Paradoxically, according to the newest research, when you're looking for a profound rest cure, rather than trying to tune out, you may be better off tuning in and anchoring your awareness in the present moment. You can approach such engagement through various routes, like fully using your senses, practicing mindfulness, getting into a flow state, and—most difficult for many, but perhaps most effective—giving up the need to be in control.
Loch Kelly, A New York Buddhist-trained psychotherapist and meditation teacher, uses a technique called "resting in the heart space" to help people relinquish the reins; in his experience it provides the deepest rest in the shortest amount of time. "Traditionally, meditation focuses on getting to a state so neutral that there isn't a problem to solve. Some monks spend 20 years in isolation working on just that." But anyone, Kelly claims, can attain a sense of flow—and many of us already do through ordinary activities like gardening, knitting, working, or driving. When you're in a car, for example, you have to focus on the road as it looks in the moment and, at the same time, stay alert to continually anticipate the next move. Eventually, your brain resolves the two directions it's working in by falling into a rhythm, which leads to an open state of awareness that Kelly calls flow. You're most likely to feel it after an unfettered drive in the country—no urgent sense of time passing or future demands impinging, but rather a merging into the current, a harmony with the environment as the present unfolds. "There's something that's unhooked from the mind, prior to thought, and at the same time intelligent," Kelly says. "You can respond quickly." Entering this flow state signals the brain that you're safe, not in danger mode.
Once you've gotten a sense of what flow is, you're ready for the heart space meditation. Kelly suggests deciding ahead of time how long you can allow yourself to rest—people usually do it from one to 20 minutes, but you may want to go longer. To prepare, take a big inhalation, filling your stomach from the bottom to the top like a water pitcher. Exhale as you normally would. Next, look up and gradually allow your peripheral vision to expand, a gesture intended to keep you engaged with your surroundings. Smile to tell yourself that you're doing something you enjoy.
On the left side of your chest is your heart. Imagine, on the right side, an open space—your heart space. Gently close your eyes, and as you do, bring your awareness in from outside, feeling it centered around your eyes or forehead and allowing it to drift down like a feather, through your jaw, through your throat, down the right side of your chest to the area where your heart isn't—a soft, embracing, velvet space. Let the awareness of your whole being enter the heart space and remain there as if returning home after a long journey. Rest in this safe, velvet peace, and visualize your body's cells drinking in the calm, enjoying the deep silence for as long as you need. When you're ready, slowly open your eyes as though you're waking from a wonderfully restorative sleep.
For anyone not sold on the idea of meditation, walking a labyrinth is another avenue to restfulness, coaxing you into flow as you yield control. Across the country more than 3,000 labyrinths are open to the public, 225 of them in hospitals or wellness centers, where they're used for everything from weight loss to pre- and postoperative care to support for cancer patients. The phenomenon is so new that clinical studies on potential health benefits are just getting off the ground, but according to converts, the unique power of labyrinths lies in walking along a predetermined path, where it's easy to become mindful of one's breathing patterns, the repetition of footfalls, and the continual reorientation of body. "I came to labyrinths through my own meditative practice," says Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist largely considered responsible for sparking the movement here when, 16 years ago, she re-created the labyrinth in the cathedral of Chartres, France, in her own parish, at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. "I could sit still and meditate fine when my life was calm, but once I was under any kind of stress, I needed to feel that I was physically moving forward," she says.
Unlike mazes, labyrinths aren't puzzles to be solved. "The practice presents an exercise in receptiveness," Artress explains. Describing what you might feel, she says that as you begin to walk within the lines, you start to accept that you're on a path. Looking around you, seeing others doing the same thing, you think about the fact that you're not alone. "You're all going the same way, and you're all in it together," she says. Noticing that each person is at a different point on the map, yet everybody is working toward one center, you're surrounded by images of a journey. From there, you may want to interpret the experience on any level—from a lesson on a particular challenge you're facing to a life metaphor. At Wwll.Veriditas.LabyrinthSociety.org you can learn more about different types of labyrinths and find the one closest to you.
Yoga is another moving meditation known for its restorative powers. "Growing research shows that mindful exercises, among them yoga, decrease both stress hormones and metabolic rate," says Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. One yoga spin-off might be particularly effective for the exhausted and burned out: laughter yoga. "After your first session, you'll feel happy and energized. Give it at least a month, and the hormones and endorphins you're producing will start to heal your body of ailments from asthma to depression," says Mumbai physician Madan Kataria, MD. He developed the practice 12 years ago, and it is now taught in more than 5,000 laughter clubs in 53 countries.
Kataria says that when you bust up over something funny, your body releases a whole cocktail of feel-good neurochemicals. One of them, for example, is melatonin (associated with relaxation)—at least according to a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, which reported that levels were raised in the breast milk of nursing mothers. To see if a laughter club is for you, Kataria suggests trying a quick exercise: Smile as you stand with your hands palms down in front of your hips. Slowly raise them while changing your smile to a grin, then to a chuckle (hands at chest level), deepening into a belly laugh (hands at shoulder level), as you toss back your head to open the airways. Let the laughter build into an uproarious guffaw as you extend your arms into the sky in a Y, as though you're sending your joy out into the universe. You'll probably have to fake it at first (you'll feel silly, so a bit of natural laughter will creep in). It may be easier with another person or a group—start by making eye contact, which tends to get you giggling. When you're through, take a deep breath through your nose, hold it for two counts, and exhale. Repeat the whole sequence a few times, and notice how you feel after five to ten minutes.
The senses can also offer a shortcut to rest. Massage comes to mind. So does aromatherapy; lavender essence in particular, small studies have shown, has a relaxing effect, even reducing stress hormone levels. Visual cues can raise or ease tension, depending on what you're looking at. It's a principle of design, for example, that horizontal lines are restful while vertical ones stir up power and tension (think a bed versus prison bars), and cool colors (blue, green) are said to induce more serenity than hot ones (red or orange). Views of nature have helped hospital patients heal faster. Gazing at an aquarium has been shown to slow the pulse.
Sound, too, can be a potent relaxant, and tempo is a key player. Using various genres from classical to techno and rap, researchers found that, regardless of what music the subjects liked to listen to, an adagio (such as that from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) and an Indian raga physically decelerated the body into a calm state, compared with faster pieces like a Vivaldi presto (L'Estate) or a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One reason for this may be respiratory entrainment, the tendency of the listener's breath to rise and fall with the music's beat. But another theory explains that putting on music—of any kind—can recharge you: When the tempo is brisk, it arouses our engagement; then when it slows or pauses, there's a release of attention that leads to relaxation.
Lhasha Tizer, a wellness coach who teaches sound meditation at the Miraval Resort in Catalina, Arizona, believes that listening to nature's sounds, a kind of music in itself, may have been the way our earliest ancestors meditated away stress. "Those rhythms create a trancelike state," she says. (In fact, researchers at the University of Louisville School of Medicine found that a CD of natural sounds—birdsong, ocean surf—markedly shortened the amount of time it took people to physiologically recover from a stressful stimulus when compared with white noise.) "Today, with the way we work and the cacophonic noise we're exposed to, we don't have such an automatic gateway to help us focus and settle down," Tizer points out.
To re-create that trancelike feeling through music, she suggests building up a sound repertoire. Start by being receptive to the sounds around you. Notice how noises affect you—children playing, horns honking, wind blowing through the trees. Gradually begin seeking out simple music with a clear percussive element. Pay attention to the beats you like, identifying the moods they evoke, and use those to guide you in choosing increasingly advanced melodies that carry away your anxiety.
In time, you'll not only have a database of meditative music but, within it, be able to match your playlist to the mood you want to be in. Ultimately, a good rhythmic rest—and for that matter, any brief escape from a world where you always have to do to a place where you can just be—should make you feel like getting up and dancing.
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