self care

The Self Care Paradox

With such a strong focus on #selfcare, yogis may be missing the point entirely. Jessica Humphries explores how we can find a balance between this new trend, and the traditional philosophies of Self-Less-ness in an increasingly disconnected world.  

My dad always said that the truth makes hypocrites of us all. And yogis are no exception. I discover new layers of paradox every day as I immerse myself in this world. Insta-famous yogis flaunting their bikini clad Naturajasanas. So-called “gurus” sleeping their way through Wanderlust. Studios aggressively competing against one another. Teachers nit picking each other’s cueing and sequences. 

Somewhere along the line, the yoga tradition has married philosophies that seem overly focussed on the self and spat out a new age/positive psychology/yoga hybrid that’s often inconsistent and sometimes downright ridiculous. To me, the self-care phenomenon fits into this category. That’s not to say I’m not a fan of an indulgent spa session or a gentle reminder to myself that I am worthy. But an extreme focus on the self takes our attention away from the things that actually make us feel happy and fulfilled: helping others and having a sense of community. Likewise, tell someone who is genuinely suffering from mental health challenges to go take a long bath or recite some affirmations and you may end up exacerbating the problem. 

Having said that, something like a yoga or meditation practice as an act of what we now call ‘self-care’ can be absolutely essential for creating the space one needs in order to sift through the contents of the brain and find some clarity and stillness. But that doesn’t mean you need to head off to Bali for another teacher training. In fact, self-care, from a truly yogic perspective, goes beyond individuality and embraces the self as a part of something infinitely greater.   

The paradox of self-care in the yoga world: Isn’t yoga about renouncing the ego or something like that?

The strong focus on the self in the modern yoga world perplexes me. Yoga is supposed to be about letting go of the self, and seeing that there is no separation; we are all one. One of my most influential yoga philosophy teachers, Swami Pujan (www.pujanyoga.com), a long time yoga philosophy teacher, meditator and author of Advaita Vendata for Ordinary People, agrees. 

He explains that traditional yoga philosophies were all aimed at liberating oneself from the ignorance of our separation. He says, “Indian tradition was never about the individual, but about the family and your connection with your wider community. The aim of yoga was to contribute and not to enhance your individuality.” When it came to teachings of the Self, it was all about the realisation of the separate self as the universal self. Contrastingly, modern yoga, he says, “is built around the idea that you need to strengthen your individuality and that is, of course, a reflection of our society which is built on individualism.” 

Lissie Turner, a long time yoga teacher, yoga therapist, and owner of The Yoga Shack (theyogashack.com.au) in the Byron Shire agrees that yoga is not an easy path, and it’s association with self-care could be damaging. Yoga asks for attention, dedication and commitment. It requires us to confront hidden parts of ourselves and sometimes to change, and that can be really hard work. True yoga, she says, “is utilising this work and this willingness to truly look at where we are within, our own prejudices, interpretations and shortcomings that are causing people’s suffering with a deep determination to dismantle those things.” When we put yoga under the self-care umbrella, we make it a luxury, a symbol of the privileged, and something to feel guilty about having time for – not an essential part of our lives and spiritual practice. She says, “We must, as teachers, become committed in looking at how this has happened and undo that story.” 

The dangers of self-care

It’s okay to take time to yourself, to assert healthy boundaries in relationships and indulge once in a while. In fact, these things may all be essential to your physical, mental and emotional health. But being overly attached to the idea of the self can become unhealthy. Swami Pujan points out that connection with others can be lost when we’re too focused on ourselves. He says, “Forms of narcissism develop like constant Instagram photos of yourself. Obsession with physical appearance can take the place of genuine caring and community.” 

Sarah Ball (www.sarahball.com.au) is a mental-health focused yoga teacher and a social worker who knows all too well the downside of focusing on self-care as a solution to a much greater problem. She explains that we need to view both distress and healing in a larger context, rather than isolating ourselves – which is often at the heart of the issue. She says, “If our distress arises in the context of social issues of disconnection – such as isolation, poverty, disconnection from meaningful work, overwork, toxic environments (either literal or psychological), interpersonal trauma…the list goes on – then having our conversation in the yoga and wellbeing community focusing on ‘self-care’ as the primary pathway to healing, is doing a great disservice to ourselves and others.” 

Of course a level of caring for the self is essential. But we are relational creatures who need interconnectivity – something that yoga teaches us. However, self- care sells where community care doesn’t. Sarah explains that when our self-care solutions fail to produce real healing, “we need to remember that this is not the failure of the individual, or a call for even more self-care (which can lead to an obsessive loop of feeling like a failure for not healing), but a call to collective and creative solutions.” The very least we can do, she says, is to “have honest conversations so we can reduce the shame so many yoga practitioners feel when their self-care fails to ‘heal’ issues which are far more complex than the individual.”

Discovering true self-care

Scroll through your social media feed or do a quick Google search and you’ll find endless stories and images of self-care that are primarily related to pampering the body or rehearsing positive affirmations in front of the mirror. But truly caring for the self, particularly in the context of yoga, is far more than this. 

Swami Pujan says, “Yoga was never just a body care – it was a path to Self realisation. The first Kosha is our physical body and most students stop there. But as we know…we have four more Koshas that are covering who we really are. Self-care should really include deeper dimensions as well. Only then can yoga deliver what it promises: Freedom from limited beliefs and realisation of our true nature.” 

If enlightenment is realising that we are all one, or part of a greater Self, then true self-care should take into consideration the society as a whole – even in the context of individual healing. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t focus on healing our own wounds – but that it should be a part of a greater conversation that’s less focused on ‘me.’ 

For Lissie, and for most of us in the yoga world, true healing comes through the discovery of our life’s true purpose – and that often has little to do with what is commonly called ‘self-care’. She says, “If we ask ourselves the question – does this action feed my dharma [life-purpose] or distract me from it, we will find all the self-care we need.”

Getting a good stretch and feeling relaxed are great side effects of our yoga practice, but should not be the goal. Perhaps if we slowed down enough to see this then there wouldn’t be a need for all this damage control. We could create the space, through a dedicated and committed practice (whatever that looks like for you) to see that we don’t need to ‘fix’ ourselves to be happy and fulfilled. We simply need to focus our drishti (gaze) on the bigger picture: each other. 

Words by Jessica Humphries for Australian Yoga Journal. 

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