Patrick (not his real name) is a student in my Monday after-work yoga class. He’s an earnest guy, hardworking and devoted to his family, just a genuinely nice man with a humble demeanor and ready smile. He’s always expressed great interest in all elements of yoga; he wants to learn about meditation, the chakras, the Yoga Sutras, everything. His curiosity and willingness to try new things inspire me to be a better teacher.
This class is for fellow employees of the corporation where I spend a large chunk of my waking life. It’s an intense, demanding environment, and because of the product we manufacture, perfection is considered a completely reasonable expectation. My goal for this particular group of students is to undo what the workday does to them – they arrive barely breathing with their shoulders tucked under their ears. I know how it is; I work there, too. So, before we begin, I always ask whether anyone has any aches, pains or psychoses we should address in class.
Patrick, like so many other people, struggles with back pain, but at first he didn’t talk about it. When he first joined the class, he refused to let his back get in the way of his practice. He embraced every asana, determined to master them. When we sat on the floor for meditation, his tight hips troubled him, but he assumed the cross-legged position anyway. However, after a while I noticed a change: Patrick began to practically limp into class, wincing with pain. In true overachiever fashion, he would soldier through class anyway, always gung-ho to do the most challenging poses possible.
Once when my back was turned he kicked his leg up into Half Moon Pose, a challenging asana that involves balancing on one leg and bending sideways to place a hand on the floor while lifting the opposite leg parallel to the floor. It’s a really fun pose that makes you feel like you can leap tall buildings, and I teach modifications to make it more accessible to my students. Patrick chose to perform the more difficult variation, which was very bad news for his back. His drive, so essential in his work, was detrimental to his wellbeing.
This event caused Patrick to confess that he had been working tirelessly on renovations to his home to make it ready for his elderly mother who was coming to live with him. Her advanced age and declining health had made it too difficult for her to continue to live alone, so Patrick had been spending his weekends moving furniture, painting, building, improving – and this strenuous work had taken its toll on his back, especially when the Mr. Fix-It weekend was followed by ten hours sitting at a desk the next day. He agreed to my suggestions for modifications in yoga but was resolute about his home improvement projects. And so, no matter how gentle or therapeutic Monday’s yoga class may be, it is not enough to counter the abuse inflicted the weekend before. At least I can keep an eye on him during class to make sure he doesn’t overdo it on my watch.
I think a lot of us are just like Patrick. At least, I know I am. I woke up yesterday morning with a whopping migraine, the kind that amplifies every sound, nauseates me and distorts my view of the world – everything is too bright and a little bit blurry. There was a time when I had these nightmare headaches for days on end, week after week, but mercifully it’s been much better lately. Now I only get one every month or so, with much less severity. Until yesterday.
I might have seen it coming. My job has been hectic and exhausting lately. Travel always wears me out, and over the last three months I’ve visited eight cities. My sleep schedule and normally healthy diet have gone out the window, and my usually regular yoga practice has spent some time out the window, too. And of course, the holiday rush has added its own dimension to the insanity. Yoga teacher that I am, you might expect me to know exactly how to nurture myself when I am fatigued to this degree.
You would be wrong. Well, not exactly wrong; I know how to take care of myself. The problem is that I, like my friend Patrick, don’t always do it. I’ll admit that when I am feeling depleted, I often choose to run on fumes rather than refuel. After all, the whole world would implode if I took a day off.
Some nights I crawl through my front door, drop my bag and collapse on the sofa, swimming in fatigue so heavy that even my hair is tired. But five minutes later, I’m in the kitchen throwing dinner together, feeding the dogs, opening the mail and running a load of laundry at the same time.
Don’t be impressed. This characteristic is not a good thing.
I’m not sure how I became such a martyr, except that I come from an impressive line of long-suffering Sicilian women. Plus most of my schoolteachers were nuns. In any case, I find it easy to talk to my students about self-care but hard to practice it myself. Our driven, competitive, achievement-oriented society seems to reward this kind of behavior, and it isn’t doing us any good.
Think about it. Most people would never treat a friend the way they treat their own bodies. You’re tired? You’re hungry? Too bad – keep going! Say that to a friend and you won’t have that friend for long. But we do it to ourselves all the time.
Well, I’m learning that my body won’t stand for that nonsense too long. It rebels. If I ignore the signals it gives me by pushing through headaches, working when I’m sick, etc., my body retaliates by shutting down and forcing me to rest. That’s what happened yesterday with the monster migraine. I was pretty much down for the count and had no choice but to give in. Not surprisingly, I feel better today.
And here’s the yoga lesson for today. Ahimsa is the first of the five principles of yama, which are yoga’s ethical precepts. It’s a Sanskrit word that means non-violence. I am continually fascinated by the similarities in the world’s religions. Right living is the same in any language and whatever your conception of God.
Anyway, the concept of ahimsa is often a new yogi’s introduction to this side of yoga. It usually comes up when discussing vegetarianism as many yoga practitioners choose to abstain from meat for compassionate reasons, but diet is not the only ahimsa application. It’s choosing kindness toward all beings, even the ones that get on your nerves. It’s treating things gently – slamming doors is not a demonstration of ahimsa.
Beating yourself up, physically or emotionally, is violence toward oneself. If we cannot treat ourselves with kindness, how can we extend it to anyone else?
Whatever you might be tackling right now, whether it’s housework, studying, shopping or anything else that feels like work – pause. Bring your full awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply and notice the way cool air flows into your nostrils and warm air flows out. Allow your abdomen to expand with each inhale, and as you exhale, try to exhale a little more slowly, more completely. Imagine that every inhale fills your body with soft healing light, and every exhale sweeps away all tension, pain and worry. Continue this breath for a few minutes and notice the immediate response of your nervous system.
Slow down. Close your eyes and allow your shoulders to lower and your shoulder blades to slide down your back. Feel happy to be alive, right now, in this moment. Soften your jaw and that little line between your eyebrows and think about what you could do for yourself that would bring you peace. Maybe it’s indulging in a long soak in the tub, lighting candles or listening to soft music – or all three. (That’s what I’m going to do.) Add this pleasurable activity to your to-do list and do it today. It is every bit as important as all those other tasks on your list, possibly more important. You are not a machine. And even if you were, all machines need maintenance sometimes.
Know that by taking care of yourself, you take care of everyone else in your life because you have more to give. Find the peace within and it always radiates outward. It can’t be contained.
OM Shanthi. Peace.