The Joy of Self-Caring

We’ve been sold on the idea that self-care means chocolates and bubble baths, but Cyndi Lee says real self-caring is a practice, not a treat.

Cyndi Lee5 November 2021
Illustrations by Pascal Lemaître.

Before everybody started talking about self-care, they talked about detoxing. Cleanses were the trend and many (if not most foods) were vilified. Daily emails arrived letting me know the many ways that I was toxic—food, air, relationships, inner dialogue. The programming director for a huge yoga conference told me that if I wanted my classes to sell out, I just had to put the word “detox” in the title.

This consumeristic approach to ancient yogic practices was accurate in some ways: a need had been identified and a solution proposed. We feel incomplete, unloved, inadequate, and definitely not fit enough. Being toxic might be our own making, but fortunately, we could easily purify ourselves by purchasing a juice cleanse. We could even purify ourselves this way daily, which was really good because it meant we could then continue our toxic ways. So as long as we kept detoxing, we could also keep toxing.

It seems to me that the purification trend has faded and evolved into the latest health directive —self-care. Now the daily emails tell me that I need to get more sleep, do restorative yoga, take time out to get together with a friend, do more barefoot walking on the grass, keep a gratitude journal. Actually, I think these are all really good ideas. But none of them is going to satisfy our dissatisfaction, reduce our craving, or relieve our suffering.

You might be right that your life is super stressful and you deserve a special treat now and then. But applying a materialistic approach to our pain, boredom, need for attention, or aching back is just a band-aid. The discomfort will cycle back up and then we will “do” another self-care activity, and then another when we feel bad again. The momentary relief of a pedicure is like a painkiller that works so well it discourages us from trying to remove the thorn in our foot that is causing our suffering. Besides, it’s our suffering that makes us feel deserving of the yummy self-care goodies.

What our suffering really deserves is compassion. This is what initially inspired me to take the bodhisattva vow. When my teacher, the late Gelek Rimpoche, introduced this concept to me, I was inspired by the idea that my life, my good efforts in practice, and my caring and compassion could be dedicated to the benefits of others.

Actually, Rimpoche didn’t say that. But that’s what I heard. For about twenty years. Then I finally woke up to what he really said, which is that a bodhisattva dedicates their practice for the benefit of all beings, and that includes me.

That was against the stream of what I grew up thinking, which was that good and nice people don’t put themselves first because it’s selfish. So when I first heard about self-care, I kind of thought, “Eewww.” It seemed icky. Like taking yourselves out for a date or something. Sad and lonely.

But sometimes, I am sad and lonely. And it’s nothing a bubble bath can fix because applying a band-aid is not the same as having a caring heart. As Reb Anderson writes in Being Upright, “All suffering is worthy of compassion.” That means that our own suffering too is worthy of our own compassion. Self-care might be a one-off event, but self-caring is a living practice that allows our innate capacity for caring to emerge and, even more, to ripen and increase.

As a yoga and Buddhist meditation teacher, when I talk about practice I’m usually referring to yoga asana or meditation or breath work. When we engage in these practices, we don’t say that we’re doing “self-yoga,” “self-meditation,” or “self-pranayama.” So when we think of “self-caring” as just “caring,” we are already moving toward a larger view of this practice, one that is for benefit of all beings, including ourselves.

How can we shift from the band-aid approach to a practice of self-caring? Even asking the question is a good start. The Tibetan word for practice is gom, which means “getting familiar.” The practice of self-caring is about getting familiar with the part of us that is naturally caring and getting familiar with what it feels like to apply that tenderness to ourselves.

Sometimes I think about how much I suffered when I was a dancer in my twenties. I saw myself in the mirror every day and I was never, ever good enough, thin enough, special enough. I was grumpy a lot of the time and all those drugs I did didn’t make me like myself better. Now that I am in my sixties, my heart breaks when I remember that young woman, and I vow to be kinder to myself. I don’t want to be that way to myself anymore because I don’t deserve it. I also know that when I am not caring to myself, I am more difficult to be around.

This is motivation. It is how we start all spiritual practices. You can say to yourself anytime, “I am going to cultivate my innate ability to be caring, for the benefit of all beings, including myself.” Or you can say, “I am going to get familiar with when I am uncaring toward myself and vow not to go there. I vow to grow my capacity for being a caring person.” If you like, you can place your hands over your chest and feel your heartbeat, as you say this.

Even if you don’t think you can do it or you label it as “magical thinking,” you can still say it because you’re getting familiar with opening to your own potential.
This is how you begin to move into tend and befriend. “Tending” is when you engage in nurturing activities and attitudes that help you feel safe and calm. “Befriending” means spending time with community and family—experiences that also support “tending.” By attending to yourself with kindness and being willing to take responsibility for your own caring, you are tending and befriending yourself. “Tend and befriend” increases the anti-stress hormone oxytocin, which lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and other stress responses. In other words, self-caring feels good.

“Tend and befriend” sets the ground for you to engage in the practices of self-caring, which are all ways of getting familiar with the two aspects of your nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

When a stressful situation arises, the sympathetic nervous system, which is connected to the spine, will respond by telling you to move now, via the fight or flight instruction. This response sends blood to the muscles, speeds up the heart, and slows down other functions that are not needed for running or fighting, such as digestion. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is close to the inner organs and tells each of them when to relax and quietly do their jobs. This is known as rest and digest.

We need both of these systems to be toned so that our nervous system can be nimble and go fast or slow, depending on the need. Unfortunately, most of us are already hyped up to a certain degree. So, I offer some short, simple, and powerful practices below that will stimulate the rest and digest response. Think of this as toggling between the active requirements of your life and the receptive moments that you choose—together they help you become more resilient through the gateway of your body.

The number one thing to remember is to do them. Like all such practices, it might be boring at first and you don’t always feel results right away. Without results, it’s hard to have faith in the process and you can lose your motivation. This is where you just have to trust the practice and look to the wisdom of great teachers. Like Gelek Rimpoche always said, “Drip, drip, drip, the bucket fills.” Being patient is also a way to practice self-caring.

5 Self-Caring Practices

As With any practice, begin by reviewing your motivation. This is a reminder that practice is not just about what you do, but also about how you do it, and that makes the difference. These practices help you touch into your capacity for caring and develop a sense of genuine closeness with yourself.

Savasana

In the yogic tradition, savasana is a way to let your body and mind rest at the end of a strong, active practice. Savasana is a Sanskrit word that means “corpse pose.” This practice is for letting go of our physical bodies. It is a good opportunity for generating thoughts of gratitude for one’s precious life.

Recently my ayurvedic doctor prescribed a daily savasana to me as a way to recover my energy after the stress of two surgeries. It made me happy to be reminded that something so easy was also so good for me. It nourishes and revives me, both mentally and physically. Savasana will also calm the brain, reduce fatigue, lower blood pressure, and relax your body.

Lie down on your back on your bed or on the floor. Place a small pillow or folded blanket under your head and neck, but not under your shoulders. Your legs are straight, feet as wide apart as your hips. Position your arms about twelve inches out from your sides, palms up. You can also place a pillow or blanket on top of your thighs. Close your eyes and rest for five to ten minutes.

If your legs are especially tired, do savasana with your calves up on a stack of two or three large pillows. Or you can lie on the floor with your lower legs and feet on the couch or a chair. This variation also helps invigorate stagnant lymph fluid.

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Grounding Touch

In this exercise, you are using your own hands to weight your body, which helps reduce anxiety and create a sense of calmness and stability.

Standing up or sitting in a chair, begin to gently rock side to side. Eventually let your weight settle firmly and evenly on your two feet. Place your right hand on your belly and left hand on the center of your chest. Tune in to the feeling of your breath, the sensation of warmth from your hand, and the strength and softness of your body. Take a few breaths between each of the following movements: place your right hand on your forehead, your left hand on your belly, then both hands on the center of your chest.

Finally, place your palms together and rub them, making some heat. Cup your warm hands over your face and let their warmth melt the tension in your face, eyes, and jaw.

Slide your hands down your face and all the way to the tops of your legs. Press gently on your thighs to enhance the downward-moving energy in the body called apana. Apana supports the immune system by promoting elimination of all that is not needed: physical waste, confusion, doubt, fear, or feeling lost.

Loving-kindness

Sit comfortably. Place your palms on the center of your chest. Close your eyes. Take a few moments to feel your natural breathing and the feeling of your hands on your body.
Then say each of these expressions of loving-kindness toward yourself:

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be safe.
May I live with ease.

After you recite each of these, notice what comes up in your mind. Whatever you notice is fine and interesting. This is another way of getting familiar with yourself, but it doesn’t mean every thought is true. If you get way off-track, repeat the phrase.
After noticing what comes up, take a big breath in, and as you exhale, let go of that phrase. Go on to the next one.

Gathering and Grounding Breath

This is a way to get out of your head and into your body. You can also do this during a challenging conversation or meeting or even while you are walking down the street.

Sitting or standing, find an upright posture. Close your eyes and tune into the feeling of your natural breath coming in and out. Slowly begin to lengthen your inhalation and extend your exhalation, just a little bit at a time. When you breathe in, imagine all the scattered parts of your mind collecting together in one spot at the edge of your nostrils. As you exhale, let that soft ball of energy drop down into your body, giving you a feeling of earthiness and stability. Repeat slowly as many times as you like.

Bedtime Foot Massage

Sit on your bed with some oil or lotion nearby. My favorite is arnica oil with lavender, as the arnica helps heal bruises and tender spots, and the lavender helps you relax. Put a little oil in your hand and start to rub circles around your ankle. Take your time moving down your Achilles tendon and around your heel. Use one hand to gently flex your toes back and, with the other hand, pull your heel away, stretching the sole of the foot. Interlace your fingers with your toes, as if you were holding hands with them, and slowly circle your foot in both directions, like winding up a toy. Finally, place your other hand over the top of the toe-holding hand and lightly squeeze.

Gently release your hands and place your feet together. You will see that one foot looks fresh and pink, flush with circulation. Time to do the other foot and then tuck yourself in for a nice sleep.

Each of these practices I’ve suggested is easy to do—they don’t require any equipment or expertise and can be done in less than five minutes. All of them integrate body, breath, and mind; they feel good while you are doing them; and when you finish, you will feel better than when you started.

Know that if you forget to practice, you can always make a fresh start. One January, I made a New Year’s resolution to do a daily restorative yoga pose for one month. I did it for two days, but on the third day I completely forgot. I didn’t remember it for the entire year, until the following January. Once I realized, I had a good laugh and then re-upped for the last year’s resolution. Anytime is a good time to cultivate a light heart and generosity toward oneself.

I also want to encourage you not to make a job out of this practice of self-caring. The idea is not that you must do one or more of these practices every day in order to succeed with self-caring. The idea is that these are all methods for helping you get close to yourself. When you pay kind attention to yourself, noticing when your breathing is too tight or your posture is too loose, you develop a thread of awareness around your own energetic habits. As you naturally become more familiar with what is actually nourishing for you, because it’s easy and it feels good, your self-caring practice will grow.

Cyndi Lee

Cyndi Lee

Founder of the world-renowned OM yoga Center in NYC (1998-2012), Cyndi is known for her contemplative classes and soulful teachings. She is the author of 5 books, including Yoga Body, Buddha Mind: A Complete Manual for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, and the New York Times critically acclaimed May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind. In 2019, she launched a new online course, “Taking Refuge In Your Body,” available from Lion’s Roar.