This work of loving ourselves is constant. It’s not like we can say “I did a week-long retreat of reflection and now I’m going to love myself forever and always.” Why is self-acceptance and self-compassion so hard? Even if we are naturally compassionate people, and even if we think we are good at showing compassion towards others, we often fail miserably when it comes to taking care of ourselves. As coaches, especially, we always take care of others first and don’t notice that our cups need filling until it’s too late.
There are lots of ways to show compassion towards ourselves. The little words we say, a smile in the mirror, and offering ourselves grace when we make a mistake are all part of self-love. Compassion towards ourselves can be hard to choose in a heated moment when we are tired, though. After all, we are conditioned to be tough.
Little snippets of comfort such as an occasional glass of wine or a bit of chocolate are easier to choose and are good, as long as we don’t rely on them as our only self-care strategy.
Other healthy forms of self-care that require planning and commitment are treats like taking a walk in nature, indulging in a favorite movie or book, sweating in a spin class, or having dinner with friends (after COVID). In our modern society and fastpaced sport, it can seem like a luxury to dedicate 60-90 minutes to self-care. In fact, sometimes even fitting in 15 minutes feels like a struggle.
What to do, then? We know that we need to take better care of ourselves, yet our time and mental energy is limited. Studies have consistently shown that a three-pronged approach to yoga, which includes meditation, breathwork, and asana (postures), helps lower stress and anxiety and improves our overall health. Why not begin today? Below are some simple self-care strategies based on this three-pronged approach that coaches can implement in just three short sessions of five minutes each.
Sit in quiet for five minutes at the start of each day to create more space between your thoughts and allow for clearer thinking. Find a comfortable spot either on the floor or in a chair where you won’t be disturbed. Turn off the ringer and set a timer on your phone. Sit just straight up enough that you can breathe fully. If you have back discomfort, you can place a small pillow at your lumbar curve to offer support. Once settled, begin to slow your breath. I like to count to three or four on every inhale and exhale to help slow the heart rate. Gently close your eyes, continue breathing evenly. After a few rounds of this breath, allow your mind to drift from the breath. Let your thoughts come and go, imagining them floating by on fluffy white clouds. If you don’t enjoy the clouds, try imagining your thoughts filling up a blackboard or whiteboard and then erasing them.
If you prefer not to sit with your thoughts just yet, then you may repeat an affirmation that you like, such as “I love myself unconditionally.”
Once the timer goes off, take a couple of deep breaths, become aware of the space around you again, and gently open the eyes. Take a stretch as if just waking up for the day, and slowly stand up. Notice how you may feel a little lighter and have more mental clarity for the start of the day. This is also a good strategy to practice in the car right before you go into the rink!
Count your breaths to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This strategy really is as simple as it sounds. Right before you drive away from the rink, or when you’re parked in the car-pool line or at a stoplight, or before you go into the house when you arrive home, count each breath—one count per inhale and one per exhale up to six, and then start over. There’s no need to breathe in any special way—just breathe normally.
If you notice your mind wandering, do not judge yourself... just gently bring your attention back to the breath.
If you find this exercise simple, increase your limit to eight or ten, and try to make the exhale slightly longer than the inhale. A lengthened exhale is an excellent way to work the vagus nerve, slow the breath, and calm the mind. Don’t strain the breathing, though—it should feel smooth and full, but not difficult. If you begin to feel lightheaded or short of breath, then stop the practice immediately and breathe normally. Start with five minutes, and once you get used to it, you can lengthen the amount of time. Notice how the moments after your breathwork are much more peaceful!
Put your legs up for five minutes in the evening to help release the day and sleep better. Find a small piece of wall space, or if it’s right before bed, maybe you practice this in bed. Place a folded blanket or pillow a couple of inches from the wall and sit on the right edge of it, with your left side to the wall. Lay over on your left arm, then swing your legs up the wall. If your legs do not straighten, inch your body away from the wall until you feel comfortable, with no strain on your hamstrings or low back. The folded blanket should be in one of two places: 1) under the lumbar spine to support the natural curve of your back, letting the sitz bones fall slightly off the edge or 2) under your hips to raise them above the level of the heart. Stretch your arms out to a T at shoulder level or lower with palms facing up, or you can play with other positions to find one that feels good for you. I like the opening in the chest that the T offers after being bundled up on the ice. Close the eyes, deepen the breath, and feel your thoughts drift away. If the lights are distracting, you may place a scarf or an eye pillow over your eyes to block out the stimulation and help quiet the mind. Five minutes is good, but you can stay longer, if you wish. If you stay longer, you may want a very thin blanket under your head and neck, and you may wish to tie a yoga strap or belt (the belt from a robe works great) around your legs, so you can fully relax.
Sometimes I wrap a blanket around legs and feet, too, to keep them toasty. It’s hard to relax if you’re cold!
If your feet fall asleep, then it’s time to come out of the pose. If legs up the wall doesn’t feel great, or if you don’t have the wall space, you can rest your legs on an ottoman or the arm of the sofa. Many yoga teachers believe that if you only have time to practice one pose per day, viparita karani should be the one. This pose can help alleviate tired legs, varicose veins, headaches, anxiety, fatigue, digestion, and lower back pain, and it can help gently stretch the hamstrings. It is an excellent pose to do before or after long car rides, flights, strenuous workouts, or long hours of standing.
Because of competing demands, fragmented schedules, multiple jobs, and family, I find that the best way to make sure I take care of myself is to promise myself these 15 minutes, no matter what.
I even write the morning meditation in my agenda as one of my scheduled blocks of time. Sometimes I can do more, but if not, then at least I have dedicated a few moments to myself. Then, I thank myself afterwards for following through on my commitment. My first yoga teachers used to always say at the end of class, “thank yourself for keeping this appointment.” After all, who is more worthy of an appointment with us than ourselves?
If you can’t implement the strategies how or at the time I suggest above, don’t feel guilty about it—just practice them whenever you can fit them in. Start with the one that resonates most with you, then try out the others later, if you wish. I believe that we can all find five free minutes at a time to dedicate to our well-being. It may require a little training, but we are all able to change one bad habit in exchange for a new, healthier one. Scroll less, breathe more. Maybe this should be our mantra for 2021.
Sarah Neal, M.A., MM, MG, CFS, CD, RYT-200, is a coach and Learn-to-Skate Director at Louisville Skating Academy in Louisville, KY. She runs an online community that helps skaters improve mindset, relieve stress and anxiety, and reframe their relationship with skating through self-care practices like mindfulness and yoga. To learn more, visit Sarah on IG @the_skating_yogi or e-mail email@example.com