What Septic systems, Yoga, and Shavasana taught me

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Also another excerpt from my upcoming book: Life Without Walls

I met Ron, the kind owner of Honey Bee Septic Plumbing. when he appeared on my doorstep for a service call I had made to have our septic system pumped last spring. He had kind eyes that smiled when he did, but those eyes looked quite tired, despite their twinkle. When he finished his septic duties, he took a needed break from his long day and chatted about the ups and downs of his business. He told me, as he tiredly leaned on his truck, “ We are heading to the lake next weekend for our first vacation in years. I haven’t had a day off in seven years. Once those three days are done, I am booked solid until January.” He said this to me in April. He owned hundreds of port-a-potties that were needed at dozens of local events happening all summer. In between loading and unloading those highly necessary items, he pumped septic systems.

My heart felt for him. Granted, there is a never ending amount of work for an owner of port-a-potties and septic pumpers (we all do, afterall, keep eating), but there is a point when he will need to just say no to a job, pack up his truck, put on his hiking boots, and just get away from it all or someday, he will have no choice. Stress is killing our nation. According to the American Institute of Stress (2002), 43 percent of U.S. adults experience adverse health conditions due to acute or chronic stress. Moreover, an estimated 75 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints and disorders. People with high stress levels are more at risk for the common cold, heart attack, and cancer. Stress has also been linked to obesity, high systolic blood pressure, and elevated heart rates. Migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue, receptiveness to allergies, and other maladies are also related to chronic stress. Stress may both suppress the body’s immune system and lead to hormonal imbalances that increase production of abnormal cells.

As un-fun as that is to read, it’s also alarming. We are stressed as a culture and it’s making us sick. “We all need”, as John Muir penned in his journal, “…places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

We really all do need this. The years I missed backpacking weakened my body and soul. I limped through the year until I had time to pause, pray, and be healed the next summer. Athletes know that a good workout slightly damages the muscles. A good run up a steep hill will leave my legs sore for a few days. I like this type of soreness because during the rest, I know that my body is repairing those muscles, making me stronger.

Besides backpacking, nothing has taught me more about the power of resting and repairing than yoga. My relationship with yoga has been a love-hate one over the years that has finally landed on the love side.  It wasn’t an easy love as I am a hard core, push hard athlete. The most challenging moments during the hour of yoga were the moments when we appeared to be doing nothing at all —or at least they used to be. My yoga instructors call it the most important minutes of the practice and often scatter long minutes of it throughout the session, telling us to lay flat on our backs, motionless. My first thoughts as I laid on my mat, being told to remain motionless, went something like this: I spent $15 on this session and can go home and lay down for free. Why are we wasting class time doing this?  I was used to my runs and  my powercut weight lifting class that went hard from the first moment to the last one. In the last five minutes of a powercut class we power through biceps, chest, calves and even stay a few minutes late to crunch out an ab workout. With music blaring loudly, we stretch for about forty-five seconds and then pack up and head out. Now that’s your money’s worth. Or is it?

So as I laid on my mat in a yoga class, motionless as commanded, I wondered what good it could possibly do. The informative instructor beamed with enthusiasm as she said, “This motionless pose is called shavasana”.

 Laying here, doing nothing has a name?, I thought.

Shavasana is the pose of restoration”, she said. One would think that all those deep stretching poses would be the most important part of a yoga practice, because it’s then that it feels like you are actually doing something—and you are. But shavasana is heralded as the most important moments of the session. It’s during these quiet moments that the body has a chance to regroup and reset itself. All the work done during the yoga practice is incorporated into the body’s tissues, ligaments, muscles, and organs during this rest. Without this rest, the work done during the yoga session is not as beneficial, my yoga instructor tells me as I lay there, listening, and not moving.

Over the hour we have many moments where we are instructed to stop, drop, and freeze on our mats giving our yoga guide many minutes to teach us. She informs us that psychologically shavasana allows for a reduction in general anxiety, an increase in energy levels and productivity, an increase in concentration and memory, and an increase in focus and self-confidence. Sleep is improved and fatigue is decreased. It all sounds amazing. Like something we’d expect from a health drink or the latest natural supplement. But surprisingly, all of these benefits come from these pauses that will allow the nervous system to finally have its chance to integrate all that the body has done over the yoga session.

Years of practicing yoga has taught me this: to really rest and renew requires intention. I struggled with accepting the pauses of a good yoga practice in the beginning but now I passionately know that everyone needs to build shavasana into their routines and into their calendars. A sabbath. A time to let the fields lay fallow.

We really all do need places where we can stop so that we can restore. As the distance from my jailhouse of fear increased, I began to taste a bit of the resting and playing and ultimately healing that comes in the beauty of being in nature—because I finally could. Holding on to fear has its own body language. Shoulders are scrunched up, brows are furrowed, the gut is tight—and these break the rules of a motionless shavasana. You can’t truly rest when your shoulders are isometrically reaching for your ears and your gut is clenched in a wrestling match with your emotions. Letting go means releasing these muscles. Resting.  It means releasing the brain to stop fretting, also pausing. The further I walked from my carefully constructed courtyard of fear the more my very tense muscles relaxed and the closer I came to shavasana. Nature was, and God in nature was, wowing me and filling me up, giving me perspective and replacing fear with awe. This is what rest feels like. What restoration feels like. What playing feels like!

John Muir was so right. If the people of the late 1800s needed it and more than ever then the wired culture of the 21st century needs it even more—shavasana—a complete disconnect from the stimuli of this world as one immerses in nature. Time outside provides a brief pause for the body and soul before we are forced, once again, to deal with all the usual stresses of daily life.

 Image

courtesy of: http://www.coryjoneillphotography.com

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