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The Yoga of Self-Love: How to Treat Yourself During the Holidays

by Rachel Schaeffer

In the season of joy and giving, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of giving to others while we neglect ourselves, turning the season into one of overwhelm and stress. Self-nurturing falls to the bottom of our to-do list, which can result in both personal suffering and the distress of those around us. Writer and yoga teacher Rachel Schaeffer shares how she learned self-love through the practice of yoga and how we might use it to re-create this holiday—and move loving ourselves to the top of our list.

During times of extreme stress and difficulty, we often abandon the very thing that we need the most, at least it’s been that way for me. It seems like no matter how good it feels to treat ourselves with great care, we resist pleasure. We keep our love at arm’s length, and engage in the not-so-sexy behavior of self-abandonment. Self-love involves commitment to oneself. At various stages in my 41 years, I’ve chosen to escape, lose touch, and wallow in my own silly drama. I left yoga behind when I was struggling with miscarriage. I ignored it much of the time I was enduring a divorce. I even resisted yoga when I was writing a book on yoga! Like a spoiled child, I screamed “No!” and ran wildly in the opposite direction of self-love. But knowing that no one can ever love myself as well as I can, I always return to yoga and give it another try.

There are many paths to self-love. My first brush with my own inner divinity occurred when I discovered yoga. When you do yoga, you make space. Space to breathe, space for your organs to function more efficiently and effectively, space to feel, and, mainly, space to love. Space to love and breathe into whatever is happening in your life and space to remember that you are enough—exactly as you are. This love is the foundation of a good solid relationship with oneself.

In 1998, my first book hit the shelves. I developed adrenal exhaustion after the book tour. Forgetful, I looked outside of myself for help and even took a seven-hour road trip to an alternative healer. I returned with bottles of pills, tinctures, and drops. Timing my “healing” became a full-time job and exhausted me further.

I called my dear friend Dr. Jeff Migdow, who has had a long association with Kripalu. His advice was to flush everything down the toilet and to “do what you know how to do.” Both nervous and relieved, I sat in my yoga room feeling unable to do much of anything. I put on some beautiful music and remembered the very thing I love most about yoga. More than anything, I love Stage III of Kripalu Yoga, known as meditation in motion.

I moved into a gentle version of Bow Pose, laying on my belly and grabbing both ankles behind me in a heart-opening backbend. I breathed into it and held it for as long as my body was able (not very long compared with healthier days). When my body felt ready, I released the pose slowly and began to unwind my body in whatever ways it wanted to go. I allowed my body to surrender to movement. I cried, laughed out loud, and simply listened to the conversation my body wanted to have through movement. I unraveled the knots of repressed emotion for as long as my body wanted to move.

Then I rested in Child’s Pose. For the first time in nine months, I felt my life energy again. I was back—from months when getting up to go to the bathroom or boil an egg felt like arduous mountain climbing.

Sometimes we must forget in order to remember. Fast forward another decade. The week I was writing the outline for this article, one of my best friends from high school lost his 15-year-old son. I was depressed, felt heartsick and nervous. My mother reminded me to do the obvious—yoga. I decided to hold Bow Pose again, for old time’s sake.

As I held the pose, I could feel the unraveling, the unleashing of raw emotion. Gentle tears led to heaving sobs. As a yoga teacher, I know to “get out of my mind” and stay in my body, not to try to figure it out. The five minutes that I had allowed myself became nearly twenty. I flashed on a series of losses, from my friend’s beautiful son to my heartache about my failed marriage to sadness that felt so old and deep that it did not have a name. I moved until my body rested in stillness. Our emotions are often mirrored in our breath and I could feel my formerly erratic breathing settling itself into a fine, steady rhythm. I had returned to a state of peace. When we finally do that which we have been resisting, we discover the treasures of who we really are—the very best gift we could ever receive.

Things to Try

1. Inner Smile
This exercise sounds corny, but it actually works! I got the following advice from Kripalu’s Megha Nancy Buttenheim: “Turn up the corners of your mouth.” Smiling is the simplest form of self-care—especially when you flash it at yourself. Now harness your mental energy and send this loving smile to any part of you that feels tight, stressed, or uncomfortable. Breathe normally and imagine a waterfall of smiles cascading down onto this part of your body—whether it’s an aching muscle, an overwhelmed mind, or a suffering heart. Imagine the energy of joy flooding this whole area. Pause to notice how you feel.

2. Sun Breaths
In acknowledgment of every month you have lived and breathed this year, do 12 Sun Breaths. They’re simple, invigorating, and life affirming.

Stand tall and proud like you are wearing a superhero cape. Come into Mountain Pose: Place your feet directly under your hip bones—the two bones on the front of your pelvis. Tuck your tailbone slightly and lift your thighs away from your knees. Lengthen your torso up and out of your waist. Descend your shoulders down your back as you lift your arms overhead, palms facing each other. Open your heart and imagine you could shine the light from your heart up to the sky.

One cycle: Exhale slowly, preferably through your nose, as you turn your palms to face down. Continue to exhale fully until your palms reach the sides of your body. Inhale through your nose your arms palms up until your hands meet overhead. Repeat 11 times, maintaining loving attention on your breath and movement. Pause to notice how you feel.

3. Meditation in Motion
Find a quiet space with room to move freely. Play music that you love. Hold Mountain Pose (see above), breathing more deeply as the sensations increase. This is a very safe pose, so allow yourself to go beyond the limits of your mind. Repeat each of the steps of Mountain Pose to realign yourself. When your body signals you, begin to release as if in slow motion. Enjoy the sensual pleasure of moving. Remain open not only to how you want to unravel but also to any emotional release that may occur—perhaps tears or laughter. Let it wash over you like waves on the ocean, without judgment. When welcomed, emotions often move through us quickly, creating a space through which calmness, balance, and love can flow. When your body (not your mind) is complete, return to stillness. Pause to take in the full experience.

The more we take the time to develop a relationship with ourselves, the more solid that love affair will be. Each time I recommit to myself and devote even 10 minutes to my yoga practice, it feels like a gift I am giving to myself. After numerous “breakups,” I am learning that no one deserves my love or “presents” more.

I invite you to reexamine what brings you pleasure and even if you don’t exactly FEEL like it, to nurture yourself for just 10 minutes. Bring yourself to the top of your holiday list by celebrating the privilege of being alive.


Rachel Schaeffer is the award-winning author of Yoga for Your Spiritual Muscles and was the past yoga editor for Natural Health magazine. She is writing a new book on self-love and self-care for women—she welcomes your inspiring stories. She can be contacted at rachel.schaeffer@gmail.com.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.