Relaxation is not a competitive sport. But if it was, I had a moment last month that I think would have gotten very low scores from all the judges.
I was nestled alone in a quiet, luxurious room at the ultra-inclusive The Ivy Hotel, a gift from friends and family to celebrate what would have been my 13th wedding anniversary with my late husband. I didn’t have to do anything more than chill and luxuriate in the fanciness with a glass of wine and the treat of not having a third-grader sitting next to me, hogging the remote and asking for chicken nuggets.
But my mind kept wandering beyond the ornate pink drape of the canopy bed that should have been calming me about all the stuff I was there to escape from: Did I remember to pack my son’s toothbrush for his night away with friends? Did my editor have everything she needed for my latest column? Why were all of my home appliances breaking at the same time, like they’d made some sort of pact?
The whole point of this gift was to shut the world out and just be present in this moment, and it seemed that I could do anything but.
Something tells me this sounds familiar to you. We’re so stressed in our society, and so bad at figuring out how to relax — a thing that seems like it should come naturally — that we spend more than $1 billion a year on meditation and wellness trying to learn how. It isn’t as easy as just closing your eyes and letting go. In fact, trying to do that might make it worse.
“When somebody says, ‘Well, just clear your mind,’ I hate that, because there’s no such thing,” said Tianna Christine, a yoga teacher and wellness expert based in Hyattsville. “A million thoughts come into your head. It’s so hard to be in the moment. You have a lot of things going on all at once.”
Boy, do we! And in our COVID-era recovery, trying to readjust to society after having been terminally online just to connect to others, it’s hard to unplug. To put down the phone. To get off Twitter. To just be where we are.
“Technology has created this always-on world,” said Claire Knudsen, who teaches at Core Power Yoga locations around the Baltimore area and is preparing to soon open her own business, Soleil Studio, in Harbor East. “It’s created FOMO of not being tuned in, that we might miss something. Also, having access to email and all the apps, we’ve created this desire for constant productivity. We feel we have to maximize every single minute.”
I took that last bit personally, because it’s my life. I feel I have to multitask even when I’m not supposed to be doing anything more than, say, lying on a bed not doing anything. I literally can’t watch movies and TV with subtitles because I only find time for non-family fare when I’m also writing or planning the grocery list.
I fit the things that make me happy into the margins of my life as if they aren’t important, which is even more stressful. You’ve heard of goat yoga? I practice daily “Dateline” yoga, where I follow videos on my laptop with the dulcet tones of Josh Mankiewicz talking about murder in my ear. It’s not zen, but I think it’s more calming than kids climbing on you — either the goat or human variety.
Knudsen said she recognizes that difficulty of disconnecting in her own classes, which are goat- and cellphone-free, so that she and her students leave distractions and the societal need to hustle outside the studio doors. “I talk about committing to that full hour completely for yourself,” she explained, “to be present and breathe on the mat.”
It’s so hard, though, to prioritize your relaxation, even when it’s required as fuel to do everything else you need for yourself and others. Christine said she prefers to set a single word as an intention and focus on that as a goal for the day. “Today’s word, ironically, is rest,” she told me. “You have to create those intentions for yourself. You must have it. You have to schedule it like everything else.”
That, for me, is the hardest part. As a parent, and as a journalist whose hours sometimes seem never-ending, scheduling a concrete time to focus on myself seems indulgent, almost selfish. And of course there’s never a shortage of people willing to judge you about it. Christine said not to worry about that.
“You have to prioritize your rest. There’s a quote that says that if you don’t schedule time for rest, you’re going to have to make time for healing. If you don’t make time, life is going to make that time for you,” she said. “People make time for what they make time for. If you’re on social media scrolling, you’ve got time. We lose so much time in a day because we scroll it away. We watch it away.”
What it comes down to, Christine and Knudsen said, is giving yourself permission to relax. Knudsen practices what she calls square breathing: “You hold your breath in counts of four, then let it out on four, drawing each side of a square. You get to focus on your breath. It helps slow your heart rate. I’ve found that helps to pay attention to your body, because a lot of people, especially over the last couple of years, have fallen out of tune with it.”
It took about an hour, back in my fancy hotel room, to get back in tune with Leslie — not Mommy or columnist or person out there doing the thing — and to allow myself that permission. Soon, I was enjoying afternoon tea and the swanky bar area, with my phone tucked away and my mind on the moment.
It took a lot of work to not work. But I’m getting there.