By Emily Withalm ©2013
Women as Caregivers: Yoga as a Means of Self-Care
Note: While this essay focuses on self-care as it pertains to women, the general information and suggestions for self-care are universal for anyone seeking to nurture themselves as a means of better serving ourselves and those around us.
It occurred to me recently, while helping a friend through an emotionally devastating transition, the idea of caring for one’s self in part, as a means of being able to give of ourselves to others. In this instance, I found that the Hatha Yoga I have practiced and studied over the past five years, had become a tool I could access—a way of keeping myself present and calm for this person, who was feeling unsure of anything in her world at the time. The quiet strength attained from my practice and heightened intuitive awareness allowed me to flow with the situation and keep my own ego at bay. Love and compassion seemed to flow easily from my chest. Through tears and laughter, some good music and good intentions, we made it through together, with energy left for the work still left to be done. That evening, instinctively I sought self-care: A hot shower, good food and Yoga.
As women, we may find ourselves in care-giver roles throughout our lives, whether it be caring for young children, elderly parents, our partners, friends our community and even strangers. We tend to be many things to many people. All of these roles generally require giving of ourselves to some extent. Ideally, we “fill our own pitcher” as a means of being able to give to people in our lives. The truth of loving oneself as self-care becomes clearer as I walk through life. The time has come to do away with the misconception by some in our society/collective consciousness that taking time for ourselves is in some way “selfish” or undeserved. The outdated ways of viewing the work of women (in the physical, as well as the spiritual/emotional realms) as inferior in some aspect, has never served our world. Much of what we give as women is not seen by the eye, yet is so vital for true wellbeing. I believe that the time for honoring the subtler aspects of what makes life truly enriching and whole is at hand.
In the career roles of women, it is my belief and observation that some form of training should exist to assist women in self-care. Nurses, In-Home Caregivers, Teachers, Lawyers, Social Workers etc., could greatly benefit from the wisdom of Yoga as it relates to their interactions with those they serve. These are careers that whether consciously or not, require a certain level of emotional connection with another person, who may need more of our energy then then we actually have. The quality, or integrity of what’s being given is then put at risk. These can be very rewarding professions, filled with the truth that “You can’t spread happiness without getting some on yourself”. However when we have nothing to give, these situations can be taxing and even become a source of illness.
When we have adequately nourished our own selves physically, emotionally/mentally, and spiritually, our efforts have a certain genuineness and depth to them. We are better able to use our innate gifts more efficiently. We are less likely to become resentful and feel “drained” from giving away what we don’t have. Practicing Yoga can be of great benefit to those seeking a way to refill their energy stores. Here are some simple ways in which we can take advantage of Yogic techniques in relation to self-care…
Make a peaceful space. Find a space in your home, even a corner of a room, where you can simply regroup. A quiet, airy, aesthetically pleasing and uncluttered “mini-sanctuary” where you can go when your mind is full of chatter can be of great benefit. Have a cushion or rug of some sort to sit on, and maybe even make a small alter with some meaningful objects laid out. A candle can be lit, keeping in mind whatever your intention is for that space at that moment. It is really up to what you are feeling that decides what you may need from the space at that particular time. If you feel that your mind needs calming, you can focus on slowing your breathing (our mind slows alongside our breath—it is a great tool to carry with you throughout the day).
As we expand our lungs using Yogic breathing we bring fresh oxygen to our blood and fresh energy to our bodies. Our inhalation fills our bellies. Our exhalation pulls them towards the spine, pushing out the stress alongside the stale air. When you feel calmer, sit with your quiet mind for as long as you have time for. This is a wonderful introduction to meditation. You can build up over time—even five minutes will benefit to start with. Fifteen, twenty, even thirty minutes is a good amount to work towards. Feel out what works for your needs. Choose a regular time once or twice a day if you like, and your mind will learn to associate that time with calm and respite. Taking the time to slow our thoughts and relax both physically and mentally benefits everyone we will come in contact with. This private space becomes a place where you can set down your worries and concerns. If they are valid they will still be there when you’re done, and you can then deal with them from a clearer perspective. As a busy mother and wife, I’ve used this space to simply “stop” and filter through recurring thoughts and address what needs to be addressed, leaving the rest behind.
Figure out what nurtures your spirit. Maybe it’s a walk in the woods, visiting with a dear friend, or volunteering for a cause that’s close to your heart. Or maybe it’s settling into a good book after everyone else is in bed. Whatever it is, make time to do it. In between all of life’s relationships, challenges and obligations, we can lose touch with what it is that we love to do, and sometimes our spirits have grown out of old dreams and goals and we must make the time to listen to what is true for us now. It is all too easy to become wrapped up in other people’s emotions and life situations. Honor the person that you are, and it will be easier to appreciate others. Honoring our spiritual needs can help us feel “alive”, connected and vital.
Learn a few Yoga postures that benefit you. When the bodies we reside in are fit, functioning and healthy, it is easier to feel good and hopeful about our life situations. We all have different body structures, different ways we move and different experiences that have molded our physical bodies. What is common for all of us is that the asanas (postures) of Yoga can strengthen, stretch, and rejuvenate our bodies. Almost everybody can gain some benefit through these asanas, because they can be modified for most individual needs. At the end of the day or upon waking (or both), practicing a few postures can help us release (through stretching and attention to our breath), some of the physical and emotional tensions of life.
If you have tight shoulders, research a few postures which can help you. Experiment to find what works for your unique body. Balancing postures can be enlightening—I find that when I am “wobbly”, usually my mind is not clear, or perhaps my diet is off. Likewise when I feel strong and calm inside, the balancing postures come more easily. Yoga classes are a great start for guidance in doing the postures safely and effectively, although it may take some research and a few trips around town to find one that is in line with what you’re seeking from Yoga. Over time you will find that Yoga takes a holistic approach to wellness, teaching us that the physical, mental/emotional and spiritual are intimately connected. In addition to everyday “wear and tear”, our bodies actually contract back towards the fetal position as we age. Yoga can help our bodies stay supple and flexible so that we can lead an active life. At some point you may find yourself in less of a care-giver role, and having a healthy physical body will allow for more maneuverability in deciding what you want in your life.
Release. In Yoga classes we practice Savasana, or “Corpse Pose”. Despite the imagery associated with the term, Savasana is a time to completely relax after the breath work and asanas (it can however be done anytime). We allow our bodies to incorporate the work we’ve done. We relax into our mats, scan our bodies, releasing tension where we find it and fully and completely relax. Letting go in this way can occasionally cause unexpected things to happen. Once I realized there were tears streaming down my face onto my mat. In my class, we stay this way for perhaps ten minutes (preferably more) and then slowly come to a sitting posture. We acknowledge the sensation of a calm, quiet mind and relaxed body. This is an excellent place to begin a meditation practice. As care-givers, we need a way of finding release. I’ve found that even if I’ve entered class with a troubled mind or heart, I come home to my family with the gifts of a clearer perspective and a fuller pitcher.
Yoga made it possible to walk with my friend through this difficult time in her life with an abundance of love and compassion. My wish is that we will all realize the importance of self-care as it relates to the way we interact with each other. The tides are changing, and the world needs the best of what we have to offer. Namaste.
Daisy C.H.A.I.N. Creating Healthy Alliances In New-Mothering wishes to thank the author of this post and share a little bit about her. Emily Withalm is a talented artist and mother to one amazing son whom she nurtures and guides in loving and inspirational ways. She is a committed community activist who generously gives her time and energy to care for members of her McKenzie River community in profound and important ways. Ms Withalm teaches weekly yoga classes at the Vida McKenzie Community Center on tuesday evenings at 5:30pm.
Daisy C.H.A.I.N. Creating Healthy Alliances In New-Mothering is pleased to launch our MotherWork Series. These are guest editorials written by local mothers, intended to share their Life experiences & to open a dialogue on motherhood while highlighting our motherwork: the choices we make everyday as new-mothers.