calm

“Most people could do with more relaxation, not more stimulation,” naturopath Sandra Villella is quoted as saying in the weekend Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum.

In an article about the new ‘relaxation’ drinks, Villella was addressing the issue of whether these drinks can deliver what they advertise. If you haven’t encountered these products, look for the Australian versions called “Koala Karma”, “EverydaySunday”, and “bChill”. What they purport to do is slow you down and even help you sleep as they contain ingredients, such as valerian, lemon balm and chamomile which are said in traditional medicine to induce calm.

While the jury’s out as to whether these herbal fizzy drinks work, it is true that we as a society tend to be over-stimulated and need to seek out ways of creating balance.

Overworking, overplaying, overeating and, drinking too much, at the same time as undersleeping and simply not stopping to rest contribute to deep fatigue, insomnia, and generally feeling out of kilter.

I had some recent experience of being overstimulated, leading to sleep difficulties; ironically it had to do with the fact that I have been living in relative rural quiet for the last four years. When I went to the city, I noticed the urban noise, traffic congestion and crush of crowds much more than before I used to, and, as a consequence, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve learned the hard way that if I’m going to lead an out-of-town workshop, I need a day or so beforehand to get my feet on the ground. The night before I gave a keynote address at the Yoga Australia conference, I got less than 4 hours sleep because of high levels of excitement. Sadly, my tool box of yoga techniques failed me, and I had to dig deep to find reserves of energy to get me through.

Ageing seems to contribute to a greater sensitivity to one’s environment and fluctuations in sleep patterns and energy. In our household of sixty and seventy year olds, I’ve observed that we will often take the opportunity for an afternoon nap, a yoga relaxation, several restorative poses, or a mindfulness meditation as a way of restoring balance. My housemate Heather has had some success with doing legs-up-the-wall in the midst of nighttime sleeplessness. And, Michael occasionally uses the Iyengar-style soft bandage wrap around his forehead and eyes while sitting for early morning yoga breathing (pranayama). He swears that this early morning sitting generates the energy he needs for the day regardless of being short on sleep.

If it’s proving difficult on your body and mind to plough through the excesses  of this Christmas/New Year’s period, here are of my favourite ‘restorative poses’ to get you through.

1. This pose is about as gentle as you can get as an upside-down position, but it is nevertheless effective. It will stretch the base of your spine, relax your abdominal organs and rest your legs. Hold for at least 5 minutes.

Gentle Supported Inversion

Gentle Supported Inversion

2. As a passive backbend, this pose can’t be beat for opening up your thorax and a bringing a soft cascade of circulation to your throat. The stretch through the front of your body – lungs, heart, and abdominal/pelvic organs – creates space and a desire to just let go. Stay for 5 minutes or more.

Setubandha: A Pose for Letting Go

Setubandha: A Pose for Letting Go

3. This forward stretch is the counterpose for the previous backbend. The support of the chair allows you to keep your chest open to the maximum while resting the weight of your head. If for some reason the cross-leg position is uncomfortable for you, keep your legs wide out in the splits. Put your awareness in the spinal column so it feels supple and elongated. Hold for 3 minutes and then cross your legs the other way and take another 3 minutes.

Cross-leg Supported Forward Fold

Cross-leg Supported Forward Fold

4. Finally, spend 10 minutes or more in lying down breathing, just watching your breath or practice ujjayi pranayama. Notice the spine is supported with a long folded blanket and the back of the head and neck have a blanket support, too. The props keep the chest open and neck and head relaxed. Cover your eyes with an eye pillow or, as in the image below, a soft bandage or silk cloth. You might also want to listen to a yoga nidra or a mindfulness meditation recording, rather than watch your breath.

Lying down breathing

Lying down breathing