Self-care is tricky to define without resorting to language as sugary and ephemeral as candy floss. Practicality is my watchword, and thankfully healthcare organisations with a mind on actionable objectives more ambitious and necessary than selling aromatherapy candles have created clear and helpful definitions. According to the WHO:
Self-care is the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, and maintain health and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.
The UK Department of Health expands:
Self-Care is a part of daily living. It is the care taken by individuals towards their own health and well being, and includes the care extended to their children, family, friends and others in neighbourhoods and local communities. Self-Care includes the actions individuals and carers take for themselves, their children, their families and others to stay fit and maintain good physical and mental health; meet social and psychological needs; prevent illness or accidents; care for minor ailments and long-term conditions; and maintain health and wellbeing after acute illness or discharge from hospital.
It is important to note that self-care is not a solo trip to the spa, it is taking responsibility for one’s own wellness, as well as the wellness of the immediate and extended communities in which one lives. Self-care is a communal effort. For those of us who study yoga philosophy, we see this as a reflection of the teaching that the individual and isolated self is an illusion and there truly is no separation between any of us.
Yoga and Self-Care
There is any number of self-care tools you can use depending on your needs. The WHO specifies hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, sporting activities, living conditions, social habits, cultural beliefs, work, self-medication, among other broad categories.
However, our focus will be on the use of yoga for self-care. I have previously explored the questions of ‘what is asana’ and ‘what are we using it for?’. In brief, yoga postures and asana can be tools of physical, mental, or spiritual therapeutics. All of which is ideally suited to fit into a holistic programme of self-care as outlined above.
Lizzie Lasater adds a practical yoga example:
For me, self-care is preventative medicine. It’s this idea that living a long and healthy life is a proactive process, not just taking care of ourselves when we’re sick… Self-care is a little bit of an abstract concept, and in my opinion, it doesn’t mean not eating gluten or getting a massage. In my own life, self-care is as concrete and simple as taking 20 minutes to lie on the floor and do Supta Baddha Konasana in the afternoon.
Yoga-tune up founder, Jill Miller, has a clear definition of self-care:
Empowering myself to intuitively and authoritatively address my needs as they arise. Reducing my pain, irritation, or emotional suffering in a self-compassionate and long-lasting way.
So we’re starting to get more specific and practical. It’s clear self-care and yoga can work well together, but still, the question arises, what do I do on my mat to take care of myself, aside from what I always do when I practise yoga? How do I know what is best?
How do I practise yoga self-care?
To know what to practise, you have to have a clear idea of what’s going on in your body, mind, and heart. You can check-in and monitor body sensations, mental focus, and anything else of relevant based on your current state. Bo Forbes teaches a structured check-in before, as well as after, practice. Try it here:
A check-in fueled by curiosity and patience will surely reveal something going on that requires your attention.
Set an intention of self-care
Once you know what’s going on, actively and consciously set an intention of self-care. Setting an intention isn’t as simple as silently telling yourself “I will learn gratitude from my perfect handstand today.” Intention setting, as illustrated by the brilliant Buddha’s Brain, requires a skillful navigation of many regions of the brain. In addition to choosing the words of a relevant intention, we must counter the self-sabotaging thoughts that arise in response. This means we replace any negative voices or thoughts with positive ones, or cognitively reframe our mental dialogues with compassion and kindness. Working even deeper, we can summon positive memories and emotions of times the positive intention was realised, and spread the associated physical sensations throughout our body. Intention setting is a full mind, body, and heart event.
Choose your yoga for self-care tools
Fueled by your positive intention choose the desired outcome to which you can work. For example: perhaps you are feeling anxious and want to compassionately and kindly reduce your anxiety. Perhaps you feel that anxiety in the shortness of your breath. Might you then choose a technique that helps you slow your breath?
There are no general guidelines here. Say you are feeling emotionally stuck. I could easily say backbends lead to emotional release. But that’s not necessarily so for everyone. Have a good think about how you respond to different postures and techniques. Then, based on your individual needs and intention, choose a few simple ones that work well and lead to outcomes relevant to your needs. Here’s the magic advice:
Practise short and simple tools often.
Here’s some of what you can choose from:
- Breath and rhythm (via specific breathwork or the rhythm of vinyasa)
- Restorative Yoga
- Self-massage (with hands or therapy balls)
- Self-touch (simply touching, breathing, and connecting)
You’ll notice that there is a lot here! There are so many incredible techniques to have in your toolbox. Use these yoga self-care tools by including them in your home practice or by choosing studio classes that teach them well and often.
Can I practise self-care in a studio class?
Although you can choose styles and teachers that most fit your requirements, you won’t necessarily be choosing the poses and techniques you use on any given day. As long as classes are reasonably paced, filled with options, and non-dogmatic in approaches to alignment, you can easily self-regulate your practice to ensure it meets some of your self-care needs.
In a good studio class, the following tools are easily available to you to meet your needs and intentions:
- Pre and post-class check-in
- Intensity regulation (you are in charge of the level of intensity no matter what the teacher says! Modify and make choices as appropriate)
Notice when you lose sight of your intentions and rein yourself back in. Also, as you check-in before and after class ask yourself, with brutal honesty, ‘is this class doing for me what I think it is? Is this class helping me care for myself?’
It may be you need to choose another class that is filled with more of the techniques and practices that meet your needs and intentions for care. Experiment.
Can hard poses be done for self-care?
Within a self-care approach, individual postures are not learned for their own sake but learned as specific tools for specific outcomes. Self-care is sometimes tough love, so it may be that you need a few difficult or demanding postures or techniques thrown into the mix to create a necessary physical or emotional response within yourself that couldn’t be found on a bolster.
Now, what about a classically hard posture like an arm-balance, or an inversion? I believe difficult or complex postures are primarily learned for reasons of resilience development or as a sort of game to retain an interest in the process of yoga. The harder and more complicated the posture, the more difficult it is to pay attention to anything aside from the requirements to execute it without faceplanting on to the sticky mat. But it may also be that you require difficulty or heightened physicality to burn off anxious energy or counter a typically sedentary existence. There are no outright do’s and don’t, only an invitation for you to be curious. But I suspect you will most likely find the most benefit in the simplest shapes and processes.
Self-care and self-compassion
Self-care can easily be co-opted into beating one’s self up. So we need to ensure it is all done from a place of love. Here are two important thoughts on the importance of self-compassion and unconditional friendship with one’s self in the practice of self-care:
My concern with the current popularization of self-care is that it feeds into a societal conditioning that we are supposed to feel good all the time, and to strive at all costs. We are a culture of scarcity—aka “not enough.” As a result, while well intended, I am watching perfectionism and improvement make their way into the concept of “self-care.” Self-care then becomes a fluffy term to assign to the unsustainable diet, exercise plan, meditation, resolution, or general schedule overhaul that feels “urgent” in any given moment. Many of us actually engage in self-harming behaviors while believing we are engaging in “self-care.” Often, our efforts at “self-care” become the inner critic’s latest whip when we fall short of whatever unsustainable promise we made to ourselves… True self-care is deeply felt because it is free of the aggression of self-improvement. It feels more authentic than an affirmation (that can feel like a lie you are trying to convince yourself of by repeating it again and again). True self-care is not driven by an effort to become more or better. It meets you right where you are, just as you are. (Jodi Strock)
Making friends with myself meant seeing everything inside me, and not running away or turning my back on it. Because that’s what real friendship is. You don’t turn your back on yourself and abandon yourself, just the way you wouldn’t give up on a good friend when their darker sides began to show up. When I became friends with my body, my mind, and my transient emotions, and when I was able to comfortably settle into myself more and more (and remember, this takes time), then staying in the present moment, in all situations, became more possible for me to do. I was able in meditation to return to my breath and stop beating myself up. (Pema Chodron)
Find your yoga for self-care practice
No one style, tradition, or technique of yoga is the most effective form of self-care. Everyone is different and requires different approaches to meet their needs. Find what works for you. Stay curious. Keep practising.