yoga

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5 Unexpected Ways to Practise Self Care

When you think about self-care you might think of pricey spa days, holidays, and the sort of indulgences that many of us either can’t afford or just don’t have time for in our busy lives. While there is certainly nothing wrong with a bit of pampering you may be surprised to read that relieving stress can be as simple, and inexpensive, as shrugging your shoulders.

Here are five ways you can practise self-care that might surprise you.

  1. Have a good cry – Cultural and societal attitudes towards crying often mean we gulp back our emotions when in fact you’d be better served by letting it all out, snots and all. As tears flow, adrenaline levels drop allowing the body to relax. Hormones build up to a high level when the body experiences emotional strain, so crying helps to ensure that these toxins don’t build up and weaken your immune system.
  2. Shrug your shoulders – Studies show that increased mental workload directly results in physical tension in the arm and shoulders. So, paying attention to easing the tension in your shoulders could help to combat emotional strain. What to do: with an inhale, lift your shoulders to your ears, exhale and draw your shoulders down and back, guiding the shoulder blades towards each other and downwards.
  3. Yawn – Emotions like anger and stress can cause clenching of the jaw and muscles around the mouth. By releasing the jaw with a big open-mouthed yawn or sigh, you enable the release of this built-up tension. If you’re in the privacy of your own home, or you don’t mind looking just a little bit batshit in the name of stress-busting, you could practise the yogic breath exercise, Lion’s Breath, which helps to relieve tension in both the face and chest.
  4. Express your anger – Anger is an emotion that many of us don’t feel entitled to express. As a result, the anger gets pushed down inside the body and turned in on ourselves. This can have a number of knock on effects for our health, from high blood pressure to depression and anxiety. Many people feel like anger is ‘bad’, whereas, in reality it is an important emotional reaction, signalling to ourselves that something is wrong and needs to be corrected. While this isn’t a green light to scream at everybody who tries your patience, acknowledging, accepting and communicating this emotion can help us to better understand ourselves, and be better understood by others.
  5. Eat dark chocolate – While most of us are aware that eating several bars of chocolate in one sitting isn’t always the best idea, there is some evidence that dark chocolate has a natural calming effect one to two hours after eating it. A Swiss study in 2009 found that people who ate 40g of dark chocolate a day over two weeks had reduced cortisol levels, our natural stress hormone. Prebiotic yogurt could be another stress-busting option. The jury is still out on this one, but some studies suggest that prebiotic bacteria can lower levels of stress and anxiety.

You can also find my blogs at huffingtonpost.co.uk/author/miriam-christie

7 Steps To Self Care

Eighteen months ago the term ‘self care’ was alien to me. It sounded like hospital euphemism for politely sending your patients home to die.

Giving yourself a break just wasn’t the done thing in my circles, particularly in the workplace. Stress knocked at the door constantly but I resolutely refused to answer. So – in an environment where crying seemed weak and admitting to stress was more a badge of honour than an explanation accompanying a sick note – stress found its escape routes in the form of unshakable colds, irritability, sleeplessness and an impromptu breakdown in the dairy isle of Sainsbury’s (I still day-dream about going back to explain that their lack of pineapple cottage cheese really wasn’t that much of a biggie).

Back then I would have confused ‘self-care’ with the sort of dogma you hear on American TV shows that tell you to ‘look out for number one’. It would have seemed somehow selfish. And that’s certainly one thing women are not supposed to be.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve discovered that in reality looking after yourself is far from a selfish act. It’s not about spa days, big holidays or pulling a sickie from work – although there is definitely a role for all of these things. It’s about slowing down, listening to what your body is telling you and trusting it to steer you right. It might sound easy, but, when your default reaction is to shut out your body’s cries for attention, believe me it can be a challenge.

Meeting my needs – and in fact taking some time out to actually explore what they were – has helped me to be a better friend, partner, sister, daughter, colleague, student, Sainsbury’s-shopper… you get the picture. So it’s a pleasure and a mini victory to be able to share with you some of my self care saviours to mark Self Care Week.

What this isn’t is a definitive ‘top ten’ list that everyone should follow. Everybody finds solace in different things. If meditation feels more like a ‘should’ than a joy, that’s okay. You don’t have to (and can’t) win at relaxing! These are just a few things that work for me. What works for you will be different, and I’d encourage you to take some time this week to create your own go-to self care practice.

Let me know what you think and share what works for you in the blog comments underneath or at my Facebook page.

  1. Practising Yoga – Fast paced, or slow and meditative depending on my mood. Yoga challenges me, brings focus and calm, and helps my mind to make better friends with my body.
  2. Getting a massage – There’s a reason massage is often referred to as physical therapy. For me, it’s a way to express care for my whole self. It helps me to be mindful of aches and pains, and being given the space to say nothing for an hour is utter heaven.
  3. Going for a walk – Being outside, especially in nature, blows the cobwebs away and helps me to get the day’s challenges in perspective.
  4. Talking to friends and family – Talking to someone who knows me warts and all, whether it’s to have a laugh, vent or cry, never fails to comfort me and lift my spirits.
  5. Trash TV – New Girl, Great British Bake Off, The Good Wife, Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Okay, I may have said too much already…
  6. Reading fiction – Now that I’ve gone back to study to retrain as a counsellor I sometimes find myself feeling guilty if I pick up a book that isn’t on the reading list, but reading for pleasure is something that both relaxes and renews me so is well worth making time for.
  7. Jogging – Slowly, badly and listening to 90s dance music.

This blog has also been published by the Huffington Post.

Find Your Own Mould With Yoga

My knees felt super sore in Yin Yoga today. I looked around me and everyone else seemed fine, all folded over in Pigeon Pose as if their legs had no bones whatsoever. And I wanted to be like them. I thought, I should be able to do this, no problem, shouldn’t I? After all, I teach Yoga so how embarrassing would it be not to be able to perform a beautiful Eka Pada Rajakapotasana? What would that say about me? Am I a fake? An imposter at Yoga. I carried on moving through the sequence with my fellow yogis, while my knees told me something was wrong.

My Dad has recently had a knee replacement and is about to have op number two, and my uncle has alignment problems with his knees – once being told he could end up in a wheelchair. They have both learned the hard way how important it is to look after your knees. It seems I’m definitely a Daddy’s girl when it comes to knees – thanks Dad. Tight tendons with a tendency to lock painfully, and inconveniently, in cinemas, on car journeys and long-haul flights.

I think about this, and my frustration with my rebel knees melts into the mat. I feel a sense of softening and care fill its place. I lift up on to my forearms, to my palms, and ease the pressure with a sigh that could have been released directly from my grateful knees to my windpipe.

Nobody pays me any attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the woman next to me lift onto her hands too. It feels good to find my own mould within this asana, away from those feelings of should and must, and the pull to look the same as everybody else.

It’s only as we unfurl into savasana that my mind settles upon the realisation that Pigeon Pose, plus my knees, taught me a valuable lesson today about how to live my life.

Are your knees trying to tell you something? Here is a modification for Pigeon to allow you to find your mould, your way.

Upside Down Pigeon

  • Begin lying on your back with one knee bent
  • Gently bring the other knee towards your chest and carefully place the ankle of the lifted leg over your knee
  • Reach your hands either side of the grounded leg and clasp the back of the thigh or front of the shin (you could use a small towel or strap to help with this)
  • Keep your head and shoulders on the ground
  • Slowly draw your grounded leg in towards your body until you feel a deep stretch in your floating hip and buttock.
  • Breathe deeply and focus on relaxing into the stretch
  • To get a deeper stretch, try to open your floating knee away from your body as you draw the other leg closer.

What I’ve Learned From Practising Yoga Imperfectly

I’m a born worrier, perfectionist and control freak. This is not something you’d expect to – or want to – hear from from a Yoga instructor, I’m sure. They say awareness is key, don’t they?..

Some of these characteristics can actually have a use. They make sure I never miss a flight – although my husband might argue about the necessity of turning up two hours ahead of check in. And they’re partly responsible for my avid, verging on nerdy, attention to perfecting postures during training for my Pilates and Yoga qualifications back in the day. These coping mechanisms have have kept me feeling safe when life has felt scary or out of control, but they have a pesky way of zipping in your deeper fears, while you’re focused on keeping the day to day gremlins out.

I came back to Yoga, experiencing burnout, as a way to quiet my anxious mind, boost my low mood and relax tense muscles. It did that, and so much more. Yoga taught me to let in some acceptance for myself, physically and emotionally. To smile when my tree pose is shaky and to notice, with kindness, if my chest is carrying a tell-tale ball of stress.

I recently took part in a beautiful Yoga class, led by Emma Peel at Yoga Rise in Peckham. Emma was guiding us through a wonderfully meditative Yin Yoga class and I found myself preoccupied with achieving the perfect Bridge pose. Were my hips completely symmetrical? Were my heels close enough to my sitting bones? I was completely missing this perfectly imperfect moment. Lost in my need to get it ‘right’, her words cut through, as if she could read the chatter of my monkey mind: “There is no perfect asana.” And she’s right. There is no perfect asana. There is only the shape that feels right for you in that moment. The asana that allows you to be really awake in your present experience.* The asana that is good enough – just as we are always good enough.

Ironically, just as the paradoxical theory of change would have it, this freedom to do things imperfectly on the Yoga mat, to let go of my worries about getting everything ‘right’, enabled me to develop my practice further than I could ever have imagined at the time. And it’s a lesson that has travelled with me off the mat and into other areas of my life. It helped me to grow past the causes of my burnout and recreate life, with a more adventurous spirit. A tight-fitting safety-jacket of perfectionism can be tough to unzip, but I can definitely tell you that wriggling out of it gives you so much more freedom of movement.

*as long as its safe (I’m still teacher after all!)

Calm an anxious mind and alleviate stress with Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge pose)

  • Lying on your back, bend both knees and place the feet flat on the floor hip width apart. Slide the arms alongside the body with the palms facing down.

  • Press the feet into the floor, inhale and lift the hips up, rolling the spine off the floor. Lightly squeeze the knees together to keep the knees hip width apart.

  • Press down into the arms and shoulders to lift the chest up. Engage the legs, buttocks and mula bandha to lift the hips higher.

  • Breathe and hold for 4-8 breaths.

  • To release: exhale and slowly roll the spine back to the floor.

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