We hear so much in the yoga world and beyond about self-care these days. About how it’s important to put our own proverbial oxygen masks on first so that we have the resources to care for others. But there’s an opposing view that suggests it’s selfish to spend time and resources on self-care. Yoga philosophy offers some insights.
One of the preeminent texts of yoga philosophy is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sutras lay out an eight-part path that makes up this discipline we call yoga. The first two parts, or limbs, of this path are ethical concepts that guide our actions. First is the yamas; they govern our relationships with the world at large. Second is the niyamas; they pertain to our relationship with ourselves. There are five yamas and five niyamas and, according to the Sutras, following them is a key to our spiritual ascension. Each can play out in the physical practice of yoga. More importantly, though, each one provides us with a roadmap of sorts as to how to move through the world.
The first yama is ahimsa, which means non-violence or non-harming. It’s like the Hippocratic oath of yoga, plus some. Many philosophy scholars interpret this as necessarily starting with the self. To go into the world and not just refrain from harming others but to actually be of service, we must be kind and loving towards ourselves first.
My personal experience reveals this to be true. In my twenties I suffered from an eating disorder that left me at war with myself internally. When I binge ate, I would hate on myself in every way I could think of. I would work out excessively, try to restrict my eating, and call myself every nasty name in the book. The result? Another binge eating episode on the way, and the cycle would begin anew. I was far, far from living a life of being of service to others. In fact, I was pretty miserable and not that much fun to be around.
I fell in love with yoga in my early thirties. The feeling of matching my movements with my breath was like nothing I ever felt before. It seems so simple looking back on it after over a decade of practicing yoga, but I remember distinctly how profound it felt. The simplest technique of the asana practice offered me a glimpse into another way to be in the world. Present, mindful, full of concentration and awareness. This shift was essential to my healing. Not just from my eating disorder, but from the frenzied way I simply was in the world: always thinking about what’s next, or ruminating about what had already happened. The reprieve from my self-made mental agitation, even if just for an hour a day, was a balm for my spirit.
The effects of my yoga practice quickly started to extend far beyond my time on the mat. By taking care of myself – body, mind, intellect and spirit – I found an inner reservoir of stillness and strength. Once I was more firmly established in my self, my relationships improved. I was a better wife, mother, friend. Through my practice I have come to truly understand that to show up for those around me, I need to show up for myself first. It’s that simple. I exercise, practice yoga, meditate, try and eat and sleep well. When I get off track for more than a few days, I notice a negative shift in my ability to be there for my loved ones. I would argue that it’s selfish of me not to take care of myself, not the other way around.Take a little time and discern what feeds your body, mind, heart and soul. And then make some time for that, because self-care is a necessary part of being there for others.As a Citizen yoga teacher I emphasize self-care to my students frequently. I explain it is an essential ingredient to an overall approach to wellness. This will look different for different students at different times. Some days, an extra child’s pose may be your asana-based self-care. On another day or for another student, finding your physical edge may be the way you take care of yourself. It is a personal process that requires discernment and skill, I often tell my students. The beautiful thing about speaking to self-care when I teach is that it is an individual journey that we practice together, in community.