The foundation of mental, physical, and spiritual health is rest. Four rest experts provide insight on sacred rest.
Despite a high-pressure job producing films, Tracee Stanley had everything under control. Prioritizing her own wellbeing made her more effective and efficient at work—which gave her time and space to prioritize her own wellbeing.
“I remember I was feeling very blissful,” she says. “I had ten different projects I was working on that I was excited about.”
The company’s owner interrupted her bliss by stopping her in the hallway and asking her why she wasn’t running around frantically like everyone else in the office.
“Oh, this is so interesting,” she remembers thinking. “You are so invested in grind culture that you don’t see I’m more productive than anyone in the office—because I’m rested. You expect to be able to see chaos.”
The foundation of mental, physical, and spiritual health is rest. But “we live in a culture that rest shames us from a very young age,” says Karen Brody, author of Daring to Rest. “Rest, to me, is the most radical act you can do. It takes courage to change a paradigm. It’s daring because you will be shamed—perhaps by people you love.”
Surrender to the Yin Time
Josefa Rangel is an internist who practices intuitive medicine. Working in high-pressure San Francisco, she sees patients who are exhausted and struggling, even though they are young, eat well, and exercise. The missing ingredient is rest.
Rangel’s credentials include a medical degree from Stanford and a fellowship at the CDC. She acknowledges
the important role of conventional medicine. But resting well requires a whole different approach. “It’s not a laundry list—do these ten things. It’s more poetic. Surrender to the darkness. Surrender to the yin time. ... Allow yourself to be in a state of rest, of non-doing. Your whole nervous system starts to unfold.”
Stanley uses similar language: “You’re prioritizing your own self-care, your own self-love. ... Rest is a very feminine, nurturing, soothing practice. You take the masculine edges off of the idea that rest is something that you’re going to do.”
Brody emphasizes that “you can be fierce and a leader, and you can be tender and soft.”
How divorced is rest from the current medical paradigm? Consider that during the grueling, years-long slog of medical training, doctors are “enculturated to not be in touch with our own bodily needs, to deprioritize those, and to put the patients needs far above our own. It’s seen almost as weakness if you need to stop to get a meal,” Rangel says.
Many studies confirm that medical doctors aren’t particularly healthy. For example, doctors have higher rates of alcohol and prescription drug abuse than the general population. And despite an advanced, costly medical system, Americans as a whole aren’t particularly healthy, either.
While poor diets and lack of exercise are huge factors, it’s worth noting that a lack of rest compounds both of these problems, throwing the chemicals that signal hunger out of sync and sapping energy. A lack of rest also contributes to ... well, just about every possible physical or mental malady.
So let’s rest. It just takes some courage and an embrace of the softer side of wellness.
“The harder you work, the more you’re worth in this society. So if I’m resting, I must be worthless, I must be weak. And that’s something that we really need to shift.” —TRACEE STANLEY
Life-Changing, Life-Saving Rest
“My kids were in a preschool,” Brody remembers. “There was a yoga studio across the street. I went in thinking I was going to take a bendy-stretchy yoga class. Then I saw women lying down with blankets and pillows over their eyes, looking like they were taking the best nap of their lives. I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I need that. I want whatever they’ve got.’ ... That class, which was a Yoga Nidra Mehta sleep meditation class, changed my life.”
Brody was diligently putting her kids down for naps and prioritizing rest as a key part of their overall
wellbeing while simultaneously pushing herself to the edge. After taking up Yoga Nidra, “I suddenly wasn’t going over curbs like I was a drunk driver. ... I would go through stop signs. I was exhausted.” Brody also struggled with anxiety. “I could have gone to every place in the world trying to figure out panic attacks. I was taking all the medications out there,” she says. Once she learned to really rest, the panic attacks went away.
In her own life and in the lives of her students, rest isn’t “just life-changing, it’s life-saving.”
Loma Linda, California, is the United States’ only blue zone, an area in which people have much longer-than-average lifespans. It’s heavily Seventh-day Adventist, a denomination that stresses healthy lifestyles. Adventists take rest seriously. On the Sabbath, they don’t work or do chores. But avoiding to-do’s isn’t the only part of rest. Adventists avoid reading or watching television on the Sabbath. It’s a time to be outside or be in community.
Rangel points out that all around the world, people in blue zones embrace naps.
Rest literally adds years to your life.
Non-doing, not Doing Nothing
True rest, radical rest, does not involve scrolling, watching, or playing. “Netflix has literally said its biggest competition is sleep. There you have it, right? We’re in a culture that’s trying to keep us awake 24/7,” Brody says.
Maartje Willems is the author of The Lost Art of Doing Nothing: How the Dutch Unwind with Niksen. Resting, she says, is “the absence of a verb. That’s because in Dutch, niksen is already a verb. If you’re doing that, that’s all you can do.”
“I’ve made choices in my life that I wouldn’t necessarily have made without rest and the guidance of rest, because you receive guidance when you lie down. When you’re in sacred space, you’re your most intuitive self, and that is a portal to your best self, your true self.” —KAREN BRODY
GOT FIVE MINUTES?
Tracee Stanley recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing if you have even a few minutes to lie down and rest.
It’s a way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, putting the body in rest-and-digest mode instead of flight-or-fight mode.
Inhale for four counts and then exhale for eight counts.
As you breathe, do a body scan: “I begin to move from the tips of my toes to the top of my head and back down, feeling every part of the body relaxing and sinking into the bed, or the floor, whatever it is you’re lying on.”
As the body becomes heavier, “You just feel and know that you’re supported by the earth, that the earth is there to support you.”
“Of course,” she clarifies, “niksen can happen while standing or sitting or breathing. But if you’re doing something that has a purpose, it’s not niksen.”
“For instance, when you’re watching Netflix,” she says, “then that has a purpose because you are being entertained. I’m watching The Crown now so I’m very much invested in it. I take away my life and then I focus on someone else, and that’s like a getaway. It has a purpose. It has a goal. ... If you connect a goal to it, then it becomes something that you can also fail at.”
Willems explains that niksen isn’t necessarily embraced in Holland, which is partly why she wrote the book. “We all grew up with that word as a bad thing, like, ‘What are you doing there? Niksen? You should get something in your hand and do something.’”
“I’m an ambitious person,” Willems explains. “When I have like an idea for a short story, I immediately go to the Oscar I’m going to receive for it when it becomes a movie. That’s my thought process and I can’t really stop it.” She says that embracing niksen doesn’t mean not dreaming. But the dream might be to have a better connection with a friend.
Rangel also emphasizes that prioritizing rest doesn’t mean giving up on dreams and goals or losing ambition. “It’s reorienting towards what is true living, what is true flourishing. Really questioning the bag of goods we’ve been sold, that we’re valued based on our productivity.” What if keeping up with the Joneses meant having a great dream life? What if we set goals for ourselves for how good we feel?
“In medicine, we’ve forgotten about gentleness, caring, intuition, and rest and restoration. We need to bring that aspect back into its rightful place.” —JOSEFA RANGEL
Reorienting Toward Rest
Rest isn’t something you accomplish, and it’s not something squeezed into an otherwise overwhelming schedule. To be truly well-rested requires a different mindset.
Rangel observes that if we “live in a natural cycle of nature and we understand we are nature, and we follow these natural rhythms ... shoehorning rest doesn’t make sense. No other animal shoehorns rest in.”
“If we come from this place of treasuring our own aliveness, understanding the sacredness of all life, including our own embodiment, then everything becomes a sacred act,” Rangel says. “Your whole life is a spiritual practice,” and rest stops being a chore or a prerequisite to something else. She describes an attitude of taking care of our precious embodiment with delight and joy. “When you have a small child, your eyes light up when you think of ways to delight her,” she says. When we treat our body the same way, “coming from delight and joy, it become self-sustaining.”
Resting is low-tech. It doesn’t require advanced techniques. It’s about community, listening to your body, napping, and movement. Rangel says she reorients her patients toward “movement that isn’t so taxing, but brings joy. It could be anything from a gentle walk to a dance class.”
Stanley emphasizes questioning “the wellness-industrial complex” that stipulates, for example, that yoga occurs in a formal class and requires a certain amount of set-aside time. Even a few minutes of intentional calm is enough to recharge.
Willems says to think of short moments of rest almost like cigarette breaks (without the cigarettes). They are a chance to move around, do something different, focus on something small or nothing at all. “Go outside just for five minutes and look at the environment where you are, what is the building that you see, who are the people, what are they doing, maybe fantasize a bit about the conversation two people are having, and go back in,” she says.
“Sometimes you have a good stare. ... You’re looking somewhere and you don’t want to look anywhere else. That kind of moment, you can catch and make it longer.” —MAARTJE WILLEMS
FIND A CAVE
“I think it’s really important for people to have a space that they define as their place to rest,” Karen Brody says. Some people call it a rest nest, but Brody prefers to call it a cave: “It’s dark, it feels like you can just go inward.”
“When a child needs regulation, they have a timeout space, right? This is like an adult timeout space,” she says.
Don’t fear if you don’t have much room. “It’s a space you create,” Brody says. The couch works. Try lighting a candle, ringing a bell, or drawing an oracle card to make it sacred. Stick to this ritual.
For years, Brody used her minivan, tilting the seat back after dropping a child off at practice. For some people their bed can double as their rest cave, but this doesn’t work for everyone, particularly for people with sleep issues.
Don’t Let Shame Stop You
Before we can rest we have to allow ourselves to rest, and we have to feel safe resting.
Stanley tells the story of a woman from Scotland whose mother and grandmother cleaned houses for a living. After seeing her family work so hard for so many years, the woman had to overcome a feeling that she didn’t deserve rest.
And, Stanley observes, “If you come from a family of people who were enslaved at some point, if you decided to rest your life was in danger. You didn’t get to rest. If you were resting you were probably being whipped. So this idea of resting ... comes with this sense of fear. There’s also this social stigma of racism, a sense that I can’t let myself be seen resting because then I might be lazy.”
Rest isn’t easy. That’s why it’s a practice—a deliberate, intentional choice, a commitment. “Part of the practice of sacred rest,” Stanley says, “is starting to unravel the layers of shame, guilt, and fear around resting, so we can claim our divine birthright of sacred rest. That is the birthright of every human being, to be able to rest deeply.”