What the Heck Does It Mean to Take Care of Yourself?

IMG_2165When you come to my Alexander Technique, Pilates, yoga or mindfulness classes I’ll tell you I don’t care what you do during your time with me. I’ll advise you to do whatever you need in the moment. I’ll encourage you to make your own choices. I don’t like to set rules in my class; I prefer to break rules. I won’t demand anything of you. I don’t like to say what you have to do.

But that’s not entirely the truth. There is one thing I’ll implicitly ask you to do. I want to state it overtly here. The thing that you absolutely must do in my class is take care of yourself! That’s the most important rule in my class: you have to take care of yourself. That is harder to do than any Pilates exercise or yoga posture. Actually taking care of yourself in the moment is much more difficult. That is a demanding rule to follow. Throughout the class I’ll guide you toward what I mean by taking care of yourself, toward a path of self-care in the moment.

“What does this mean?” It depends on what you’re feeling, the situation and what you need. And it’s malleable, it changes, that’s the point. What you need right now won’t be the same tomorrow or the same as yesterday. It’s what you need in this moment. And what you need in the moment might not fit someone else’s expectations; it might not fit their definition of self-care. For example, everyone else in a class might be doing push-ups but you recognize that your arms are at their limit so instead of continuing you decide to lie down. Someone else could easily label that as disrespectful or lazy or inattentive. But you know better. You know you’re taking care of yourself.

Sometimes what you need might not even fit your own expectations. When I first moved to New York I exercised a lot, much more than I do now. I did Pilates five days a week. I lifted weights three times a week. I did TRX three times a week and trampoline work with weights twice a week. All of that was part of my self-care routine. I was struggling with severe depression, anxiety and fear, and exercising was one way I tried to take care of myself. I was trying to beat my anxiety through physical exertion. Exercising did help. What I didn’t see at the time was the harm I was also inadvertently causing. In beating my depression I was also beating myself. But my pain with depression and its physical manifestations (shallow breath, collapse through my torso and a chronic overall inward contraction of my entire body) prevented me from seeing the damage I was causing in my self-care exercise routine. The exhilarating rush of endorphins I experienced from exercising felt better than my depression, obviously. What I didn’t see, or sometimes ignored, was the additional tension, stiffness and rigidity I was creating and reinforcing through the way I performed and approached exercising. My self-care routine had some drawbacks. A good friend summed it up well when she said to me, “Ian, you move like a robot.” I could see what she meant once I became aware of it. I didn’t know how to change it, though. I was doing my best to take care of myself but I needed a shift, a way to reset my body and experiences. Resetting my body and approach to life together helped change my anxiety and depression rather than mask it with intense exercise.

The subject of food provides another manner of resetting. If you eat a lot of processed sugar it’s difficult to discern the natural sugar in vegetables. The sensitivity of your palate is dull. But after you finish a nutritional cleanse, which helps reset your palate, try eating a carrot and you’ll be amazed at how sweet it tastes. A nutritional cleanse also helps reset your physical experiences after eating. Before a cleanse you might have easily drunk several beers. After you’ve reset yourself with a cleanse you’ll vividly feel the effects of the alcohol after only one drink. “Whoa, you know, that’s all I need, I’m good.” Or you’ll start to eat a slice of cake and, whereas before a cleanse you could have eaten the whole slice (or two, or three), after your reset you only have half a slice and realize, “wow, that’s too much. I can’t eat all that. I don’t even like how I feel when I eat it.” In a similar way, you can reset your movement and your mental and physical approach to life. Various experiences can dull your “life palette,” both physically and mentally. In other words, you can reset and heighten your kinesthetic and proprioceptive sensitivity: your sense of yourself, your body, how you move, what’s moving and how much effort and energy you’re using.

When I work with someone and help them begin to reset themselves, we start to explore their daily life, their movements and their interests. We explore what they notice when they engage with life from this new “reset” standpoint. I work with many people who exercise regularly and so am often asked about “core” work, which more often than not translates into some kind of abdominal curl. I’ll help them reset physically and mentally and then we’ll explore an abdominal curl. They begin to curl forward and stop, saying, “ahh, that actually doesn’t feel very good.” And yet before our resetting work, they felt nothing. Or they weren’t aware of what they were feeling because their attention and intention were focused on getting the exercise done. But now they’re tuning into the subtle shifting, coordinating balance of their being. What’s changed is that they’re actually starting to feel the effects of what they’re doing. The effects were always there but were covered up by a mentality to push, to do, to conquer, to force, a mentality that said what they were doing was good for them despite their feeling something different. Taking care of yourself becomes much easier when we start to strip away that kind of thinking and reset both your mental approach and your physical self together. The manner and possibilities of taking care of yourself expand. And this is what I do: I help people reset.

In Pilates, yoga or fitness classes I’ve heard people say, “Go easy on me.” But the real challenge and key to success is to go easy on yourself! Taking care of yourself in this way requires a shift in your thinking, a shift away from the model of “someone else is making me do this” to the model of “I am doing choosing to do this.” It requires an acknowledgment and understanding (that’s the learning part, where I come in!) of personal responsibility in what is happening. But you don’t always want that responsibility! It’s much easier to think, “The instructor makes me do this. I don’t like doing it; it hurts my body. It’s their fault I’m hurting.” And so you stop going to the class. You stop doing something that might be beneficial to you — which is not to say that what the instructor is asking you to do is beneficial, but that moving and taking care of yourself is beneficial. So this way of thinking is a shift; it requires you to take responsibility for what you are doing. When I teach gentle yoga I talk about how the postures themselves are not necessarily gentle. The gentleness is in the way you approach each posture. You could make any yoga posture gentle; you could also make any posture aggressive. I watch people do that all the time. If you take a “gentle” posture and do it in a very aggressive way, then gentle yoga will be stressful and probably painful. You can also take seemingly very complicated postures and approach them gently. This is true in life as well. Watch a gardener who loves their garden and understands how to take care of it. They’ll approach their garden with gentleness, with love. Watching someone like that can be a pleasure. There’s a precision, an efficiency and a tenderness to their actions. Then watch someone who attacks their garden, who tears at it, rips at it. It’s very different.

If someone is pushing through an exercise — or a moment of life — clenching their way through stiffly, forcing themselves through it even if it doesn’t feel good, perhaps that is something that they need in the moment. Perhaps that is the way they’re taking care of themselves. Just like how I thought I needed all that exercise to combat my anxiety. When you’re mentally stressed you might want to just beat that stress out by physically exhausting yourself, damn the consequences. But at the end of one of my yoga classes if someone tells me, “that class was killing me, I’m not going to come anymore, I was dying doing those movements!” then they were not taking care of themselves. They were hearing my voice but weren’t listening to me. They were listening to that internal voice, that voice in the zeitgeist that says, “Do it do it do it do it do it do it!!! Don’t be a wimp!” They were trying to do the postures, thinking that I was asking them to do this posture or that movement. And then forcing themselves to do it, rather than taking care of themselves. That’s understandable. It’s what most of us have been taught to do in our lives. We want to have a lot of compassion and empathy for that. As I said, taking care of yourself is a challenge. It can be a very difficult thing until you start to see the trick of it and then it can be very easy! So easy in fact that you might reject it because it challenges that internal bullying voice. “It can’t be this easy. You have to work hard!” Most of us are not in the habit of taking care of ourselves on this real, true, deep, fundamental level. We need to shift into making that a priority, into understanding what it is and making it a priority at the same time.

When you go on a nutritional cleanse, part of the purpose is to reset your body’s response to food so that you can listen to what your body is telling you to eat, rather than just what you’re used to eating. In a similar way, you need a cleanse or a reset of your movement and your approach to movement and the way you respond to life. If you don’t have that reset it can be challenging to know what it means to take care of yourself because you’re still in the same situation, the same dynamic, responding in the same way and not in tune with what is happening to you. What your body might be telling you in the moment is covered up by your past. The subtle signals in your body are covered by the stuck tension you’ve been carrying for years. So you can’t hear them or don’t acknowledge their importance. The changes you might want are trapped by your beliefs as well. For example, if you believe you have a bad back, if you believe you’re a person with a bad back, it’s very to difficult to hear or even allow for positive change in your back. That change would go against your belief of your back. It can still happen but it’s much harder for it to occur when it has to fight that belief. This doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced pain in your back. But pain doesn’t mean your back is “bad.” That’s like telling a child they’re bad at math and then wondering why their grades don’t improve. How can your back improve if you keep telling yourself it’s bad?

And that’s where you need a lot of self-empathy. If you find it challenging to listen to yourself, to take care of yourself, if you’re not even sure what that means, then start with some compassion because that’s asking a lot. You need to reset. That’s the work I do. I help reset your body and your approach to life.

 

How does that strike you?