If there is one thing I learn from practicing yoga, it's that taking care of myself is a necessary thing. Many times, I feel guilt over the time I spend just looking out for myself. I have to constantly remind myself that this time is not wasted, and I am deserving of care and rest. Each time I attend a class or practice yoga at home, I feel restored and energized. The same goes for taking a special bath or getting a relaxing massage. The effects of this self-care carries over into my life, making me a better person. Yet, I don't always give myself these gifts, and sometimes feel guilty when I do. Why is that?
When we feel guilty for caring for ourselves, we are behaving as if we are not worthy of being healthy and well cared-for.
For me, this comes out of the constant need I feel to prove myself. Not only do I wish to present a person to the world who is accomplished, smart, and strong, I also have this odd desire to show that it is all effortless. I sometimes even want to hide my need for rest from my husband - the person I am closest to, who lives with me, who knows that I have normal human needs. I have to constantly assess the expectations I am placing on myself and reevaluate my goals. It takes a lot of honest self-study to realize when I'm feeling burned out because of my own unrealistic guidelines for how I think my life should be. I often feel I am "not allowed" to rest or do activities I enjoy until everything on my to-do list is done. When I am in this state of mind, self-care turns into time stolen away from productive time. The older I get and the more responsibilities I have, the more I realize that the list is never complete, and it's healthier to schedule in time to care for myself. When I am rested and healthy, I have a stronger drive and I do everything better. I have a better outlook on life, and am kinder and more joyful.
Attitude is everything.
The time spent on any self-care practice doesn't automatically improve your self-image. Sure, exercise is good for you and massage makes your muscles feel great, but you may have experienced that just doing these things in a vacuum doesn't always produce the results you want. If you go into your workout expecting to feel energized and better about yourself, you will, and those feelings will carry with you until you exercise again. If you eat a healthy meal with the expectation that it will improve your digestion and make you feel better in the long term, it will. On the other hand, if you go into your massage thinking that it will be a temporary fix and nothing can really make your stress better, then that is what will happen. Our minds are extremely powerful, as are our emotions. When I practice yoga or massage my feet as a practice of joy for myself, the practice just adds to my joy. When I practice self-care begrudgingly or negatively, the practice isn't nearly as satisfying. The physical effects aren't as strong and they don't last as long. This causes me to think negatively about the practice itself, as if it didn't work like it was supposed to. I admit that this is a cycle I often struggle with, and have to look out for. I find it's better to a smaller practice, or something that might not necessarily be "healthy" and feel happy about it than to force myself to do something I'm feeling negatively about. On the other hand, when I am feeling positively about something, I will do more of it, and the effects last longer. This positive cycle keeps me motivated, and serves as a reminder for the days when I'm feeling low.
How yoga and meditation can help
One of the best things about yoga practices is that they don't have to be long or complicated. I can often feel similar benefits from five minutes of breathing that I feel from taking a whole class. I'm not saying the experiences are identical. An hour-long practice provides more time for self discovery, and I certainly can't improve a posture without practicing it. However, taking just a short time to pause, connect with my breath, and check in with my body can have a huge impact. When I am feeling swept away by the tasks of the day, it is essential for me to pause and transition between activities. This transition often includes a few breaths to calm my body and break the stress cycle. I am able to do this in just a few minutes because I have trained my body and mind with yoga. The benefits of practicing consistently are not only in the benefits themselves, but in that they train the body and mind to return to a relaxed state whenever we need to. Because I practice breathing and meditation consistently, I am familiar with how they make me feel, and can recall those feelings in my body as needed. Now, I am not claiming to be a master yogi, and I'm not saying the effects are exactly the same in a short practice in my car as they are in a longer practice in a calm environment. The memories simply serve as a reminder that I am not always stressed, and do in fact have the ability to feel calm and energized at the same time. Even if I am not able to return to that state in the moment, it helps whatever stress I am feeling to seem smaller, and less important.
Whatever you do to care for yourself, do it wholeheartedly
I encourage you to find the practices that make you feel better about your health and yourself and practice them with joy as often as you can. I encourage you to be mindful as you care for yourself, and notice how each moment of self-care makes you feel. I encourage you to recall those feelings in times of stress and sadness and remember that you can experience them again. Do whatever makes you feel like the best version of yourself as if you deserve it. You really do.