Looking for the ultimate feeling of rest?
by Dr Lorin Roche
Did you know that certain forms meditation can give you a deeper rest than deep sleep? There are actually thousands of techniques that are all lumped together under the name “meditation,”with each one has different physiological effects. Some are not very restful. But, there is one approach we can call effortless meditation that has been studied indepth by scientists.
For many years, those who use this approach of effortlessness have been going into medical and physiology labs to be tested. Scientists like to measure things, and oxygen consumption is one index of how hard the body is working – it goes up when we exercise, and down when we are relaxing and resting. According to research conducted at UCLA and replicated at Harvard Medical School, the body settles into a state of wakeful restfulness during meditation, which correlates to a 10 to 17 percent decrease in oxygen consumption. This happens within the first three minutes of meditation. By contrast, oxygen consumption decreases gradually over the first few hours of sleep until it arrives at about an eight percent reduction.
Think of the deepest, most refreshing sleep you have ever had. Now double that and consider what it would be like to have access to that in three minutes whenever you want. Immediate access to this profound and restorative repose is one of the great gifts of meditation. When I am rested, the world is a different place — colors seem brighter, food tastes better, the wind and sun feel more wonderful touching my skin, and my overall experience is delicious. My mood is steadier and buoyant energy arises steadily from within.
We all need rest, and we have all had the experience of waking from a deep slumber with a sense of being renewed. And, we have all had the opposite experience when we don’t get enough rest, waking to feel miserable and exhausted. Sleep allows the body to repair itself and tune its circuits. When we work our muscles hard, in athletics or yoga, we may need extra sleep, because that is when the body can repair damaged muscle fibers. If you are not getting enough sleep, you might be denying your body the time it needs to repair everything. While we are sleeping, the brain integrates what has been learned the previous day so the skills we are practicing become more readily available.
Sleep is powerful. And, meditation is powerful. Think of meditation not as a substitute for sleep, but an additional way of allowing life — the intelligent functioning of pranashakti — to restore and revitalize us, body and soul. Pranashakti loves to lead us into deep restfulness and to heal and rejuvenate us while we are there. Meditation skills help us learn to cooperate with this restorative power of the life force, the healing and rejuvenating processes that happen everywhere in the body and the mind while we are simply sitting there with our eyes closed.
If we look at what happens moment-by-moment during meditation, we see that there are at least three major phases of meditation that we flow through continually: 1) deep restfulness, 2) sorting through emotions and releasing muscular and nervous tension, and 3) rehearsing future actions. Each of these phases is an aspect of the restorative power of meditation and a gift of pranashakti. The restfulness creates conditions for the release of muscular and emotional tension, and then in that relaxed state, the body practices staying relaxed while choreographing your to-do list. One of the essential skills of meditation is welcoming and cooperating with these phase changes. When you welcome these surprising and unexpected phase changes, you stay in a deeply restful state on a physical level even when your muscles, nerves, and emotions are healing.
Each phase has its challenges. With the “resting” phase, trying to meditate backfires, just as trying to go to sleep makes you stay awake and struggle.
The “sorting emotions and releasing tension” phase is challenging, because in essence, whatever you do not want to face will come right up to be healed. The paradox of meditation is that you can’t relax without letting go of muscular tension, and when that tension in your nerves and muscles releases, you will feel uncomfortable sensations. Sometimes, you will see intense mental movies about what has been making you tense. At the same time, it is a relief to sit relatively still and allow waves of relaxation flow to through you and wash away the tension.
The “rehearsing future actions” phase is when you are completely immersed in the movie of your life, visualizing your to-do list, or rehearsing some action you want to perform. This process happens spontaneously, and your mind is not wandering – it is practicing being relaxed while mentally choreographing action. You don’t have a monkey-mind. After meditation, when you are out in life doing those things, the awareness and relaxation carry with you. “Yoga is skill in action,” as it is said in the Bhagavad-Gita. Remind yourself that this choreography is a practice and helps to bring the peacefulness and relaxation of meditation into your daily life. Don’t beat yourself up because you have an exciting to-do list.
These three phases – resting, sorting, and rehearsing – tend to cycle over and over, in unpredictable sequences whenever we meditate. Each is an aspect of the restorative and evolutionary functioning of pranashakti. A phase can last for twenty seconds or three minutes, and sometimes we may be just sorting emotions for half of our meditation time. What we experience moment-to-moment in meditation is always surprising. We are wild and serene at the same time. The next time you are lying on your mat in savasana, or luxuriating on your sofa in meditation, remember these three phases and honor them. Welcome resting, welcome sorting, and welcome rehearsing. These are the three loves of pranashakti, each one is tuning you up for life, and each is a blessing.
Lorin Roche is the author of The Radiance Sutras – 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight.With his wife Camille Maurine, he wrote Meditation Secrets for Women. Lorin began meditating in 1968 and is still in love with the thousands of practices available in the yoga tradition. He has a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, where he conducted research on the language of meditative experience. Dr. Roche loves doing private sessions and trains meditation teachers worldwide. Join Lorin and Camille at Esalen in Big Sur for a five day retreat, Wild Serenity in Love, January 24-29, 2016. Contact [email protected] or visit: lorinroche.com