• Heather Lilleston

THE DOING & THE UNDOING: Thoughts on Sleep, Deep Relaxation and the Return to Muscular Innocence

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You know what makes me feel good these days? When I fall asleep and I wake up and there is a line of drool down my chin. It’s an accomplishment when you fall asleep so hard that you drool. I am talking about the kind of rest where the jaw drops and the internal conversation has subsided so much that you don’t even dream.

Rodney Yee once asked those of us in his teacher training if we had ever really experienced relaxation. He asked us to consider that we may not actually know what deep relaxation is truly like because we are so over stimulated and over-informationed, that the body has forgotten what it’s like to take off the armor. We are so familiar with the constant effort to keep it all together that it would be alien to drop into a state where aren’t doing anything about anything. The kind of state where we are not even having a mental conversation about what is going on. Where we back off with our agenda and to-do list and perpetual analyzation of it all, and actually allow the body to engage in its natural processes without interfering.

He encouraged us to relook at what we knew to be the so-called “state of relaxation.” That maybe true relaxation, the kind you would get from a deep sleep and a thorough drool, is actually so foreign that it could even be uncomfortable at first. We may recognize it as uncomfortable, because we are so used to “putting on the front,” that even though we are exhausted, wearing the armor is familiar, safe and therefore within our comfort zone. Being without the constant chatter, even if we may fantasize about relaxation, and intellectually know its importance, is so unknown to us at this point, we wouldn’t necessarily recognize it if it crept up on us.

For me, a good sign is when there is a sliver of drool down the side of my face. It means that I have let go of the need to control. I have given in and let my body handle its business, without interfering or overlaying my personal agenda on it. In yoga, we focus on supporting the body's ability to remember how to return to its natural states of rest, relaxation, digestion, respiration and circulation. This means bringing the body back to a state of balance, which involves activating the parasympathetic nervous system and deactivating the fight or flight instinct (the sympathetic nervous system). The fight or flight instinct is directly related to what I have been hammering on about above -- wearing the armor, controlling the situation, and constantly needing to dialogue internally about every second of our lives.

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Sometimes the state of yoga is defined as the experience of no longer identifying with the chatter in the mind -- the chatter that says “do this about this, and do that about that, and you should be doing this.” When this internal chatter disengages, the muscles of the face release, and we no longer have to hold up the mask of personality. This makes room for the kind of relaxation that makes you drool, that relaxes all the muscular memory of holding the whole thing together, and returns us to the innocence of a newborn baby. The muscular innocence of a newborn baby.

Even though the trail to this complete state of ease and relaxation may be overgrown with brush and branches, the map is not lost, and the brush can be cleared. Our addiction to worry, to controlling the outcomes of our lives, to putting on the front, is not necessarily permanent. We can reverse the aging process, as they say. We can unravel the knots in the muscular memory of the face (specifically the jaw) and in the nervous system. We can disentangle ourselves from the belief that we need to control or analyze every situation in life, and we can find our way back to a greater state of balance in the body and mind. A state where we honor both effort -- the doing -- and grace -- the undoing.

Below are 10 methods anyone can use to clear the path to deep relaxation and deep sleep. You can use these suggestions to enhance your meditation practice, to deepen your sleep (even if you get less than 8 hours a night) and to increase the general state of ease in your life.


Whether you are standing, lying down or seated, mentally drop the thigh bones (femur bones) back towards the hamstrings to begin suggesting to the sympathetic nervous system that it can release its intensity on the fight or flight instinct, which causes the thigh bones to jut forward in preparation to, well, fight or to flight. This helps to release the hip flexors (the psoas muscle) and can be encouraged through placing weighted sandbags (or something similar) on the mid to upper thighs from a lying down or seated position.


During the day, the lower half of the torso has a tendency to collapse due to sitting in chairs and cars, mental and emotional states of defeat or exhaustion, and general daily activities that leave us a bit compressed in the spine. When we create length in the waist (the space between the rib cage and the pelvis), not only do we gain space between each vertebrae, but we make room for all the vital organs of digestion and assimilation in the lower half of the torso, giving them the space they need to function optimally. You can do this easily by reaching your arms overhead or hanging upside down.


No matter what position you are in, in relationship to gravity, finding the natural curves of the spine supports the nervous system’s ability to function optimally, and to support all the organs and other functions of the body through nerve endings that need the curves of the spinal column to pass through efficiently. Do some homework on what the natural curves are when the spine is in its natural state and apply them whenever you remember. A common theme is flattening the vertebrae in the neck and low back (we all have misalignments in the body) so the effort is to reverse the muscular memory we have developed so that we can return the spine to neutral. This will give the parasympathetic nervous system a chance to be center stage, and to help you get the drool-inducing sleep you deserve.


What this doesn’t mean is to open your mouth wide, move it from side to side, let out a sigh and stick out your tongue to try to release the jaw. That is most people’s reaction to “release the jaw,” and honestly it just tightens it. What this does mean is to simply back away out of the equation -- to back away from control, from personality, from agendas -- and observe the already existing spaciousness in the jaw. It’s oddly a non-action, action. It’s removing yourself from always have to do something about everything -- and allowing relaxation to be restored organically, simply by getting out of your wn way. This helps not only relax the tension in the brain, mouth and face, but also helps quiet the chatter in the mind.


Whether or not the actual ingredients in the face mask do wonders for the skin or not, I love face masks simply because they make you stop clenching the muscles of the face, force you to get somewhat expressionless for a bit, which topples over in the a more quiet mind. It’s not so much the skin ingredients that make us feel younger, it's the release of tension in the muscles of the face that wins us over. One step closer to that oh so foreign yet desirable place called relaxation.


Chamomile tea, rubbing lavender oil on the soles of the feet, darkening the room, ear plugs, eye pillows, hot shower or bath, clean house, clean pajamas and a skincare routine. Simple. Doable. Just hard to make the effort and remember. But you can, just handle it. Make sleep routines important. Get into the mood.


Forward folds enhance the exhalation pattern and increase the letting go quality of the breath, which sends a message to the muscular memory in the body that it doesn’t need to grip or tense up. No matter how flexible you are, in our case of stimulating rest and relaxation, use props, lots of them, to get the most out of your experience. Forget the stretch, that only makes the muscles tense a bit when you are done with the pose as a response to the opening. Instead, focus on supporting the body so much with props that it can completely let go -- the same you need the mind to do, so you can, well, you know what.


This is one of the best ways to encourage the body to rest. Of course you need days of rest to accommodate lots of physical exercise (and “lots of” physical exercise holds a different meaning for everyone, so it will be your own personal gauge on this one) but for anyone who has a regular and balanced physical life, you will most likely sleep better too. The body's natural fatigue due to balanced workouts is the best complement to sleep and relaxation.


If you are having a hard time sleeping, a challenge having any sort of real relaxation and down time, chances are there are emotional situations in your life that are unresolved. Most impediments to our general well being and health are a combination of something physical (diet, skeletal alignment and amount of exercise) mixed with something emotional.

Make time to forgive, to be honest with yourself about the things that trigger you or hurt you, to decipher the things that you may even be embarrassed to admit about yourself, like feeling insecure, resentful or jealous, and find ways sincere to you to process these emotions. That could be with a therapist, journal writing, meditation, fire ceremonies, or whatever ways you have found that work for your own emotional journey.

Without healing or clearing or even simply acknowledging some of the emotional baggage we all have, it can be nearly impossible to get deep sleep or into a complete state of relaxation. It’s not that we have to have all our wounds healed, but we need to make time to acknowledge and recognize the emotions that pass through us frequently, so they don’t leave as much residue or create emotional stagnation that can often lead to disease and solidified psychological wounding. It’s a simple daily effort to give time to process emotions, express them, release them -- whichever feels most appropriate for the situation. This will make sleep much more accessible and delicious, and especially reducing dreams with too much emotional impact that can bleed into the following day or week.


If you climb into bed at night knowing for yourself -- even if no one else knows -- that you did your best, pushed yourself, applied yourself, fought the demons of laziness and the internal chatter of “I can’t,” then chances are you will go to bed quickly, and without any guilt or lingering nonsense vying for your attention. The body and mind will feel that bedtime is well-deserved, that rest is only going to encourage more of your outstanding efforts the next day, and that you are someone who applies themselves thoroughly to your tasks at hand, so on with the state of relaxation!

If you are crawling into bed comparing yourself, knowing you were lazy or slacked off, knowing somewhere inside that you didn’t really do your best, then you may end up fighting the nagging demons of “you don’t deserve to rest” and “you should have done this or that” for the rest of the night. In some ways, we can always do more than what we did. But when you make the effort in a humble way with whatever task is at hand, even if it appears a failure or someone else did it better before you, you still will be closer to the necessary and rewarding layers of sleep. Your body will know how to care for you. It always has.


Heather Lilleston has been teaching yoga for more than 15 years in New York, LA, and around the world at the retreats she leads in places like Costa Rica, Tanzania and Italy through her company, Yoga For Bad People. Her classes integrate creative vinyasa sequences with meditation, chanting, good music and spiritual philosophy, and YFBP specializes in retreats that combine quiet time and reflection with athleticism and nightlife.


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