On Self-Care and Courage

Self-care. The phrase conjures images of bubble baths, expensive massages, mid-day naps, and other indulgences. All of these are valid methods of turning our attention toward ourselves when we need it. But true self-care is a much broader concept.

For the past month, I’ve been stuck in an unwelcome set of life upheavals that have left me feeling anxious, out of control, and less than grounded. While restorative yoga, CBD tinctures, and maybe some extra chocolate have been included in my coping tools, isolated actions like these often aren’t enough during prolonged periods of stress.

When we experience significant grief, loss, or uncertainty, even simple tasks and interactions can feel overwhelming. Our bodies and minds need ongoing loving support. The physical body can take on emotional pain, and some form of movement practice is crucial for dispersing that energy. It’s ok if you don’t always feel capable of keeping up your regular workouts, but instead of staying on the couch consider practicing some gentle poses like the ones in this heart-healing yoga sequence. Heart openers are especially effective asana to work with in troubling times, because when we’re hurting emotionally our bodies tend to close up, round inward to protect our hearts, and stoop or slouch to make ourselves smaller (even if we don’t realize it consciously).

When we close up physically, our breath inevitably becomes restricted and shallow. One effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and its calming effects is to use this simple mindfulness practice that harnesses the balancing power of the breath. Sitting comfortably with the spine tall and the eyes closed, first simply begin to turn inward and notice the breath. Is it shallow, rushed, uneven? Just observe without judgement. Sometimes we’re so distracted that we don’t realize when stressors have left us holding our breath or barely breathing. We don't need to beat ourselves up for it, we just need to notice it so we can begin to change it. After a few moments of observation, begin to lengthen and smooth out the breath so that the inhales are as long as the exhales. As you feel your system start to settle, extend the exhales so that they are a beat or two longer than your inhales. When our exhales are longer than our inhales, it calms the nervous system and helps activate the body’s relaxation response. Set a timer and spend 15 or more minutes with this breathing exercise. To dive deeper into the use of mindfulness practices in times of grief, check out this guided meditation from Jack Kornfield.

Nutrition and sleep are also key, and are often the first to go when tough times hit. Following a supportive, healthy diet can become very challenging. Personally, I’ve found that by asking myself just one question, Is this a loving action for my body?, I can better manage my tendency to stress-eat, overeat, and make poor food choices when I am overwhelmed. It’s a simple mindfulness tactic that can apply to many daily choices. Similarly, sleep can become elusive when we are struggling. Use care if you choose a sleep aid for rest or a stimulant for daytime energy, perhaps first asking yourself, Is this a loving action for my body? While a full night’s sleep may not be possible for a while when we are heavily stressed, practices like yoga nidra can help bring beneficial short periods of rest.

Lately, I have found that one of the most important – and most challenging – aspects of self-care is one of the least obvious: gathering the courage to reclaim our voice and stand up for ourselves. This doesn’t always necessarily mean being "assertive." It can mean stepping away from some responsibilities until you feel ready to take them back on, or saying “no” when you need more time and space to yourself. You are in a temporary struggle, and you require your own care and attention to come through it. You can pick up those external connections again later, when you’re ready. It can also mean being selective about who you share your struggles with, as well as how and when you choose to share them. While the support of our loved ones is important, it is also necessary to honestly evaluate who has the capacity to actually be helpful versus who may instead fuel gossip or reawaken painful old patterns. That said, when the people around us know what we’re going through, it’s easier to ask for help or request some time alone. Let the loving connections in your life support you, and try to avoid the urge to close up and suffer in silence.

Above all, if your grief is so deep that you become unable to care for yourself or are thinking of hurting yourself, please access the free, confidential support available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

All of our situations, the good and the bad, are temporary. Energy shifts. The way you feel today will not be the way you feel tomorrow. Be kind to yourself. Make loving choices. Seek support and take advantage of the tools available to you. Have courage. And even in the darkest hours, keep your light shining.       


On Airplanes and Presence

I once faced flying with paralyzing fear. One of my least favorite moments? Barely suppressing the urge to unbuckle my seatbelt and run off the plane as boarding was being completed, convinced that I was having a premonition of an impending crash like in those movies about people with psychic tendencies (what I was actually experiencing was a run-of-the-mill panic attack). Luckily, I squashed my fear long enough to stay seated. After all, a crazed rush from the plane would have been difficult to explain to the coworkers who were accompanying me on that business trip.

Air travel has become more palatable over the years, partially because I do it a lot more often since relocating to the west coast, but also for the uninterrupted reading and writing time it gives me. This week, I devoured Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges while traveling to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday.

Cuddy’s work on the psychological effects of posture came to national attention after her 2012 TED talk. I recommend you check it out, but to give you a recap, she reviews research from her team and others showing that the way we hold our bodies has a lot to do with what goes on in our minds. Adopting powerful, expansive body positions helps us feel stronger and more in control. The opposite is also true: contracting our body makes us both physically and mentally smaller (picture your position as you hunch over your phone).

The research presented in Presence drew me in because of its application to my own life—I’ve been working a lot with the idea of owning my physical space and the personal power that comes with such presence. I also immediately saw the connection it has with my work in yoga and in therapeutic horseback riding for people with special needs.

Anyone who’s taken even just one class has experienced how yoga joins breathing, body awareness, and physical postures to create an effect that’s greater than the sum of its parts. After a well-designed class, we leave a little taller, breathing a little more freely, our energy a little more settled. Similarly, a large part of the therapeutic effect of adaptive riding comes from the act of simply putting a person astride a horse, tall and proud. Regardless of the participant’s specific disability or individualized therapeutic goals, assuming the posture of a rider can change their physical and emotional outlook. It’s fascinating stuff.

Try it for yourself: Stand with your feet squarely at shoulder width so you feel expansive, balanced, and stable. Draw your spine tall, reaching through the crown of your head. Place your hands on your hips and comfortably expand your chest—Take. Up. Some. Space.—Breathe, smoothly and evenly with a relaxed ribcage, in and out through your nose. Soften your face. Smile. According to the research, spending as little as 2 minutes in this posture before a challenging situation can change not only your outlook and behavior, but how others perceive you.

As for me, I’m working on taking up space even as I write this…until I am expansive enough to energetically win the armrest from the fellow in seat 29E.