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Unplug, relax, whatever you call it, how do you do it?

Updated: Jan 19

A woman sitting cross legged on a large stone next to a flowing river and surrounded by lush green foliage
Unplug, relax, whatever you call it, how do you do it?

I was listening to a podcast this morning, it was some one talking about their experiences of transferring from a quiet retreat back into civilisation. When they were on the retreat there was very little stimulation and they coped on only 4 hours sleep a night. As they sat on the train taking them back home, they were conscious of all the different sounds around them, the train tracks, people talking, children teasing one another. All around them this cacophony of noise. They hear all of it and then they notice that gradually the brain filters out some sounds and that they could tune in to those that they wanted to.

What we now know is that their subconscious had still heard all that was going on in the train carriage and all the rest of their journey back home. That evening they were more tired and they slept for longer. This resonated with me because I began to understand why we are so tired and stressed every day. When we have little stimulation, the brain has time during sleep to file and sort out our memories of the day. In Mathew Walkers book1, Why We Sleep, he likens the brain to a memory stick. It can only file so much of the day’s activities and we need to rest before it is emptied ready for the next day.

We don’t see sleep as a resource but rather as something we have to do. We cut into it in the morning for exercise or to get to the office early. At night we watch TV to ‘relax’ and drink alcohol to relax a bit more. We drive ourselves into overload, we push our bodies to places that they are just not designed for. We have lost the ability to slow down or unplug and simply ‘hang out in our parasympathetic nervous system’, as Kristine Weber from Subtle Yoga2 describes it.

How do we get to ‘hang out’ here? We used to know but now we ignore all the signals our body is telling us, but the body knows. The body is all set up to let us relax, we simply need to learn how to get there again. Back in the good old days when we lived in caves and were chased around by wild animals, we would sit around a camp fire and tell our stories of the day. We might even dance around and sing. We might stare at the stars and pick the bones clean of our hunt.

These actions, individually, move us into our parasympathetic nervous system. By shaking our bodies and imagining that our troubles are dripping out of our limbs we can literally shake out tension, our imagination adding more release from our fears. As we hand on the shaking to movement and the singing to breathing, we are releasing oxytocin, our ‘potion of devotion’, making us feel good. We also do this when we sooth a baby or stroke a pet.

The dancing and the movement as well as releasing stress help us balance our hormones more effectively, such as insulin to regulate our sugar levels. We also switch on the hormones that process our digestion, so the flesh from the bone we were gnawing is fully processed. As we gently switch on more of our parasympathetic nervous system processes, we become more relaxed. We can improve our sleep quality and quantity, our muscles relax, our bodies innate healing system is set in motion.

When the podcast guy got home, he vowed to rest more during the day because he understood that our brains are taking in so much more information every day than they were designed for. If we listen to Kristine Weber's mantra of ‘hanging out in our parasympathetic nervous system’ we can learn the steps to get us there. Shaking to ease down the tension in our body, a little gentle movement infused with breath to release the feel good hormones, a little time to let that percolate through the body by lying down, somewhere safe and cosy.

1. Why We Sleep, Prof Mathew Walker

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