Active rest

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A recent bout of “lurgy “forced me to rest and recuperate.  I had ignored warning signs of an impending malady and  paid the price.  I cancelled all classes and whilst resting had time to think.

I was learning how not “to do”.

Seems odd that it’s so hard to avoid the “busy bug” that we have to learn how not to do.

Listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, I heard the comedian, Micky Flanagan give a wonderfully clear account of holding back from the obsession of “doing”..

……….The minute you open your eyes, you’ve got to spring out of bed and be productive.  Do stuff.


Stay in bed.  Have a little think.

There are lots of possibilities and opportunities out there

You haven’t got to take them all………

Easy for him to say, of course. A successful comedian, setting his own timetable to some extent – not subject to the 9-5 schedule that drives the day for most of us.  Nonetheless, (and his comedic delivery helped) this highlighted the fact that I often feel too busy to be mindful.  As one who “bangs on” about mindfulness, I saw the irony in this – stemming, I think from feeling, at times,  guilty about “doing nothing”.  Particularly ironic since my blogs on mindfulness have highlighted how hard it is to pay attention, in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way.  This caused me to think about active rest, recovery and homeostasis –  a balanced internal environment.:

A state of equilibrium, as in an organism, maintained by self-regulating processes

The semi-supine position that we regularly use is an extremely effective technique for just this.  In the Alexander technique it is called constructive rest or “active rest”.  The term “active rest” seems contradictory but it is now widely used in fitness.  Many fitness trainers use this technique to maximize the benefits of a workout. Active rest takes advantage of the period between sets of exercises. This differs from the Alexander technique in that it takes the form of light recovery exercises which help to reduce muscle fatigue and the build up of lactic acid.   It not only makes the most of the  workout, but it increases the efficiency,  too because body – and mind have time to recharge and re-focus.  A review of different modes of active recovery after taxing exercise concluded:

…… This kind of light active exercise is effective in removing post exercise muscles fatigue independently of sport discipline training specifics……..

In our yoga practice,  the intention is to integrate mind, body and breath through a combination of active and passive asana.  Moments of “active rest”in semi supine might be viewed as “sleepy” but the importance of taking time to notice the effects of movement, of pranayama, of our ability to pay attention is so important – for body and mind.  We also use child’s pose for active rest.  We are not always totally passive,.  In semi-supine we will often gently work some of the muscle groups that have been the focus of movement – we might release the hip flexors and lengthen the back, release the neck and shoulders, the arms, the legs.  In child’s pose, we can use the exhale to feel elongation of the spine; to feel the shoulders widen and the scapulae settle into place.  We often notice how our respiratory system reacts to movement; how well it adjusts and (importantly,) how we feel.  Our sensory approach to yoga tunes into the nervous system and works with the needs of the body.  It is not simply another form of exercise.

Pete Blackaby in a lecture entitled “Precautions and Prohibitions in Yoga?  A reasonable look at illness, health and homeostasis in yoga practice” the benefits of self-regulation in yoga classes is explored.

…As the intention of the class is to progress towards postures and to stop when unhelpful tension comes in they all benefit. There is no emphasis in getting into poses, just moving towards them. Sometimes, this approach is criticised for not taking people to their edge, not challenging them enough. But this is an issue for the teacher really…

I agree with this and Pete’s lecture is worth reading.  It is hard, however, to lead people away from “doing”what everyone else in the class may be doing.  It is hard for students to accept “limitations”, to explore approaches towards asanas and to make choices – to adapt movement, to repeat a previously explored pattern of movement which may be more useful/helpful to the individual, or – to rest.  Rest, in this sense is very often “active” since the person may be taking time-out but the very fact that he/she feels able to take a different path, to self-regulate, to practice in a spirit of self-exploration is such a powerful part of yoga.

What about home practice then?  Let’s not get judgmental about this. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t (do/have time).  Teachers may suggest trying for 5 mins a day – establish a positive habit of self-practice.  What do you instinctively think of – a quick burst of Sun Salutations or 5 minutes in semi-supine and breath awareness?  This is where the ability to view yourself in a non-judgmental way comes in and to self-regulate.  What do you feel like doing?  It’s great to explore active and passive movements; it’s great to move away from the pressure that you “should do”.  With our focus upon functional movement, we can sometimes take our practice on a walk – how we place the feet, mapping bio- mechanically sound patterns of movement that we explore in class.  It’s amazing how nourishing are the simple things that you perceive when you take the opportunity to be in the moment with them.

The recent Workshop in The Barn explored this theme of “learning not to do”.  The Barn is a wonderful space for a small group of students to practice yoga together.  Thanks to the generosity of the participants, we donated £130 to Kidney Research.

We used active rest as a means of heightening self-awareness and ended the morning with a relaxation technique called “yoga nidra” or “yogic sleep”. In the next post, I will outline this and some other approaches to relaxation. Meanwhile:

Happy Christmas






2 thoughts on “Active rest

  1. Liz – perfect timing for this …. was looking for an excuse not to do all that Christmas shopping!  Seriously this is very helpful as I am very guilty of never wanting to do nothing . have a great Christmas – enjoy those babies. Alison 


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