Saturday, January 07, 2012

Abhyanga and the Normal Girl

In September, everything got a little unbalanced around here.  We had just returned to our homeschooling lessons after a solid two months off for summer break, and at the same time, I picked up two big new clients.  We went from the hot, slow-moving days of summer into the busiest time for our household in years.

I was off-kilter, which quite frankly, meant all of us ended up off-balance.  Dinners became rushed affairs, the most oft-heard phrase from my lips became "Mama needs to work now, sweetheart," my yoga practice fell by the wayside, and I began to feel uncomfortable in my own skin.  I woke up tired every morning, my muscles felt tense and rigid, and meals left me bloated.

It was ridiculous.  I know better than to let stress get such a leg up on me.  And the pressure of my workload, while not quite avoidable, was something that I knew would pass.  The extra work would smooth out once I became accustomed to each of the new clients, and the learning curve wouldn't last forever.  There was, to be sure, no need to panic.

But panic, I did, at least at first.  Too much had been added to the schedule at once, and I wasn't slowing down enough to see that I needed to pull back at least a little bit in order to practice some much-needed self-care.

Self-care is such a loaded term, isn't it?  The modern lifestyle just isn't conducive to taking the time out of our busy schedules in order to tend to our own needs, and so many women feel guilty about even thinking of putting their personal needs on the list of Things That Are Important.  It seems self-indulgent, self-centered.

To that, I say Hogwash.  It is none of those things.  You know how being kind to someone with whom you have a testy relationship ends up improving the situation?  And you find that extending a little grace to a difficult person results in you liking them more?

Try extending a little of that same grace to yourself.  Show yourself a little kindness.  It just might improve that antagonistic relationship you have with your own body, your skin, your hair, your emotions, your health.

Late in September, just as I was on the verge of contacting a naturopath for help with the insomnia and the bloating and the general feeling of discomfort in my body, I happened upon an article in Yoga Journal about their 7-day Fall Detox, and, after breathing a sigh of relief, I decided to postpone my impending breakdown and see if participating in the cleanse would help.

Oh, my stars, how it did help.  It was a gentle detox, nothing dangerous or even all that difficult.  I ate kitchari at every meal, drank spiced teas, followed the prescribed yoga practices, eschewed caffeine and sugar, and got just a little bit more sleep than I had been getting.  Very little else changed.  My schedule, with it's homeschooling and work commitments, was not altered.  But I felt better almost immediately.  The bloating I had been experiencing after meals disappeared, as did three pounds of apparently unnecessary weight.  The quality of my sleep improved.  I remembered to breathe deeply.

Part of the benefit of the detox was simply the end-product of having paid more careful attention to myself for seven days, because while I still needed to cook other meals for the rest of my family, there was a ritualistic quality in eating the kitchari for 21 straight meals, in simmering the spiced teas, in reading the daily email that came during the detox, in consciously paying attention to my cravings and what I was putting into my body.

Interestingly though, the most long-lasting impact of the detox was that I learned about the benefits of abhyanga, the practice of massaging the entire body with warmed oil before bathing.  For quite some time now, I have used jojoba oil to massage my face and scalp, but adding the ritual of whole-body self-massage with warm sesame oil was a revelation indeed.  The Banyan Botanicals website has a much more comprehensive article about the practice, some of which may seem like so much hooey to you skeptical types, but it would be hard to deny that taking five minutes out of one's day to rub warm oil into our tired muscles and dry skin before bathing is going to be in our best interests.  Even if it doesn't actually turn us into Wonder Woman.

The idea is relatively simple.  You take organic sesame oil, and warm it up (in the microwave, in a pan on the stove, immersed in a sinkful of hot water, however you like).  Then you pour a little bit into your hands, and you massage it into your skin, using circular strokes on the joints, and firm, long strokes on your limbs.  Rub your ears, your scalp, your temples, your jaw.  Press a little more deeply in the areas you carry tension, the back of your neck, the tops of your shoulders, the top of your spine, the backs of your calves.

You will not need to wash the oil off of your skin with soap in the shower.  The water will take away the greasiness, and sesame oil has cleansing properties on it's own.  It would be a shame to wash off the lovely moisturizing qualities of the oil with soap, wouldn't it?  And I have found that by gently patting myself dry after the shower, enough of the oil remains that I no longer need to use commercial body lotions to lock in the moisture.  This small gesture of kindness to myself has become as integral to my physical well-being as my yoga practice and the attention I pay to my meals.

It only takes a few minutes, but that precious tiny amount of time spent paying attention to yourself and how you feel will stay with you all through whatever the day may bring.

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