In my mid-twenties, I stumbled upon one of the greatest literary works I would ever need in my lifetime. In the wake of losing my closest personal friend from childhood due to cancer, I was a fresh yoga teacher with less than a year of full-time teaching experience. It was 2009 during the big Anusara boom in Chicago and I didn’t have the emotional resources to process grief. I found myself in yoga class after yoga class listening to teachers talk about “living my best life” and “filling your heart with radical expansion” and listening to inspirational quotes from “the Secret”. At one point someone directed me to “radiantly spring into Warrior I” – I didn’t want to radiantly spring anywhere…
I wanted to get through this. I wanted the uncomfortable questioning to be over. And I wanted my yoga class to make me feel better and not worse. And as a teacher who had heavily relied on Dharma talks to springboard my yoga classes, I found myself struggling with a severe upheaval in what it means to have “spiritual boundaries”.
As a result – I leaned into my Ashtanga practice because I needed to experience yoga without the instructor giving advice on how I was supposed to feel and, I must admit, I taught some of the best yoga asana of my career when I focused on developing the sequences and teaching to people’s bodies without having to weave a “spiritual lesson” through the class.
One of my students noticed the shift in my classes and I was able to tell her about how I was feeling. She recommended “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion.
In it, Joan recounts her experience of grieving after the sudden loss of her husband and that’s when I adopted Ms. Didion as an “ista-devata”, or chosen spiritual guide of mine. I felt understood, and through reading her book which also incorporates medical and psychological research on grief and illness I was able to process my own experience. It was the recognition that what I was going through was utterly human, that finally helped me face my nonlinear path of grief and loss.
No yoga class will ever be able to do that.
But that’s not the literary work I’m talking about. It wouldn’t be until years later, some career fails and a few rocky relationships that I would have to learn the valuable lesson of taking care of myself. I had NO CLUE what it meant to be self-directed and I subscribed to the all too popular notion of “Self Care” which, all too often is more like self-abandonment wrapped up in terry cloth robes, pedicures and expensive martinis. I see it now, all over social media, “self-care selfies” of people being self-indulgent, buying shit they don’t need, thirst trapping, or just skirting responsibilty. This form of “self-care” doesn’t promote a healthy relationship with personal growth or self-acceptance. It’s a hashtag for a disastrous unraveling, and it’s certainly nowhere near the hard-earned realm of Self-Respect.
My love for Joan led me to read her collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem and subsequently her iconic essay “On Self-Respect”. In it, Joan talks about the common misconceptions around self-respect that echo the modern incarnation of “self-care”.
“There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”…
In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. (…) Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.
For me, and many of the people who helped me on this path, “Self-Care” involves doing the hard work of making sure I show up for myself. It’s doing the dishes and prepping a healthy dinner when I’d rather order a pizza. It’s doing the laundry instead of buying new underwear.
Most importantly – it’s having the difficult conversations. It’s taking ownership when we make mistakes and the willingness to resolve the rift. It’s actually answering the phone when the student loan officer calls and being honest and kind with them. Sometimes it means breaking up with someone, even though you love them because you’ve lost yourself in the process. It’s making difficult decisions and standing up for your choices by accepting their consequences.
Self-Respect involves practice cultivating an inner voice that has my best interest in mind and suggests I try my best. It reminds me that I have a support network through close personal connections, family and friends, a spiritual practice, and the humility to ask for help.
Truly successful people all rely on coaches, mentors, teachers and spiritual clergy to help them with decision making, difficult life transitions and physical and mental achievements. How often have you looked around and said to yourself “How do all these people seem to have it figured out?” I felt that way most of my life until I started working with others. I learned that almost no one has it “figured out” – but the key characteristic of those of us who are working out the kinks, adapting to the flow, and getting shit done are the people who aren’t forcing themselves to do it alone.
We are social animals, even monks have to spiritually train almost their entire lifetime to go into hermitage. You’re not weak if you need help, you’re a human being. And when you ask for help you give someone else the opportunity to be of service. Oprah talks openly about serving others as the main spiritual calling on our life.
“We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service to others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world – but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent – how are you going to serve society? If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help each other, whom can we love and help?”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
So, does everyone need a life coach, a nutritionist, a therapist and a priest? Not necessarily. Self-Respect is a product of a commitment to Svadhyaya, or self-study, it is the fourth Niyama (inner observances) of the classical Yoga system. According to Pantanjali, When we commit to learning and observing ourselves with honesty, “one finds communion with their ista-devata, or their chosen personal divine guide. Yoga says if we are looking for some sort of direction in this life – look within.
We get that, but what if the inner voice says — “I’m stuck.” “I don’t know what to do.” “how does a person get through this?” — that’s when we must seek outside resources, someone to reflect our experience back to us. Just like Joan did for me in The Year of Magical Thinking and just like my mentors, healers and guides continue to do for me today.
Stay open, pay attention – the path will reveal itself. No one is gonna fault you for treating yourself to some frozen yogurt or your next Netflix binge but when it eventually becomes necessary to make the transition from “self-care” to full on “Self-Respect” most of us need a little accountability and guidance.