of herbal tea to warm and soothe you before bed.
  • Listen to some mellow music.
  • Give yourself a foot massage.
  • Read a favorite poem.
  • If you find yourself anxious with thoughts about work, imagine writing them down on pieces of paper. Then picture yourself walking to a nearby river and dropping each thought into the water, letting it drift away.

By tackling stress and sleep first, we put ourselves in a better place to make choices about eating and exercise. We change our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves, make caring for ourselves a routine, and have the energy to stick to a plan.

As Soren Kirkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

Time travels

Ready to spring forward? That cute mnemonic device we use to remember to set our clocks ahead sounds so positive and energetic, but it feels the opposite. The benefits of daylight savings time are few, if any, and the costs are high. Do we really still need it?Analog Clock

Our bodies are finely tuned to respond to cycles of light and dark. There’s truth in the adage, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” The facts are these: getting enough sleep is important for physical health, helps you be more productive (leading to wealth) and even affects your ability to learn and remember (making you wise). When the phrase was coined, people didn’t know the mechanisms by which it worked, but they certainly could observe the results.

When we switch on and off of daylight savings time, we take an already-artificial construct (time) and make it more artificial. Our bodies are telling us one thing – it’s time for dinner, or it’s not time to get up – and the clock is forcing us to do something else. Even without daylight savings time, most of us suffer from what’s called social jet lag, a disharmony between our internal clocks and our daily schedules that causes chronic sleep deprivation, contributing to obesity, increases in smoking and higher alcohol consumption. We’re all sleepy when we need to work and wakeful when we want to sleep.

Monday mornings are consistently the peak time of the week for hospitals to see people come in with heart attacks, probably because of the early morning rise in stress hormones combined with the dread of starting the work week. But on the Monday after we switch to daylight savings time, that incidence of heart attacks goes up by 10%. Accidents of all kinds also increase for the first few days after the time change (in either direction).

Benefits of daylight savings time: not too many. Although it was touted for years as a way to save energy, the savings is really only about 1%. Let’s face it, we live
in a 24/7 world and if the lights aren’t on in the evening, they’ll be on in the morning instead. Gasoline consumption actually goes up during daylight savings time because we go more places after work.

IMG_0239Is it nice to be outdoors in the evenings during the nice weather? Of course! It might even help people get more exercise if they go out for a walk, or play a game of softball after work. But I’ve found in my house that everything gets later during daylight savings time. The bright sunlight makes it seem too early to make dinner, so dinner starts shifting to 8 or 8:30. That makes bedtime later. But we still have to get up for work, so sleep is what is sacrificed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t see any groundswell of opposition to DST, though, so I think it will be with us for the foreseeable future.  Just be aware for the next few days that none of us will be operating at 100%. It will take most of the week to have our bodies adjust, so don’t jump out of bed too quickly in the morning – take a moment to breathe deeply before you start the day. Pay more attention on the road and be mindful in the kitchen to avoid accidents. Get plenty of sunlight during the middle of the day, even if it’s just by looking out the window.

Above all, listen to what your body tells you it needs. As Golda Meir said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”

Zzzzzzzz

It’s cold outside, the leaves are falling, days are shorter and today it’s snowing! My body craves sleep more than ever.

While humans are not considered seasonal animals, some of us do experience stronger responses to seasonal changes. People with seasonal affective disorder (a form of depression that impacts people primarily in the northern latitudes) feel the change more than most. Recent research shows that they secrete more melatonin at night during the winter than they do in the summer. Melatonin is the hormone that makes us drowsy, and we produce it in response to darkness.

In a little over a week, we’ll be going off daylight savings time, which will require an adjustment of our internal clocks (also known as our circadian rhythms). This change is a stressor for us, throwing our bodies out of equilibrium, and some people can need as much as a week to make the shift. Moving time ahead in the spring is considered harder than falling back, but you could still experience an increase in daytime sleepiness until you get used to the fall time change.

Most of us already experience a low point in wakefulness in the early afternoon, so when the time changes, we could be even more prone to problems with concentration and productivity. It is a good idea to be more careful than usual to avoid accidents.

Seasonal adjustments are worse if you are one of the 63% of people who say they don’t get enough sleep. Sleep problems and sleep deprivation have been associated with memory problems, being overweight, and having reduced immunity to disease. A new study out of Norway even shows that people with the most symptoms of insomnia have the most heart attacks. Lack of sleep could cause these problems because the body stores memories and repairs itself during sleep. Melatonin (the hormone that promotes sleep) acts as an antioxidant, cleaning up damaging free radicals while we sleep. If we don’t sleep enough, we miss out on that protective benefit.

Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is also linked to living a longer, healthier life. So what can you do to sleep better and handle the time change more smoothly?

  • Go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time every day.
  • Get regular exercise each day (especially aerobic and stretching), but not too close to bedtime.
  • Expose yourself to outdoor (or bright) light each day.
  • Keep your bedroom a little on the cool side.
  • Make your bedroom quiet and dark. Turn off or cover anything with a glow (cell phones, digital clocks, and other electronics); and use white noise or ear plugs to muffle noises.
  • Use your bed only for sleep or sex.
  • Allow about 2 hours for “winding down” before going to sleep. Dim the lights, listen to quiet music, minimize screen time.

No-no’s:

  • Caffeine in the evening; too much alcohol                                           
  • Watching TV in bed
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Unprescribed sleeping pills
  • Forcing sleep
  • Sleeping with children or pets

And if you’re especially sensitive to the change back to standard time, these tips from the National Sleep Foundation might help:

  • On the night of the change, resist staying up much later than usual. Try to get your usual amount of sleep.
  • Be sure to use curtains or blinds to keep your room dark in the morning; it will be brighter at an earlier time which could cause you to wake sooner than you intend to.
  • Try making a gradual shift in your sleep/wake time over a few days.

For fun, you might want to check out this link for a list of 10 songs about sleep. Sweet dreams!