Self Care

I have a student who is quite ill at present, she has been suffering for some time now, but recently her illness has become more severe and it has begun to effect her life, what she is able to do with her time, her sleeping patterns and her mood.  She is in a bad way.

"You are going to have to learn to look after yourself," I counselled, "And this can be very hard indeed for some people."
"You mean be more selfish," she replied.

It was not what I meant at all, but it is not the first time that someone I teach has conflated selfishness with self care.

Being selfish is being egocentric, self-seeking, self-obsessed, self-serving and self-absorbed.  Selfish people have nothing to give anybody, unless it in their own interest.

Self care is looking after yourself so that you can be vibrantly well, full of energy and good cheer.  The consequence of being positively bursting with good health?  Contentment certainly, freedom from pain, a more optimistic attitude and pursuant to this: patience, generosity, kindness.  The world needs more of those things.

Self care, true self-care, is not getting yourself a manicure, or treating yourself to a bar of chocolate, it is not going to your favourite coffee shop for a cappuccino, or having an extra glass of wine.  These things all have their place and may well be ways in which you treat yourself, but self care is something entirely different from a treat.

Self care is taking the time to truly understand what makes you tick; knowing which things keep you well and choosing them, so that you feel better, behave better and become a positive force in the world.

I'm not going to discuss here the reasons why we have learnt that self care is selfish, although I have some theories, as, no doubt, have you.  What I care about more than understanding how and why we got into this sorry state, is ending it.

In many ways yoga is all about self care: Patanjali counsels us to purify and cleanse our bodies, to surround ourselves with positive people, to practice yoga regularly, diligently and with commitment, to learn how to breathe properly and how to be patient, how to have balance, how to be at peace.

The first stages of deep meditation (by which I mean an established and formal meditation practice) are all about learning discrimination.  When you come to your yoga mat every day and sit in the same way and the same place at the same time, then you inevitably begin to notice yourself in much more subtle ways than you are used to.  You begin to ask, Why are my shoulders tight today?  Why is my breathing calmer than yesterday?  What have I done in the last 24 hours to make myself so constricted inside?  These questions lead you to self-discovery and transformation. 

Even if you do not have a formal meditation practice (please keep trying), there are questions that you can ask yourself to help yourself along:
  • what things in life fill you with joy?
  • what leeches you of energy?
  • which people make you feel better about yourself and more buoyant about life, which ones weigh you down?
  • what foods suit your constitution the best?  How can you choose those foods more often?
  • why do you fall in to bad habits (smoking, using alcohol as a relaxant, using food for comfort rather than nourishment) and what can you do to spot these harmful patterns in advance?
  • have you been outside today?  How does spending time outside improve your life?
  • what did you learn today?  What was new?
  • do you sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed?  Or do you sleep fitfully and wake up as tired as when you laid your head on your pillow the night before?
We all know crotchety people, short-tempered people, intolerant people, pessimistic people, if you are reading this blog and you practise yoga I'm guessing you don't want to be one of those.  But it's hard to be generous and forgiving, kind and patient, to smile and share happiness when you feel ill, tense, tired and out of sorts.  It is easier to be the person you hope to be when you are well, when you have slept a full 8 hours in peace, when you are physically fit and free of pain.

I'm not sure that we can ever hope to look after anyone else well and consistently, if we do not know how to look after ourselves; nor can we teach our children to treat themselves kindly if we do not show them that we are doing just that for ourselves ('Do as I say, not as I do' was never an effective way of teaching anybody anything).

My teacher, Mukunda, said that everywhere you look there are leaky buckets, people who are empty of energy and vigour, but that if you fill your bucket up, then your overflow goes into the buckets of those in need; thus when you fill your bucket up, you simultaneously help others to plug the holes in theirs.  He said that you can positively change somebody's life forever by being kind to them.

This is how self care becomes an act of altruism, for it enables you unfailingly to give more generously of yourself, to more people, more often.  It is time to unlearn the habit of not listening to what we need; it is time to rebrand self care in our minds, so that we do not allow negative associations with selfishness to interfere with our attempts to be more whole, more peaceful and more giving.

“Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am - and what I need - is something I have to find out myself.”
Chinua Achebe

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