One Yogi's Guide to Self-Care

Taken mid-run on a gray morning when I was thinking about what possessed me to start running in the first place. There are moments when I hate it, but more moments when I am surprised by how strong, clear, and capable I feel.

Taken mid-run on a gray morning when I was thinking about what possessed me to start running in the first place. There are moments when I hate it, but more moments when I am surprised by how strong, clear, and capable I feel.

[white people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it they cannot be released from it... if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Initially I started this post with some confessions about my shitty self-care routine, but after some reflection, I realized that was just dumb and shallow. If you wanna know about my "guilty pleasures", you can ask, but we have some real talk to get on with. Things are different now, our work is different, and our self-care game needs to be as tight as our self-education, self-study, ally and advocacy game.

Shit just got real for some of us, right? Some of us have known the ugliness, the contagion, the destructive power of white supremacy and patriarchy for some time; others are only now just beginning to see how silent, insidious and dangerous it is. Our priorities are shifting. Many of us are feeling a sense of urgency. Hopefully, for all our sake's, rather than dissolving into myopic apathy, that urgency is being galvanized into a change that, one drop at a time, will rain down justice on all of us, washing away the fascism and corruption that is a real, credible, and determined threat to our lives and future generations. 

I am not exaggerating.

So some of us are doing the work, right? We're putting safety pins on our shirts and writing checks and hopefully we're calling our congresspeople and our president; we're organizing, we're marching, we're learning, we're thinking and digging and having deep conversations. But this work is fatiguing. For those of us new to advocacy and resistance, without resources, we can burn out fast. And don't let me front, I'm as new to resistance as any of us; I am less new to reflection, self-study and self-care. With that in mind, I wanna encourage us to enact some real, healthful self-care rituals, and to reflect on what self-care actually means.

 

Self Care Increases Awareness

We have all had the day/week/month/season where we just wanted to shut the world out, pull the covers over our heads, and come out when the storm has passed. Pain is real, and sometimes it feels intolerable: makes it hard to speak, hard to breathe, and feels like it will never go away. When that pain comes day after day after day, sometimes all you want is whatever will allow you not to feel it. Maybe it's weed, or chocolate, or anonymous sex, or online poker, or carbs, or bourbon, or gossip, or cruelty. Maybe it seems victimless or harmless. Whatever that practice is, it's not self-care, it's anesthesia. (And make no mistake: you engage in a behavior--gossip, junk food, avoidance, attachment, contempt, disgust, self-hatred--often enough and it becomes practice. Patterns establish ruts in the mind, and crawling out of those ruts and building new ones takes effort.)

Anesthesia does not make you feel better. It makes you feel nothing. It deadens your sensations. Some part of this is appealing in your pain, or fatigue, and you want it to be over. But underneath all that fatigue and pain is a tiny voice that says, I don't want to give up, but I need help! I need a break! Pay attention to that voice: it's not asking to be abused or numbed or silenced; it's asking for care and generosity. If you feel like that little voice is gone, and you can't hear it anymore, call someone

The difference between anesthesia and self-care is that self-care is generous. It gives something to you: rest, energy, a needed change in perspective, a chance to stretch and grow. It doesn't turn the volume down on all the things, and take from you. It gives you the strength, resources and resilience to keep doing the work.

 

Yoga is not Anesthesia

Feeling is the essence of life. Without feeling, we are not quite human. The real value of our asana practice is that, as we do pose after pose with awareness, we are inviting more sensitivity into our bodies and our lives. We are learning to tune in and feel. So we not only feel BETTER, but we FEEL better.
— Aadil Palkhivala

Self-care doesn't make you feel less, or nothing. It sometimes doesn't make even make you feel better. In my experience, self-care provides me with the tools I need for processing, for resting, and for understanding who I am in any particular context, so that I can show up from a more whole place within myself, even if that place is flawed, broken, vulnerable. While self-care can include pleasure, for me it takes a lot of conversations with myself about what would the best practice be that will help me be a better more whole version of myself as I move toward the work of providing spaces for healing, growth and compassion.

I know a lot of folks who go to yoga so they can tune out. Yoga class somehow seems less self-involved to us than playing online poker for countless hours, or holier than picking up a stranger to crawl into bed with us so we don't have to be alone. But underneath the Sanskrit and the talk of moving prana, when we use yoga as a means of not-feeling, we might as well be popping a Xanax with a white wine chaser.

Here's the thing: yoga wasn't designed as anesthesia. It's true, you can use it literally as pain relief: you can heal an aching back, or strengthen weak joints, you can lose weight and build strength and muscle tone. But the physical practice is just one of eight elements, and while yoga's goal is to "still the fluctuations of the mind", that stillness is not in pursuit of forgetfulness, numbness, and distance. 

"Yoga applies endurance, learning and commitment. It reduces alienation and cultivates empathy." Endurance, learning, commitment, empathy: what part of that sounds like, you won't feel quite as bad anymore? If this really is what our practice is--not (just) a strong back, flexible hips and the ability to strike an Instagram-worthy pose--if our practice is about reducing alienation (so you can connect with others, even those you feel aversion for) and cultivating empathy (especially with those you feel aversion for), then if we're using it as pain relief or as a bliss booster shot, we're missing something. We may be engaging in a practice of physical fitness, we may be infusing our body with fresh oxygen, and we all know how good that can feel. But we can grow our yoga beyond that. 

In threads of yoga, quoted above, Matthew Remski names the eight limbs of yoga: "relationship to other, relationship to self, poise, freedom of breath, freedom of senses, focus, contemplation and integration." (Can you spot asana in there somewhere?) He writes, "Contact with the other (yama) establishes your personhood (niyama), which is enhanced by groundedness (asana). Silent reverie upon the internal space of selfhood (pranayama through samyama) prepares you for a richer experience of otherness." This isn't what we usually hear from the solitary, ascetic practice of withdrawal in pursuit of Divinity. Even with our pocket computers and earbuds and all the ways we have to simulate connection with each other that practice certain and powerful alienation, the yoga practice at its most useful for us now can be one of a constant dance of moving in and down into ourselves, to more efficiently, fully and compassionately reach up and out to our community.

All this to say: when you feel shitty, go to yoga. If nothing else, the breathing and the moving will do you some good. Even so, be mindful of how you use the practice. If you find yourself craving the hard sweat and the pushpushpush when the shit is on top of you, remember: the most challenging physical practice that will make you forget may not be the right one for you. Those of us who consistently gravitate toward a vigorous practice should ask ourselves, am I using the practice as a distraction from something else? If you need not to think about the work, the problem, the stress for an hour, bless you. I understand. Leave it at the door, do your practice, and step back to it with renewed clarity and compassion. But be careful with the instinct to practice in pursuit of feeling less. If your practice is doing its job, you may be feeling more.

Self-Care is a Strategy for Resistance

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for all Black people, and by extension all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.
— "Restorative Justice", Guiding Principles of Black Lives Matter movement

For the long-term, you'll want to establish a useful, sustainable self-care schedule/ritual that will ultimately be feeding and nourishing for you. You will know it's working when you can Show Up in the world for others without feeling overextended or exhausted. So often we spend our time slinging our feelings all over one another and then to cope we collapse and act out; I invite you to step into a self-care practice that is more supportive, useful, and sustainable.

As our energy starts to go out more often--as we're advocating for others, doing deep, and sometimes painful, self-study, as we're showing up more fully in the world--we find a struggle to strike a balance between putting resources in so we can put resources out. In some sense, your self-care ritual, like social justice, like self-improvement, like yamasvadhyaya and samyama, doesn't end, you're ever done; some days or seasons it feels easier to pursue than others. But we must do our best to stay consistent with our practices. Our community depends on us. 

So, important things to remember about self-care practices:

1. breath

This can't be surprising coming from a yogi. Prioritize your breath. You don't have to know a bunch of fancy techniques; even a few slow, conscious, deep breaths can go a long way toward bringing your awareness in with compassion. The time to take a breath gives us a chance to assess what it is we're feeling. If you can't do it in one, take another. Then take another. Use the breath to help teach you about what's going on in/with you, and if/when you're feeling especially triggered, make it dark and quiet (pratyahara: sanmukhi mudra, anyone?) and listen to your breath. Whether you're active or still, working gently or vigorously, study and care for your breath, and let it take precedence. The more I engage in the physical practice of yoga, the more I learn that for all of the fancy posture pyrotechnics that are a part of the yoga zeitgeist, the Oldheads had it right: pranayama is where the power, the gifts, the fruits really are.

2. bravery

Self-care takes bravery. Most people opt out of real, radical care for themselves. It's the reason that we lack the physical, energetic and relational resources to Show Up. It's easier to smoke Camel lights and eat Hot Fries (true story) than it is to examine what goes into us and how it effects what goes out. We're too scared to make the effort. It's hard to make yourself vulnerable by standing up for people who need allies, or to educate people who are too afraid to acknowledge their own ignorance. Think of self-care as an opportunity to practice behavior that will make it easier for you to be the person you want to be in community with others. A 20-minute nap or yoga nidra practice is powerful compared to an hour of video games. Foods and supplements that help you build muscle and release toxins are more effective long-term than a red-eye at the coffee shop or a 5-hour energy drink from the 7-11. If you are anything like me, choosing positive, nourishing habits over ones that feel easier but also depleting, this practice takes effort, and might not always be fun. But consider the bravery you're showing by making this choice. Don't abandon yourself. Your health and life are important enough for you to care for, and not to treat cavalierly. You need you, and we need you too. 

3. joy

Let it feel good: not the junk-food/anesthesia/acting out good, but genuinely good, the good you feel when you've accomplished something challenging, when you've gotten restorative body work done, at the end of a nourishing savasana. Learn to discern between the plastic-y, false sheen of "good" that frankenfood and habitual negativity can offer, and the clear, light, joyous freedom that sleep, movement, and laughter have in store. Laughter is key, do not forsake it. Laughter softens your belly, deepens your breath, improves your immunity, and releases hormones into your bloodstream that lower stress. Baby goats in pajamas, episodes of Too Cute, Kevin Hart, Russell Peters, Ali Wong, reruns of CarTalk, whatever does it for you: let laughter be a part of your ritual. Nature is also good: sunshine, dirt, damp pellets that fall from the sky. Water is life. The Earth is your mother. Spend time with her.

4. stillness

I am generous with definitions of this world, but I'll tell you this: it just about never has a screen involved. The world is pulling at you, seeking, craving, demanding your attention, so much so that it will lie to you without shame. (again, not exaggeration. don't be scared or confused. be informed.) Your attention is in small supply and high demand. You must carve time out of whatever else you're doing for stillness. For real: the legit, no-distractions full presence to be with yourself. Sleep is important, but sleep does not count. It's harder than it sounds, and it sounds hard. Be compassionate, but be vigilant. Your mind will run away, will throw anything up in front of you so you don't have to dwell in the stillness and quiet. Don't get pulled down the path of cognitive or analytical thought. With love and determination, pull your mind away from the distraction and back to the stillness. Maybe you need a mantra to repeat, maybe you need a place to rest your gaze, maybe you need a sound, whatever. Make it analog, make it consistent, and make it still.

5. humanity

In a workshop I took with Eric Shaw, he taught us that technologies of renunciation build tapas, remove us from our patterns and clarify us. That's fancy yogaspeak for the idea that giving up some of the day-to-day luxuries we take for granted can shake us up enough to allow clarity and lightness be present within us. Sounds good, right? I take it with a grain of salt, though, because I think that sometimes, some of us (and my hand is in the air here) can get carried away on the track in pursuit of "self-care" and wind up back in a pattern of monastic self-righteousness and judgement. So, stay human with yours, don't take this too seriously. 

Sometimes You Need Anesthesia

There's a reason the doc knocks you unconscious before she slices you open: there are some thresholds of pain that are simply unsafe and unwise for the body to experience. You know and I don't what your thresholds for pain and trauma are; I'm not going to tell you that you have to feel all the feels all the time. It's fucking exhausting. So: what you need is online poker? Okay. Set a timer for how long you'll play, how much you'll win or lose, and stick to it. What you need is anonymous sex? I get it. Be safe: ask the right questions of your partner (you don't need to know their name, but you do need to know when they were last tested for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and HIV), and use a barrier. And if you need more conversation about what safer sex means, come talk to me or one of my colleagues. What you need is shitty food and shittier tv? I understand. Eat out of a bowl, not out of the container or the bag, and set an alarm, so you don't blink and six hours has gone by. We all need to act out sometimes, and if you do, do it and bless it; but put some boundaries on that shit, and keep your word. Make a choice for the future you that the present you will act out wisely. Be willing to accept the consequences of your anesthesia. They can sometimes be quite costly.

I'll say one final thing about self-care, especially for those of us who tend to output more than we input. A consistent, sustainable routine is indispensable. Burnout is real and dangerous. Do not abandon others because you could not take care of yourself. Word of that shit gets around. Your community needs you; better to give what you can and not more, than overdo it and leave someone who's depending on you holding the bag. We gotta keep taking care of ourselves so we can keep taking care of each other. 

 

Bonus: what does my self-care look like? I practice. I seldom do fancy shit that would look good on a magazine cover. I often do postures that move my spine through a full range of motion, deepen my breath and allow me to feel more at ease in my body, about 30 minutes, if I'm lucky. I run. I sit with my breath. I read. As often as I can, I practice this: it is everything. If I could, I'd do it daily. I chant: the body is 70% water. Sound moves more efficiently through water than air; I repeat sounds and words that are life-giving. When I have time, I engage the world around me and I light candles and throw cards and make a little magic.