The Essential Art of Self-Care

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is racing wildly and eagerly, and it appears that the man on its back is going somewhere very important. Standing alongside the road, a person witnessing the hurried event shouts, “Hey! Where are you going?” The man on the horse shrugs his shoulders and replies, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

This is the story for so many of us. We often don’t know where we are or where we are going, and just can’t stop the doing, the rushing, and the busyness until a major life event, often illness, stops the horse of our habits from going and going and going and giving and giving. On that ride, we often disconnect with self-care and habitually put ourselves at the bottom of our list. 

The definition of care is concern, attention, to keep an eye on. Self is defined as being, essence, mind, body, soul, spirit, inner self. Therefore, self-care may be defined as paying attention—being attentive and concerned for our whole being: body, mind, heart, and soul. 

Why is self-care so out of reach and foreign for many of us, despite being vitally important for our health and happiness? Perhaps it is simply a misunderstanding, an idea that self-care is selfish and indulgent, combined with a sense of doubt about how much we deserve our own kindness and care.

Years ago, I attended a program at Kripalu in which we spent five days paying attention to our energy levels and our stress levels, to how we felt after yoga, after a walk, after journaling. I had never given myself so much time, so much care and attention. I opened and began to feel what was present; I began to feel my body, my heart, and my energy. My perspective was shifting and changing. My body was waking up and I was waking up to my body. This was truly my first experience of mindfulness. Time slowed down, I slowed down, my mind slowed down. I experienced calmness and a kind connection to myself and the world that I can only describe as one of the greatest gifts that I have ever received. This gift of mindfulness, care, and loving-kindness changed my entire life and set my course on the path of love, compassion, and awareness.

My self-care rituals took a sharp turn in 2005, when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My life fell apart. My identity and work as a successful yoga teacher was shattered. My wild ride on my horse came to a screeching, dusty halt in a place of uncertainty. My rituals of yoga, mindfulness, walks, nourishing food, massages, that I had had so neatly in place for years, no longer fit into this new life of healing. For the entire year, I was bombarded with surgeries, chemo, and radiation, facing death. My whole being was intent on healing and I had no choice but to create new rituals of self-care that fit my energy levels. I embraced little moments, micro-moments of nourishment. Simple acts every morning became the lifeline to my heart: lighting a candle and affirming my health; feeding the birds on my back porch; combing my cats; sketching the trees; daily walks in the middle of January, no matter how little energy I had; inspirational readings from Pema Chödrön. And, just as important, perhaps, was spreading the loving-kindness that I had for myself to my doctors and nurses. I kept smiling and believing that all was well.

I am now a 13-year survivor and I am still reminding myself of the importance of my own safekeeping. It is a lifelong learning process that requires a gentle and kind watchfulness of self. Self-care demands many internal shifts and breaking of habits of unworthiness, including

  • Shifting your power from over-giving to others, to balanced giving to yourself
  • Shifting your attention from excessive externalization of your energy to introspection and paying attention to your inner world
  • Shifting your awareness to what is here and now in this present moment.

We each need to find the right expression, the right ritual, and the right time for our individual self-care, so that we may continue to grow happier and healthier—for ourselves, for our children, and for the planet.

Find out about upcoming programs with Rebecca Kronlage at Kripalu.

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