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Self-Care and the Spirit of Giving

by Jennifer Mattson

It goes without saying that the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can be a heightened and busy one. But that doesn’t mean that it can?t also be a time of committed self-care and generosity of spirit. In this piece, Jennifer Mattson, a writer and yogini who spent four months as a volunteer at Kripalu in 2002, talks with yoga teachers throughout the country about how they approach the holidays and shares reflections on the spirit of giving.

Avoiding the frenzy of the holiday season is sometimes easier said than done, but it is possible. Despite the inherent demands of these weeks, you can avoid running yourself ragged and instead develop your own alternatives to participating in over-the-top consumerism.

"For me the holidays are about being with family and my loved ones," says Natasha Rizopoulos, senior teacher at Yoga Works in Los Angeles, California. "In my family, we have guidelines about giving. Everyone gives one present. We call it ’One Box.’ I find nowadays that I have very few friends that I actually exchange gifts with. For me, I really try and downsize the aspect of literal giving and make it a time to gather with the people I really love."

Like yoga, the holidays are, at their core, an opportunity for connection—connecting with ourselves, with friends and family, in community, and as humans in relationship with the earth. This can occur in any number of ways: preparing a holiday feast, volunteering your time, going out of your way to help someone you might not otherwise help, walking in nature. The magic of the holiday season lies in the opportunity to say ?thank you? to everything and everyone.

Take Good Care

Self-care looks different for each of us. You will be both giving and receiving, and it’s important to be equally as generous with yourself as you are with others.

"The key is not to give yourself away completely," says Elliott McEldowney, a vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga teacher at O2 Yoga in the Boston area. "I think the solution is striking a balance between giving too much and conserving. If you give too much, rush around too much, create too many demands, that’s practicing violence against yourself."

This means taking good care of yourself first, and then tending to all the holiday things that need doing. Take time for an afternoon chai, go for a morning hike, sit down and read, take time out to watch a movie that inspires you, go to the gym for a sauna or a cathartic workout—whatever helps center you and bring you back to yourself. Enjoy yourself. Make this a holiday season when you only do things that bring you pleasure or find ways to make the more challenging aspects more pleasurable.

Dip into the ancient well of yoga for nourishment and self-care: practice loving-kindness, radical self-acceptance, unconditional positive regard for others, nonviolence, and other ways of being authentically present with yourself and others. For ongoing sustenance, some yogis work with a mantra or repetitive prayer, such as the Sanskrit chant "Om namah shivaya." Simply saying the word "peace" over and over, in rhythm with your breath, can soothe your soul in the middle of traffic, at the mall, or in a moment of stress or sadness anywhere.

Lending a Helping Hand

Georgia-based yoga studio and urban ashram Kashi Atlanta kicks into full gear with their "Street Meals" during the holidays. While the ashram gives back to the community year-round in a number of ways, including feeding the homeless, they make a special effort to practice karma yoga and seva, or selfless service, come December.

"We ask the whole community to give donations. Not just the yoga students but also the businesses in the area," says Jaya Devi Bhagavati, yoga teacher and executive director of Kashi Atlanta. "We make up 400 to 500 meal packages, and about 50 people distribute them to the homeless in shelters and parks and under bridges … volunteers come back to help year after year, and they say it’s because it helps them feel more heart-centered."

Kashi Atlanta celebrates the holidays with a big winter solstice party where students meditate on love, on bringing more light into the year, and on being connected. "We also do all the fun stuff like eat chocolate and Tofurky," says Jaya. "Being part of a spiritual community, we try not to let anyone be alone and always invite people to eat with us. We have a sense of community and caring, because it really does get rough during the holidays. It’s a time to open up and go beyond friends and family to caring about everyone."

Giving in a Good Way

Give from the Heart. Take a moment to sit down with a piece of paper and imagine the people you love. Close your eyes, smile, and ask yourself what this friend might really like. Is there something they’ve mentioned or that they’ve been eyeing for a while? What are their interests and passions? What do they need—a massage, a babysitter, books for school? Even if the perfect gift eludes you right now, you’ve opened the possibility for it to show up.

Give Simply. "We all get frantic at the holidays and part of it is that we live in a consumer culture," says Natasha from Yoga Works. "There is an intense culture of overstimulation that leads to overconsumption … people giving high-end things." You don?t need to buy something expensive to give a great gift. In fact, you don’t need to buy anything at all. Homemade presents like baked goods, jams, cards, and soaps speak volumes about your effort. Take a moment to think about what you like to give, what you are good at, and what you enjoy creating. Are you a baker or a craftsperson, or do you like to entertain? Yoga teachers, for example, can offer free classes for friends and the community.

Give yourself time. Try not to wait until the last minute to do your shopping. This is an oldie but goodie. Wrap up holiday shopping and gift making toward the beginning of the month, so you don’t get caught in the holiday rush. Elliott from O2 Yoga stays true to himself by doing his holiday shopping throughout the year. "I try not to shop from October to January because it makes me crazy." Instead, he has his eye out year-round for special items and just holds onto them. When Elliott moved homes in September, he moved with a box of already-wrapped gifts. This yogi finished his shopping a long time ago.

Don’t Forget to Rest

Natasha says her best holiday advice by far is to practice yoga with consistency. "It’s important to keep up your practice and, especially, to have a long Savasana. This time of year, I always see people skipping out before the end of class. More so than ever, it really is so crucial to get an even longer Savasana."

Remember, they call it a holiday for a reason—so practice rest and relaxation in between all the activity, and you’ll be more present to actually enjoy yourself.


Jennifer Mattson is a journalist, writer, and avid yogi. A former broadcast news producer for CNN and National Public Radio, her reporting and writing have appeared in USA Today, the Boston Globe, and the Women’s Times.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.