Self-care seems to be a ‘new’ buzzword in the realm of health and wellness and I’m so glad that it is gaining traction and popularity. Self-care has tended to be associated with selfishness, especially for women who have been, and continue to be, expected to focus on taking care of and nurturing others. In today’s world women are not only expected to take care of family, social engagements and household (traditional societal expectations), but also be successful career women in their field. We want all of the ambition and success, and what studies are showing is that ‘having it all’ comes at a great expense to our health.
At first these statements may appear disempowering to women. Why can’t we have it all? We can do anything we want! I do believe that women are powerful and that we can (and have for millennia without much recognition) accomplished great things. From the research and reading I’ve done via my studies in Ayurveda, the ancient sister science to yoga that translates as knowledge of life, the drive to have it all, do and be everything takes a major toll on our health.
According to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, 60 - 90% of doctor visits in the US are due to stress related illnesses. Stress has become a normal part of our lives. When was the last time you answered the question, ‘how are you doing?’ by saying: ‘Relaxed and care-free.’ The most common answers that I hear these days are ‘busy’ and ‘stressed.’ Our brains have developed over thousands of years to assess threats and opportunities. When our brain detects a threat, be it physical or psychological, it tells the endocrine system to release stress hormones into the body to get ready to face the threat. Some of these hormones, like cortisol, stay in the body for up to 2 days. When we are chronically stressed our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for accelerating heart rate, constricting blood vessels, and raising blood pressure) is continually active. The longer we’re stressed the more sensitive we become to ‘threats’ and the cycle continues. Some symptoms of chronic stress may not seem like a big deal at first - insomnia, fatigue, digestive discomfort, muscle aches and pains, and frequent colds and infections. In fact, a lot of women have come to accept these as a normal part of life when they are actually the body giving us signals that it is out of balance and perhaps on the path toward more serious illness.
Enter self-care, what I’m defining as daily actions to care for oneself that help to bring the body back into homeostasis (balance). For balance, the body also needs activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure, regulates digestion (rest and digest) and sexual arousal (reproduction). Relaxation and mindfulness practices are key in activating the parasympathetic nervous system and there are some simple ways to incorporate them into your life without having to spend a lot of money and time. When we take care of ourselves we infuse positivity into our lives and that can be a counteraction to stress, worry and anxiety. The key is to choose the practices that resonate with you and do them every day or at least 51% of the time.
This practice helps to stimulate digestion and proper elimination. Research has also shown that the pectin in lemon helps with weight loss. One of my Ayurveda teachers calls it a yoga pose for your kidneys and urinary tract. Be mindful as you heat the water, slice the lemon and squeeze it into your cup. Enjoy the warmth of the water, the taste of the lemon and give thanks for the availability of clean, fresh water. Acknowledge yourself for doing something good for your health first thing in the morning.
For some, incorporating a yoga practice can seem unattainable and overwhelming. We have an idea of how yoga should look and be. My suggestion is that you let go of how you think yoga should be. Taking ten minutes to practice two yoga poses daily will produce more benefits than going to a one hour yoga class once per week. Not familiar with yoga? That’s ok - choose two stretches that feel good and do them while being mindful of your breath - breathing deeply and easily. Acknowledge yourself for taking the time to practice for 10 minutes and doing something positive for your health.
If you’re stressed, upset or rushed while eating your sympathetic nervous system will be activated and your digestion will suffer. Be with your food at meals. Take time to enjoy the smell and the taste. Chew mindfully and if you can, don’t multitask while eating. Take 10 minutes to rest after a meal. If you have the ability, lie on your left side for ten to fifteen minutes after a meal. According to Ayurveda left side lying improves your body’s ability to digest and assimilate food. There is a reason the parasympathetic nervous system is also referred to as the ‘rest and digest response.’ Allow yourself to let go of all of the things that you need to do and relax - set a timer for 10 min so that you can fully relax and don’t need to look at the time. Acknowledge yourself for mindfully eating and doing something positive for your health.
I’ve said it often - the breath is the cheapest form of stress management and it’s always available to us. There is now a lot of scientific research that shows the benefits of deep breathing for stress management. To practice, set aside ten minutes. Sit quietly on some pillows, blankets or in a chair. Press your sitz bones into the pillow, blanket or chair to extend your spine up through the crown of your head. Inhale counting silently to yourself one, two, three. Allow your ribcage and belly to expand. Exhale three, two, one. Become aware of the path of the breath through the body from the tips of the nostrils, into the lungs and all the way back out as you continue to count. See if you can keep your attention on your breath ten breath cycles. Notice the sensations in your body and your mind.
Research has shown that keeping a regular sleep schedule helps the heart filter out stress hormones and rejuvenate. Healthy sleep is also key in maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm that also has a effect on our metabolism. Getting enough sleep and committing to a healthy sleep routine is a key ingredient of wellbeing and part of self-care. This takes commitment and discipline if you’re not in the habit of going to bed at a certain time. I suggest 10 p.m. as a good time to go to sleep. Set a bedtime alarm - your iPhone even provides that option now. Set aside ten minutes to do some type of relaxation before bed - legs up the wall, meditation or the breathing exercise above. Relaxing before bed can greatly contribute to better sleep. Here is a link to another blog post that I wrote about tips for healthy sleep.
If you’ve come to the end of the post and your first thoughts are: ‘I have no time for this,’ or ‘I’m too busy,’ then these suggestions are especially important for you. The saying goes: “Meditate for 20 minutes per day. Unless you don’t have time, then meditate for an hour.” I understand that daily self-care requires commitment and discipline and that can feel challenging. It’s not possible to take care of others effectively and accomplish our goals if we’re running on empty and never rejuvenating our energy. Self-care is self-love and self-love ripples out into our relationships, our families and our communities. It’s an act of caring for others by first caring for yourself. It’s true it may mean re-prioritizing aspects of our lives and our life is worth it.
Anna’s new book Yoga for Paddling by Falcon Publishing is available to order online.
Anna is an Ayurveda Wellness Counselor coaching clients on living vibrant, adventurous lives? Check out her offerings at mindbodypaddle.com