Self Care When The Winds Of Change Blow
I’ve been in a big time of transition lately with moving, traveling quite a bit for work, and some shifts in professional trajectory. While change can be exciting, it can also feel at times like the rug is being pulled out from under you! I am having the opportunity to practice finding balance in the midst of these big changes, and would like to offer some tips that have helped me, in hopes that they help you as well! Whether it’s one or more big life changes (like a move, a job, relationship, new baby, etc.), a gut feeling that something needs to change, or just the change in seasons…establishing some self care practices can keep you feeling centered and grounded as the winds of change gust around you.
In Ayurveda (more simply thought of as Indian traditional medicine), the onset of the Fall season, life changes, and travel can all increase qualities of Vata dosha, predominated by the air and ether elements. Even if you’ve never studied Ayurveda, you might have experienced this: you may feel more scatter-brained, easily fatigued, GI upset, cranky joints, maybe even some anxiety and insomnia. Establishing routine the best you can is very helpful in the face of change and even small routines can make a big difference. Don’t let lack of time get in your way – make time for self care – it’s important. Choose at least one (or maybe several) of these practices that you enjoy and work for you and commit to giving yourself that gift on a daily basis. Then, notice what changes for you and adjust accordingly!
Establish a bedtime routine for more restful sleep
More and more research is emerging which points to the importance of sleep for improved hormone balance and function, brain health, and healing and restoring your physical being on a daily basis. The idea of “sleep hygiene” has been around at least 10-15 years (1), and suggests things such as:
1. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
2. Get more vigorous exercise in the morning or afternoon rather than in the evening. See below for more about evening yoga.
3. Get adequate sunshine exposure during the day (this helps with your body’s natural rhythms as well as vitamin D levels).
4. Avoid large meals or food that might upset your stomach right before bed.
5. Save your bed for sleep and sex (rather than TV, computer or reading).
6. Shut off blue screen devices (computer, smart phone, TV) 1-2 hours before bed.
7. Avoid stressful activities before bed. A recent study showed women had higher levels of cortisol (a major stress hormone) when they didn’t have help with household tasks such as washing the dishes in the evenings. Ask for help or be ok with letting some tasks carry over to the next day.
8. Keep the temperature on the cool side of comfortable.
9. Keep the bedroom as dark and quiet as possible.
10. Establish a bedtime routine. Just like many children have a ritual of bathing and/or storytime before bed, adults need that routine as well! Sometimes it’s just as simple as taking a bath or washing your face and brushing your teeth. Including one or more of these following recommendations may seem more “decadent” but committing to one or more of these specific self care practices can make a world of difference in feeling balanced and grounded and getting more restorative sleep.
Evening Yoga Practice
For many of us, doing a strong vinyasa or power practice with lots of backbends in the evening is a recipe for fitful sleep. If the only time you can fit in your practice during the week is after work, consider saving strong backbends for your weekend practice and take the more restorative options during evening classes such as skipping Chaturanga-Up Dog and going straight to Down Dog, or taking periodic breaks in Child’s Pose or Vajrasana (thunderbolt or bum on feet). You can also develop a short personal yoga practice for before bed. Even something as simple as Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose) for 3-5 minutes can help your body get into the “Rest, Digest and Restore” mode of your parasympathetic nervous system (as opposed to the “Fight or Flight” of the sympathetic nervous system) and prepare for sleep.
Breathe Before Bed (Breathe more Period!)
As mentioned in my last post More Reasons to Breathe…, breathing has a great many health benefits, one of which being getting into that parasympathetic nervous system mode. Try the breathing exercise described in that post once you’re in bed before you fall asleep. It may be more grounding for some to try the exercise with a 5-10lb sandbag or a large textbook on your belly. Only use the weight if it helps you, not if it restricts your breathing to the point of making you work harder or feel anxious or uncomfortable.
Warm Oil Massage: Ayurvedic Abhyanga
Ayurveda claims many benefits of this self massage on a daily basis, including better sleep (3)! I’ve definitely experienced it myself. Also, using natural oils (preferably organic, unrefined) on the skin as moisturizer is non-toxic compared to the vast majority of commercial lotions available today. If you google “abhyanga” you can find a wide variety of instructions and tutorials. Here are some simple instructions to get you started.
Find a squeezable bottle for your oil – the empty travel size bottles available at most drug stores work perfectly. Sesame oil is fantastic for its warming qualities and great for balancing Vata. Coconut oil is also a great choice. Place your squeeze bottle in a small pot or mug of hot water to warm it up. This feels nice and helps it flow easier to spread on the skin. Sometimes adding essential oils during this routine can provide more specific benefits (as well as just smelling lovely!)
Find a warm place so you don’t get cold, and use a towel you wouldn’t mind having a hard time washing the oil out of to sit on and wipe yourself off afterward. Keep some socks nearby as sometimes the oil on your feet makes walking a bit slick when you’re done. You may want to take a warm shower afterward, or simply put your PJs on and go straight to bed.
Massage yourself lovingly without rushing from the outside toward the center of the body in long strokes, with circular motions around the joints. You don’t have to do anything fancy to get some of the grounding benefits. To get additional benefit of moving lymph, spend a bit more in the areas lymph nodes: moving from the chin to the collar bone, then circular motions in the armpit and groin. Start and finish in these areas to “open the floodgates” for your body’s waste products to exit. To improve motility in the gut, massage in a clockwise fashion around the belly, even getting up under your ribcage.
Skin Dry Brushing
This is another routine that can help provide relaxation, promote lymphatic drainage, and provide some cosmetic benefits as well. Use a natural bristle brush on dry skin in a similar pattern as described for the Abhyanga. There are also more detailed instructions all over the internet with one example linked below (4). If you choose to do both, do the dry brushing first, followed by Abhyanga then shower.
This is especially helpful if one of the reasons you have trouble falling asleep is thoughts racing through your head. Some methods such as The Artist’s Way (5) recommend journaling 3 pages every morning. This can be highly effective when done consistently. Sometimes, however, writing just a bit before bed can help you release ruminating thoughts and fall asleep faster. Some people are understandably intimidated by writing, so try one of these ideas.
Write your priorities or to-do list for tomorrow. If what’s running through your head at bedtime is all the things you have to get done tomorrow, writing them down can help your brain let go of having to remember what needs to get done.
Write down your concerns. Write whatever comes into your head about what worries or concerns you. This can be a form of prayer – as you write these concerns, release them from your control and allow your higher power to take care of them for you! I recently had a patient who said there is so much to pray for that she gets anxiety at night when saying her prayers because she couldn’t simply have time to pray for everything. The solution we came up with together is that she would write her prayers for 1-3 things each night before bed, and release them as she goes. That way she can continue to pray for other things as they come up in her life but not feel so overwhelmed by the huge list!
Write down your joys or what you’re grateful for. There’s a growing movement of making gratitude a daily practice to bring more joy into your life and this makes a wonderful, quick writing exercise before bed. Choose at least 1, or maybe 3-5 somethings or someones you are grateful for and write them down. If you can’t think of anything or anyone, pick anything even if it seems small or humorous to you. Or, if you’re really stuck, choose something in a close friend of family member’s life to be grateful for.
Earthing (also known as grounding), has been shown (6) to help get into parasympathetic nervous system mode, decrease time to fall asleep, increase quality of sleep, increase feeling rested upon waking, decrease muscle stiffness and pain, decrease chronic back and/or joint pain, and improve sense of general well-being. The easiest way to “earth” is to walk barefoot in the grass or sand. You can also take a meditative seat outdoors or under a large tree. We intuitively know being close to nature is restorative, now there’s research to support it as well!
Choose Foods that Nourish and Help you Feel Your Best
Those times when life is pulling us in many different directions can unfortunately be the times we’re pulled away from healthy eating habits toward lots of meals out, or sweet or crunchy snacks. This is when it matters most to choose foods based on the ones that give you sustainable energy and vitality, rather than whatever you find in the pantry or drive-through. Choosing meals and snacks with a nourishing balance of protein, fat and fiber can help sustain energy longer than crash-inducing carb-only snacks. Ayurveda also recommends using warm spices and warm temperatures when your Vata is high.
Choose Your Own
What can you do for yourself that makes you feel calm, centered, focused? Is it wrapping in heavy, warm blankets? Drinking warm herbal teas? Getting good hugs? Listening to soothing music such as classical or chanting? Spending time in nature? A slow pleasurable dining experience with your family? Doing something creative?
Reprinted with permission from asanaintelligence.com
Stefanie Foster, PT, FAAOMPT, PYT, WHNC is a licensed physical therapist passionate about teaching clients long-term solutions for self-care through a model which can be carried over as a lifestyle. Her philosophy is that if you are doing something you enjoy, you are more likely to integrate it into everyday life. She believes yoga allows her to educate clients and patients on asana with intelligence.
Sleep Hygiene: Tips & Techniques. Michael Thorpy, MD, National Sleep Foundation, http://sleepfoundation.org/ask-the-expert/sleep-hygiene
More Reasons to Breathe… Stefanie Foster, http://www.asanaintelligence.com/blog/more-reasons-to-breathe
Ayurvedic Oil Massage Self-Massage; Abhyanga http://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/blog-the-banyan-insight/details/ayurvedic-oil-massage-self-massage-abhyanga
The Correct Way to Skin Brush https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZfMhXsjXeQ
Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons. Gae ́tan Chevalier, et. al 2012. Journal of Environmental and Public Health