Tending to our “Emotional Hygiene”

My brother recently recommended this TED talk (below) from psychologist Guy Winch — an engaging, thought-provoking look at how our minds deserve just as much TLC as our bodies do.

“We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practice dental hygiene, right?” says Dr. Winch, “We’ve known it since we were five years old. But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing. How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds. Why is it that our physical health is so much more important to us than our psychological health?”

“We sustain psychological injuries even more often than we do physical ones, injuries like failure or rejection or loneliness.” He continues. “And they can also get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways. And yet, even though there are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of psychological injuries, we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should. “Oh, you’re feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it’s all in your head.” Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: “Oh, just walk it off; it’s all in your leg.” It is time we closed the gap between our physical and our psychological health. It’s time we made them more equal […]”

There are two defining moments in my past that I feel have led me clearly back onto the path towards the practice that I consider to be the most powerful tool in my emotional first aid kit:

In 2007, I came to Yoga (and eventually my highly cherished practice of Yoga Nidra) as a way to process the pain of a twice-broken heart.

In 2011, I became fully committed to Yoga Nidra as my primary practice in the wake of a minor concussion I sustained from falling backwards (while standing completely still, adjusting my toque — so Canadian, eh?) on an ice rink. After that tumble, all it took was a single downward dog to know that my physical practice would be on hiatus until further notice.

Each of these “injuries” — one definably emotional, the other physical — brought up a full spectrum of feelings to wrestle with: grief, anger, frustration, shock, confusion, sadness and pain, to (most unexpectedly) profound and life-altering joy, lightness and gratitude for not only surviving these setbacks, but for finding clarity and meaning in times of upheaval.

That said, despite the nature of the injury — physical or emotional — I found something in this practice that I couldn’t quite seem to get anywhere else:

Peace.
Intention.
Something to hold and walk me through the challenges rather than just get over them.

Having successfully recovered from both of these upsets, as I continue to explore and share the practice of Yoga Nidra alongside women and men of diverse ages and backgrounds, it has been a real revelation to hear the stories — the “whys” that explain the reason these students are finding themselves outside of a more physical yoga practice and actually craving what Nidra offers — quiet, stillness, relaxation, intention, and an expanded state of awareness that transcends all the limitations and clutter we impose on our physical being. are seeking a way to not only stay connected to the steadiness and peace the time on their mat brings them, but to also find alternate ways of taking care of their physical and emotional well-being; a way to take an active part in their own healing process, whatever that may be.

Though there are many students that come to practice who are experiencing a hiatus from activity due to injury, what tends to emerge in time is that, even more so than (or in tandem with) the physical, there is usually an emotional challenge that is taking centre stage, or some variation of stress that has surfaced as a result of being put out of commission by unexpected injury or illness.

I hear from students quite frequently that they are struggling with anxiety and/or depression, high personal/work-related stress levels, or trying to cope with major transitions in their lives. I also see a lot of ‘caregivers’ tuck eagerly into their long savasanas as a way to give back to themselves when they’re not giving tirelessly and selflessly to their children, to ailing family members, or to the patients they see in hospitals and clinics around the city.

To be clear, I am not a medical professional, or a “healer,” or a psychologist. What I am sharing with you is my observation from being around some truly remarkable human beings who grant me the privilege of hearing why they are seeking respite in this stillness and how, in doing so, they are finding what they need — whether it’s a deep rest, a profound revelation, or simply a community environment to bring them out of loneliness and isolation. It reminds me that, behind the masks we wear to help us brave our crazy, chaotic world, there is a dire need for safe spaces where we can be just who and what we are; a permission of sorts to seize any opportunity for our tired minds and hearts to be refueled, and our perspectives significantly shifted.

Dr. Guy Winch is right — we are taught to instinctively tend to our physical wellness, but our emotional wellness is just as important in ensuring our ability to function in society, in our places of work, and in our families. Even then, so many of us are prone to prioritizing our workouts over “work-ins.” (After all, how many calories could we possibly be burning lying on the floor for an extended period of time? ;-)) We are a chronically exhausted, burnt-out culture that stubbornly insists on pushing forward, over-committing, over-giving and self-sacrificing, even in the face of strong, physical signals that tell us to back off and take better care of “number 1.”

If the body is the dumping ground of the mind, then how long have our minds and hearts been begging for our attention when the body finally gives out?

Maybe it’s just me, but given 30 minutes of zero distractions and a yoga mat (or just a comfy piece of floor), I’d be Nidra-ing without fail. I wouldn’t be so gung-ho to share this practice as much if I didn’t feel I had found a life preserver I can always reach for when I need it. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t take will to commit to being consistent and actually do the practice (especially in tougher times), but it’s that soft, intentional focus on both my physical and emotional wellness that allows me to be a much better wife, daughter, sister, friend, teacher, and human being.

Now if only we could find a way to use relaxation and meditation to floss our teeth… 😉

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