Self Care is Not a Treat
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
We all hear advice like: get enough sleep, do restorative yoga, take time out to get together with a friend, do more barefoot walking on the grass, or keep a gratitude journal. These are all good ideas. Yet, no one act alone will satisfy our dissatisfaction, reduce our craving, or relieve our suffering. And we tend to go for low hanging fruit like chocolate, chips, wine, pedicures, and shopping sprees and call that self care.
Life is stressful and you need and deserve a special treat now and then. But applying a partial or superficial approach to our pain, boredom, need for attention, or aching back is just a band-aid. The discomfort will cycle back up and then we will “do” another self-care activity, and then another when we feel bad again. The momentary relief of a pedicure is like a painkiller that works so well it discourages us from trying to remove the thorn in our foot that is causing our suffering. Besides, it’s our suffering that makes us feel deserving of the yummy self-care goodies.
What our suffering really deserves is compassion. When I first heard the pagan edict to “always act for the highest good of all,” I was inspired by the idea that my life, my good efforts, and my caring and compassion could be dedicated to the benefits of others. That was my initiate’s takeaway. Later, I learned the bodhisattva mantra, a similar concept that dedicates the yoga practice for the benefit of all beings, and I realized, “That includes me.” I felt as if blinders dropped from my eyes and a big weight slid from my shoulders.
I had been thinking, “for the highest good of all” meant everyone else and might exclude me, or even come at my expense. I would somehow have to pay the price, sacrifice myself, for everyone else to benefit. I had internalized a cultural belief that good and nice people don’t put themselves first because it’s selfish. Working for the highest good of all to benefit others had actually turned into a sad and lonely endeavor for me until I began to include myself in the practice.
But sometimes, I am sad and lonely and a bubble bath can’t fix it. Applying a band-aid is not the same as having a caring heart. As the yoga tradition suggests, “All suffering is worthy of compassion.” That means that our own suffering too is worthy of our own compassion. Self-care does not work as a one-off event. Maybe we need to rename it self-caring, a living practice that allows our innate capacity for caring to emerge and, even more, to ripen and increase.
As a yoga teacher, when I talk about practice I’m usually referring to yoga asana or meditation or breath work. When we engage in these practices, we don’t say that we’re doing “self-yoga,” “self-meditation,” or “self-pranayama.” So when we think of “self-caring” as just “caring,” we are already moving toward a larger view of this practice, one that is for benefit of all beings, including ourselves. How can we shift from the band-aid approach to a practice of self-caring? Even asking the question is a good start. The practice of self-caring is about getting familiar with the part of us that is naturally caring and getting familiar with what it feels like to apply that tenderness to ourselves.
When I way younger, I caused myself much suffering with thoughts of never being good enough or special enough. I was depressed and anxious a lot of the time and self-medicating (which I thought was self care,) didn’t make me like myself better. Now that I am almost 60, my heart breaks when I remember that young woman, and I vow to be kinder to myself. I don’t want to be uncaring to myself anymore because I don’t deserve it. I also know that when I am not caring to myself, I am not easy to be around so that is not caring for others.
As Cyndi Lee says, “This is motivation. You can say to yourself anytime, ‘I am going to cultivate my innate ability to be caring, for the benefit of all beings, including myself.’ Or you can say, ‘I am going to get familiar with when I am uncaring toward myself and vow not to go there. I vow to grow my capacity for being a caring person.’ If you like, you can place your hands over your chest and feel your heartbeat, as you say this.” You don’t have to believe it when you begin practicing such an affirmation. You can say it to become familiar with opening to your own potential.
This is how you begin to move into tend and befriend. “Tending” is when you engage in nurturing activities and attitudes that help you feel safe and calm. “Befriending” means spending time with community and family—experiences that also support “tending.” By attending to yourself with kindness and being willing to take responsibility for your own caring, you are tending and befriending yourself. “Tend and befriend” increases the anti-stress hormone oxytocin, which lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and other stress responses. In other words, caring for the self feels good on a physiological level. Self care reminds us that we are whole, not two separate parts of a body and a mind.
“Tend and befriend” sets the ground for you to engage in the practices of self-caring and ways of getting familiar with the two aspects of your nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
When a stressful situation arises, the sympathetic nervous system, which is connected to the spine, will respond by telling you to move now, via the fight or flight instruction. This response sends blood to the muscles, speeds up the heart, and slows down other functions that are not needed for running or fighting, such as digestion. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is close to the inner organs and tells each of them when to relax and quietly do their jobs. This is known as rest and digest.
We need both of these systems to be toned so that our nervous system can adapt with ease to each moment. It can go fast or slow, depending on the need. However, we live in a culture that is often ruled by fight or flight and when we rest and digest it often turns into over indulgence. Yoga is a system of self care that addresses this problem. Practice teaches us awareness. We will know the active requirements of life as they arise and we can actively choose the receptive moments almost any time. Together they help you become more resilient and self caring on every level through the gateway of your body. Self care begins with really listening, deep listening, to the messages you receive from your nervous system and then choosing which thoughts and impulses you will act on in response to the information from your senses and feelings.
-this piece is a blend of my own writing and an excerpt of Cyndi Lee's THE JOY OF SELF CARING from The Lions Roar, October 2020.
To support your self care practice, JUST YOGA offers a full and fun year of asana, meditation, and breathing techniques: https://app.ruzuku.com/courses/42923/about