Lilian Jarvis
Family Practice
December 1993


As the counterbalance to activity, rest is as much a bodily need as food or water, and the ability to be fully rested is something everyone wants and needs, doctors no exception. But getting truly rested is not a matter of just ceasing activity and becoming immobile. If it were, we would never be tired; energy would be replenished each time we stopped moving.

Sleep is meant to be a time of complete rest, however, if we’re not relaxed when we sleep, we don’t get rested. For example, some people complain that when they’re lying in bed it doesn’t feel as if their head is on the pillow. That’s because there is so much ingrained tension in their necks that the muscles continue to hold the head instead of letting go and allowing the head to drop into the pillow.

The word relax, coming from the Latin laxare, to loosen, means that relaxed muscles are necessarily “loose” muscles (as the saying goes, “hang loose”) and, when they are, they’re limp and heavy, producing a physical sensation of heaviness, or weight. True relaxation, then, is only possible when muscles let go, or loosen enough, for the weight of the body – or its parts – to be affected by gravity.

Trouble is, unless there is specific pain, we’re not conscious of muscles that are tight. We may feel generally tense or uptight, but there is little awareness of precisely which muscles are producing the non-relaxed feedback. In surface muscles, tightness can be detected through palpation or massage, but this is not possible with the deeper layers of muscle, which, because of structural misalignment or other cause, are bound in constant, unrelieved tension.

The further difficulty is that there often seems little we can do about tense muscles. Consider the person whose shoulders are lifted in a permanent “square-hanger” look. If you tell them to drop their shoulders, their response will be, “They are.” They have no sensation, or kinesthetic sense, of their shoulders actually being held up.

One reason for this lack of a kinesthetic sense is that we’re used to the way our body feels and, like anything we get used to – the familiar smell of our home or the steady drone of distant traffic – it makes no impression on our senses. Another is that we tend to use our body the same way, day in and day out, so unless we’re injured or get stiff from a workout, there is nothing to cause it to feel “different” or to create physical sensory impressions. For example, we don’t feel our weight when we’re standing, yet it’s immediately felt when we hang upside down.

This is all by way of explaining why relaxing in an easy chair or taking a nap on the bed isn’t as restful as it ought to be; the positions are too familiar to us and we don’t know how to let go of muscles that we’re unconsciously holding.

There is a way to relax, however, which does give the effect of a complete rest. It can deepen your breathing and put you into a semi-sleep doze, but even if you don’t drop off, it will still dispel any feeling of tiredness. I can offer no better explanation for the phenomenon other than that the position used is one that we’re generally not accustomed to.

You’ll need a couple of soft pillows and a bed or couch (in place of the chair in the photo). A light blanket to tuck around you will be comforting and eye-shades are useful if the room is bright.

  • Place the pillows in a line on the floor so they form a right angle to the bed or couch. [Put the blanket and eyeshades close by if you’re using them.]
  • Sit on the pillows and lift your legs up onto the bed, supporting yourself with your hands on the floor. [Put one end of the blanket over your feet and leave the rest of it on your thighs.]
  •  Lie down on your back and adjust your position so your knees bend over the edge of the bed. If necessary, adjust the pillow that’s under your head so your head is comfortably supported.
  • [Put the eye-shades on and pull the rest of the blanket up to cover you.] Separate your feet and drop your thighs outward so your legs are relaxed. [Tuck the blanket in around your hips and legs to block off any cool draft; tuck it around your shoulders as well and, if the floor is hard, under your elbows.]
  • Make sure you feel totally comfortable, then close your eyes and rest your hands on your abdomen.
  • Take a good, deep breath into your chest, then slowly let it out. Leave your chest “settled” and relax your abdominal muscles so your breath now comes into your abdomen; feel it rise and fall under your hands in a slow, rhythmic pace with a slight pause after each exhalation.
  • Do a mental scan of your body and let go of any muscles you may be holding in your legs, arms, face, etc., then, with your mind as much as possible free of thoughts, just sink onto the pillows and let the position do the rest.
  • In 20 minutes or so, 30 at most, you will “come to” and this will be your cue that your body feels rested and ready to get up. Do this by bringing your knees over your chest and rolling over onto one side; push yourself up onto your hands and knees and, using the bed for leverage, bring yourself to your feet.