Relaxation is not Exhaustion

Yesterday my yoga teacher here in Bali started a restorative yoga class by saying, “Today we are going to focus on relaxation.” Then almost as an afterthought he said with a smirk, “Relaxation, by the way, is not exhaustion, it’s relaxation.”

Luckily I had the next 75 minutes to consider this distinction…

Over a decade ago, Sarita, one of my first coaches once asked me “What does it feel like to deeply rest?”

At the time she asked it, I had no f*#!ing idea, but I wanted to, so I started trying. I read fiction. I meditated. I took long walks instead of runs. I got massages. I slept in. I did yin yoga instead of yang. I went on retreats, took vacations. I laid on the couch trying, trying, trying to relax. Yet no matter how many seemingly relaxing behaviors I took on, I rarely actually rested.  

I remember one time, I was about 30 years old attending eating disorder school, also known as “rehab”.

One of the therapists lovingly said, “You’re like a quail.” There’s literally nothing to do here most of the day and yet you always find some way to be darting around busy with something.”


She was right! I was living in a small house with five other women who mostly napped, read and watched TV while I was seemingly allergic to sitting still. I drew comics and pictures (including the one above). I edited them. I wrote essays. Emails. I made grocery lists and meal plans. I organized and reorganized my closet, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bookshelves. I read sometimes too, but even that was goal-oriented: how many books could I get through? how fast?

For such an overachiever it has been so frustrating to repeatedly discover there is one area in which my overachieving is decidedly not helpful.

This could be a depressing story if I had not recently turned a corner.

I arrived in Bali seven weeks ago where I have been living part time over the last six years. On the first day here, this same yoga teacher started class by talking about the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system vs. parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system. These are terms I have heard for ages and yet somehow, something finally clicked.

I have been using my fight-or-flight nervous system to try and rest and digest. 
I have been so desperate to feel better that I have taken on countless “restful” activities in pursuit of relief. Each time that didn’t work, I’d add more “restful” activities. There have been times my to-do list was a page long of practices designed to help me relax. I’m not kidding.

While many of those activities gave me some temporary relaxation, the moment they were over I would pop right back up and resume quail-ing.  While an observer might say I’ve been committed to well-being, it’s more true to say I have wanted well-being while I have actually been committed to fear and striving.

Note: It could be more honest to say these are two ends of an extreme. At different times I’ve been at different places along the continuum, arching, in general toward more rest and less stress. But it has been quite a tug-o-war.

Anyway, as luck would have it, within days of having this new insight, I got the infamous “Bali Belly.”  All my habits and patterns went out the euphemistic window (our house is mostly out-doors). I had no choice but to lie on the couch near the toilet and surrender to this new realization.

In the month that has followed, I have begun to slow my roll.

I have been signing up for less. And doing less.

I have been following my body’s direction more than my mind’s instruction.

I have been doing the same activities and practices I have learned but fewer, less often, and with more joy and care. 

I have been leaving time in between things.

I have been smelling, tasting and chewing my food.

I have been Breathing. Listening. Looking. Pausing.

And when I get scared, i.e, “Lazy.” “Failing.” “Falling behind.” “Blob.” “Waste of potential.” “Consumer.” “Selfish.”  “Weak.” I tune in to the fear in my body with the same loving intimacy I am intending toward everything else and watching it release.

So what is the difference between relaxation and exhaustion? I am finding this:

Existential exhaustion is the price of a belief in our own inadequacy. It is a punishment for “not being” or “not doing” enough. It’s the brick wall we hit that gives us some permission to rest.

Relaxation, on the other hand, is a nurturing act of self-love and respect. It’s constant care. It’s self-curiosity and trust. Eventually, relaxation is the springboard for creativity, resilience, vitality and flow. It’s where we rest not only of bodies, but our egos; where we digest not only our diets, but our days.

“To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given.” – David Whyte, from REST in Consolations.

Thank you all for reading, I hope you’ve found something helpful here.



I have spent the last two hours tap-tap-tapping out this essay. There’s a part of me that wants to go on to the next productive thing, but my animal body needs a break. It’s time to rejoice having received this burst of creativity with a celebratory dance party and a nice long walk on the beach.

Last week I announced, “Pearls” a new mailing list where I share my favorite things. This week featured the story of Half Baked Harvest, my favorite cookbook.  If you haven’t signed up yet, but like to receive these occasional Pearls emails as well as Dharma Comics, please sign up here.

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