Contrary to popular belief, animals don’t actually sleep all winter. But they do rest to conserve their energy for the year ahead. How have humans, as terrestrial animals, strayed so far from our primitive instincts? Why don’t we have a collective period of rest during the winter months to relax and restore our precious energy?
Of course, before COVID, we would have said that our modern world couldn’t shut down for three months. We still have jobs to do and responsibilities to tend to. However, we can control how we spend our free time, and what changes are necessary to consciously slow down. We can learn to flow with the natural cycles, and shift our priorities with the seasons. When the sun provides us with a powerful external energy source in the summer, it feels easier to maintain a consistent level of productivity. When the cold and dark winter months approach, our bodies tell us to pump the brakes. So listen carefully - the body is smarter than we tend to give credit to.
Ever felt guilty for resting?
If so, you are far from alone. Society has instilled a sense of obligation in us; making us feel lazy if we deviate from productivity. As the new year approaches, it becomes easy to feel pressure to push forward at a greater speed and “outperform” the previous year. Yet after the year of COVID we’ve experienced, we should use the winter as a time to restore and replenish our energy. Resting is not just okay, but vital for our overall health and wellbeing.
Now that you understand why it’s okay to rest, let’s dive into why it’s good for you. Resting the body has profound physiological, psychological, and spiritual advantages. But what exactly are these benefits? Science has some insight.
Let’s talk hormones. Rest plays a massive role in the health of your endocrine system, which directly affects the immune and nervous systems. For starters, why do we feel sleepier in the winter months? Melatonin, coined “the hormone of darkness” is synthesized by the pineal gland and released in response to a dark environment. With shorter days, and longer nights, it is only natural to need more sleep in wintertime. So instead of fighting the call by struggling through your to-do list, allow yourself to snooze!
Just as we charge our electronic devices when the battery gets low, we must charge our bodies for proper functioning. Overtime, lack of sleep can contribute to hormonal imbalances by affecting your body’s ability to regulate stress hormones and blood glucose levels. Sleep not only keeps your hormones in check, but plays a critical role in metabolism, immune function, learning and memory.
It’s common understanding that the most successful people are workaholics. However, some of the greatest geniuses of time, like Darwin and Einstein, only worked about four hours a day. In between their work sessions (which usually lasted less than two hours at a time), they rested. These great thinkers understood that the mind is an intricate information system that constantly rebuilds and renews itself. They lived out a practice that modern science has backed today.
The “unfocus network” or Default Mode Network (DMN) is the mode of functioning your brain goes into when the “focus” mode of doing work turns off. When you allow yourself to rest and shut off this intense mode of focus, your brain has space to retrieve memories, make connections, and produce new ideas. In other words, your creativity surges. Ever heard the phrase “boredom breeds creativity?” Yes, this is scientifically supported too.
The best way to activate your DMN is simple: rest! If you have a day of work, set a timer for 90 minutes (it is shown that productivity typically begins to burn out at 90 minutes), and allow yourself at least a ten minute break to rest. In this time, take a nap, go on a walk, or listen to music that inspires you. This short break will recharge your brain, making you better able to acquire new information, consolidate existing information, and recall past information.
From a spiritual perspective the benefits of rest are just as profound. When you allow your external world to get quiet, your internal world speaks up. Slowing down creates a sacred space to tap into your inner wisdom and knowledge. When you’re relaxed, you can deepen the connection with ourselves, with others, and with the world around you. You may see your relationships improve by cutting out distractions and focusing on the intimate bonds in your life.
Meditation is an incredible way to relax and strengthen this connection. When you meditate, you connect to something greater than the individual self by opening up your senses to the outside world, and tapping into a version of your truest self. When you quiet the mind and follow the breath, you are able to reach deeper insights that may have been pushed down by the stress of daily life. Meditation has also been shown to help with insomnia, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure, and helps to re-oxygenate the brain for optimal functioning after a session. Try a simple ten minute seated meditation upon waking or before going to bed, or break up your day with a short walking meditation around your neighborhood.
Taking action, (or lack thereof)
Elite athletes incorporate rest and recovery into their training, so why doesn’t the general public? Professionals understand that resting now leads to increased productivity (and output) later. Whilst the average person isn’t preparing for the Olympic Games, we each have our own set of exercises that become taxing on the body and mind. At the Institute of Yoga Sports Science® (YSS) we encourage a bite-size yoga approach to helping athletes easily integrate yoga into their busy schedules. You too, can bite-size your tasks and commitments to feel less overwhelmed and make time to rest.
So instead of feeling guilty, enjoy your hibernation! Trust that you will re-acclimate to your productive world feeling physically, psychologically and spiritually rejuvenated.
To help start your rest and recovery this winter, I would like to share with you a 10-minute relaxation session that I have successfully used with athletes over the last 20 years. Enjoy x
Click on the link below to listen and download.
Hayley Winter is the founder of the Institute of Yoga Sports Science® (YSS) and one of the early pioneers of online yoga education, teaching yoga online for over a decade. Learn more and enjoy: