Healing approaches

The importance of radical self-care

self-care

By Gemma Kennedy, transformational coach

At the start of May this year, I attended the Bodykind Festival in Totnes, a two-day event dedicated to the revolutionary act of showing kindness to our own bodies in order to change the world.

Something that struck me throughout a day of talks, workshops and panels was the sheer number of people discussing how much work they have put into treating their bodies kindly. After endless years of dieting and self-loathing, doing so does not necessarily come naturally to many.

But the people at the event were setting out on a mission to develop a positive relationship with, and be kinder to, their bodies. While such a shift may undoubtedly change an individual’s life for the better, it also has wider societal implications too because self-care is not all about bath bombs and pedicures. In fact, it includes a whole range of activities and practices, which, importantly, look different for everyone.

Sadly, self-care has to date been co-opted by commercial organisations as yet another way to sell us stuff. The promotion of self-care often focuses on appearance-related products and services, such as face masks and pedicures. But in order to go deeper than that and actually take care of our bodies effectively, regardless of how they look and how we feel about them, something more is required.

In my transformational coaching work, I prefer to use the term ‘radical self-care’, which usually involves practices that cannot be purchased in a shop or day spa. Instead the focus is on making daily life more manageable and enjoyable, which entails taking decisions to support yourself in the best possible way.

Small changes can be made across all areas of life to make things easier. The sum of these small shifts can lead to an altogether less stressful life as well as the capacity to better support others. We have all heard the clichéd advice to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist others, but it really is essential.

Woman Standing By Waterfall With Her Hands Raised

Aligning with your own needs

It is also important that self-care does not become just something else you can fail at – as with dieting or any of the other myriad things we ‘should’ do. Step one of radical self-care is about being gentle with yourself. There will be days where you are unable to take care of yourself as well as you would like, and reminding yourself that this is okay too is vital.

When I start to become self-critical, I like to ask myself whether I would talk to my children or a close friend in that way. The answer is always ‘absolutely not’ and it helps me to shift my inner talk to become more positive and compassionate.

Another issue I have with the mainstream self-care industry is that it requires a certain amount of privilege in order to engage in it. Beauty products, treatments and outings are costly, which means that those who are often most in need of self-care are excluded.

While it is still a privilege to have the time and energy to engage in radical self-care, it is much more accessible. Taking just a couple of minutes out of your day to breathe or move your body in a way that feels good can work wonders.

Other radical self-care activities I engage in regularly include ensuring I eat regular meals that my body actually wants rather than skipping them or eating something I dislike because it is quick; lighting a candle and drinking a cup of tea alone; and taking time to read or journal before bed or first thing in the morning.

But much more radical than any of these is the fact I check-in with myself regularly to ensure that what I am doing feels aligned with my needs.

Leap of faith

Changing yourself – and the world

In the past, I have found people-pleasing all too easy a pastime – and definitely to my own detriment. Setting clear boundaries around what I do and do not want to do, as well as removing myself from toxic relationships, have helped me make huge improvements to my quality of life. If I do not spend my time doing things against my will just to avoid upsetting others, I find I conserve so much more energy, which enables me to do the things that actually bring me joy.

Of course, as a mum it is not always possible to focus on my own needs. But I am open and honest with my children when I require a quiet morning at home or when I cannot play with them because I have to make sure I have eaten something (to avoid my hangry tendencies).

To some, this may sound selfish, but not only is it important to take care of myself in order to be the best parent I can, it is also about modelling radical self-care to my children too. At the ages of three and seven, they are already aware of the importance of listening to their bodies and setting boundaries around what does and does not feel good to them. I hope this awareness will stand them in good stead to help them avoid the pitfalls of things, such as diet culture, that I unwittingly fell into.

So can radical self-care change the world? I mentioned at the beginning that this approach has wider societal implications, and they have become glaringly obvious during my own endeavours in this area. Just as I am able to be a better parent when I show myself compassion, I also have a huge amount of extra energy to plough into my activism and coaching practice. The energy I would have spent on hating my body, or perhaps feeling exhausted by a lack of boundaries, can instead be spent productively on working for actual social change.

For many – myself included – it is one hell of a journey to get to a place where we have positive or even neutral feelings about our bodies. But it is worth every single struggle to arrive at a space where we can contribute to something bigger than ourselves – and feel nurtured in the process.

Gemma Kennedy

Gem Kennedy is a Body Positive activist and transformational coach. Having started her first diet aged 10 and spent many years promising herself that this would be the year to lose weight and start living, a switch flicked in 2017 when she discovered the Body Positive and Fat Activist communities. After training as a transformational coach, she now specialises in coaching and mentoring clients both individually and in groups to help them shed the burden of today’s diet culture and feel confident enough to be in the world exactly as they are, right now.

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Healing approaches

Finding your Witness: The power of the ‘neutral mind’

meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

When chatting with a dear friend the other day about coping with personal challenges, we wondered what it must be like to go through hard times without “The Witness.” I know I must have done so at some time in my life, but I could not tell you exactly when my Witness showed up – it was definitely post-children but only just. Which is a great blessing because, for me, becoming a mother has definitely triggered some intense personal challenges.

I am aware that I bang on about self-care as well as the benefits of yoga and mediation and having a regular practice, but I do not necessarily focus enough on why. My fear is that yoga and meditation have been so hijacked by consumerism that many people have already switched off and tuned out. These practices have lost some of their sacredness and potency, which is a real shame because we need them now more than ever – not least because we all need a Witness to support us through the hard times.

So what is ‘The Witness’? Although the Witness is the most meaningful term to me personally, in the kundalini yoga tradition, it is also known as the ‘neutral mind’. World-renowned kundalini yoga master and spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, defined the neutral mind as the global positioning system of the Aquarian Age.

He described it as “the part of the mind that has direct connection to our Soul’s guidance…Until our mind is clear, we are a slave to the emotion and commotion that makes us reactive to [the] unknowns that we meet on the road of life.”

In other words, the Witness is objective, balanced and is all about right action rather than reaction – and it is why I practice every day, not just when I feel bad. This is what it means for me:

The Witness is always available

It doesn’t matter how dark I feel or how completely consumed I am by frantic, looping thoughts, the Witness is always sitting in a corner, watching and waiting to be called upon without judgement or a need to be invited to participate in the conversation.

I will never forget the morning of the Paris bombings in 2015. It was a Friday. I was crossing the road with my children on the way to school and one of them stepped out too soon. I yanked him back in plenty of time, but it triggered a dread of the darkest proportions. The feeling intensified as the day went on and by next morning, I could not get out of bed because I felt so sad and terrified.

At this point, I was not aware of what had transpired the evening before, but on reading the news, it felt as though my antennae had picked up the sorrow and fear of the entire world and was downloading it straight to my heart. That weekend I did not leave the house, mainly due to my uncontrollable weeping.

But through all the despair and terror, I also knew this time would pass and that, despite the depth of my feelings over the state of the world, it would change nothing – only action would do that. I also understood that this tragedy, so close to home, was happening in other places all over the world in one way or another, and that every heartbreak was a projection of the human race’s collective suffering.

And yet, I also believe that progression towards a kinder, fairer, more tolerant and collaborative way of being was, and is, inevitable. Change is inevitable. Evolution is inevitable. Fact: Every day, someone somewhere awakens to their own consciousness, and it is like lighting a candle in the dark. So every day, the world becomes a little brighter.

Wheel of Life mandala

The Witness helps us heal

Here is the magic: The fact that the Witness knows all of this is what enables us to fully embrace the darkness, to visit the pain without being held back, so that we can move through it.

Without The Witness there to hold us in its unconditional presence, we can never fully feel our feelings enough to integrate them and heal. My Witness did not save me from the utter darkness of that time. I still thought all my fearful thoughts and cried my tears of grief, but I also knew, simultaneously, that everything would be OK. And lo and behold, it was.

The Witness enables us to change

Some say that the definition of insanity is repeatedly behaving in the same way but expecting the result to change. But achieving real, lasting shifts are tricky because we are hardwired to maintain the status quo. Our biology would suggest that such habits are efficient – but only if they continue to serve us.

The Witness is the element of the mind that says: “Hey, I thought you weren’t going to think that thought anymore. It’s self-abuse.” Or: “Hey, I know you love sugar, but it makes you feel unwell, so do you really want to eat that?”

For a long time, I heard The Witness loud and clear but chose to politely ignore it. Slowly, gradually, after many hours on the mat, my Witness has become stronger and louder than my ego-mind. More often than not, it overrules the habitual, unhelpful impulses that have kept me stuck in patterns that no longer serve me.

And I have changed. I have fewer looping thoughts. I feel lighter, clearer, and my thinking is more ordered. I am able to experience real, authentic joy and act on my creative ideas. I also feel more connected and loving and yes, cliché as it has become, present, in my relationships.

How to meet your own Witness

As to how to gain an introduction to your Witness, meditation is the exercise that will help you do so, and yoga is the practice that will condition your nervous system and endocrine system to follow its wisdom. And once you have found it, it will always be available to you.

You will know it because it has no capacity for emotion, even though it fully allows you to experience the depth of your emotions. It has no agenda, except that which is true, or in alignment with your highest purpose in this lifetime. It has no aim other than to reveal all those fractured parts of yourself, which are rooted in shame, grief and fear and need to be brought into awareness so you can integrate them and continue on your journey towards wholeness.

Your Witness can be your Best Friend Forever. It is the relationship with yourself that yoga and meditation can provide. So if you have switched off and tuned out to the promise of what a personal practice could offer, now could be the time to reconsider?

Sarah Stollery

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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