On Work and Rest – Olympic Observations

I’ve been watching a lot of the Olympics the past few days and, like you perhaps, have been thinking about how much hard work, how many years of training, practice, competition, and mental preparation each athlete endures in order to perform at the highest levels of their sport.  But, what we might not realize is that just as much as their success is due to work, it is also due to rest.  For elite athletes, an intelligent training schedule includes not just conditioning, drills, practice, and hard work, it also includes rest and recovery.  And, I might suggest that without this intelligently designed rest, they might not be where they are today as without rest they risk injury and performance plateaus that can be huge obstacles to their Olympic dreams.

I bring this up because we are a society that values hard work, hard yards, hard yakka, but we don’t necessarily have the same value for rest.  I hear a lot of talk in the weight lifting and crossfit communities about recovery, and it’s wonderful to see this concept filtering through many fitness and movement cultures.  However, there still seems to be a lot of pride in our hard work, and not so much in our rest.  In fact, many people report feeling guilty at missing a workout, practice, or meditation.

In yoga, we are guided by ancient principles of work and rest.  The word Hatha can translate to sun (Ha) and moon (Tha), and relates to the balance of work and rest.  In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we are advised in our asanas to aim for steadiness and stillness, not blood sweat and tears.  And, as my Thai Yoga Massage trainers always advised ‘have pain, no gain’, in that when there is pain in massage or mindful movement, there is no gain to function, health, wellness, or healing.

Modern movement science tells us that rest is an essential component in improving strength, fitness, and injury prevention.  Current fascia science tells us that not only is rest and recovery important, but recovery can come in the form of variety in our movements, and that variety is essential to the health of our whole body.  Without rest and recovery time, we are at higher risk of repetitive strain injuries and we also risk the problems that come with repetition of certain movement patterns at the expense of a comprehensive field of movement.  As well, I might suggest that rest gives us time to contemplate, note the outcomes of our previous practice, and stay curious about our bodies and our movements.  A regular practice is a wonderful thing, however a habituated practice could be problematic physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

To explore the value of rest, make your practice your own ‘science lab’ and get curious about your relationship to rest, how it impacts on body/mind, and what might be the best rest for you (ie: taking a day off, changing duration or intensity, or doing something different etc).  Here are a few ideas to explore the balance of work and rest in your asana practice:

  • In each asana, explore what needs to be working, and what can be resting. For instance, in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2) we need to be actively working in our legs, hips, core, shoulders, and triceps.  But, can we find rest or ease in the face, palms, tops of the shoulders, or lower back?
  • In your asana sequences, could you build in moments of rest, perhaps taking a few breaths in Tadasana (mountain pose) between standing poses or in Savasana (corpse/resting pose) between seated poses to rest, recover, and explore the sensations of the previous pose and prepare for the next pose.
  • In your weekly schedule, could you build in some rest in the form of variety – variety of movements, planes, load, intensity, and type ie: taking a day to walk in nature, lift weights, swim, cycle, dance, or do a completely different practice than your usual asana style ie: swap Vinyasa for restorative, or Kundalini for Core Yoga.
  • Take days off sometimes and notice how that feels. It can be a great path to self-knowledge to look our attachments and aversions to work, rest, and variety; to notice how your body feels, how your mind responds, and how the next day’s practice flows after a day of rest.

If you have some ideas about how you build rest and recovery strategies into your practice, please share – we’d love to hear your reflections.  In the meantime, I’ve got to get ready to watch the gold medal women’s rugby match so I’ll sign off for now.

I’ll just leave you with one thought – we are so inspired by the athletes that we see performing in the Olympics and what it took to get them to the podium, but to honor the truth of their journeys, we have to see not only the work but also the rest that it took to get them there.

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