Hello From the Other Side

Full disclosure: I’ve watched that SNL “Thanksgiving Miracle” video at least three times today and twice last night. I’m also writing this in class while my class writes their own essay, so this blog will be low on edits and insights. Birthday rights, yes? Yes.

I’m really happy today. This is big for me; most birthdays, especially for the last decade, have been fraught with unexplainable sadness and discontent while I tried to find the magical happiness formula. I usually didn’t. I wasn’t really set up to attain birthday bliss today either: I was up way too late cooking and eating a very sugary pie, but it was with my favorite person. That favorite person had to do triage on our kitchen sink, in the crawl space, in twenty-eight degree weather this morning, but neither of us were swearing as we tripped over each other, dirty dishes, and every cleaning supply we’d ever stuffed under the sink. I’m teaching four classes today and trying to figure out how to grade and wash dishes and finish some food before a birthday party tonight, but I’m not stressed out. I did do my favorite yoga practice today, got some good news, drank warm lemon water, and read kind wishes and funny memes from people who love me, but at thirty-six, I’m coming to the realization that those things are helpful bonuses, not the things that bring me happiness.

This might be a little bit of a stretch of Adele’s lyrics, but if I think back to past birthdays, I do feel like I’m on the other side of some kind of self-inflicted misery. And I want to be clear about the self-inflicted part. I had a rough marriage for seven and a half years and then two and a half hard years of personal recovery. I’ve experienced some abuse in my past that quite frankly wrecked me for a while. I haven’t achieved my publication or financial goals and I’ll probably never achieve my ideal body. My dogs still shed and bite each other and climb on the couch and eat trash whenever they can. These things happened, and in the case of the dogs, continue to happen whether I want them to or not. They led to feelings of stress and loneliness, but they didn’t create my misery. I did that myself.

This blog began out of a journey towards self-care and health, and I know that little things have been a big part of today’s happy birthday. Sleeping more and drinking lemon water definitely makes me feel better (and help prevent eating too much sugar and thus misery later). Some little practices, like learning to meditate and learning to take time to massage my feet when I’m stressed out instead of working out harder on them, have been transformative. Anti-anxiety meds don’t hurt either; I was definitely feeling less zen when I forgot to take them on Saturday. But as much as I would like to say there was one thing I did, one magic formula that has made my life good, one person who ushered happiness into my life, I know two simple, difficult things made the difference. One was listening when others–my husband, my counselor, my yoga teachers–remind me that other people are not responsible for how I feel. The second was me finally choosing to believe it.

Letting go of attachments and expectations has finally let all those people off the hook. This is the hardest part of yoga philosophy for me to accept. We’re all attached to things that we care about, and I care deeply about willing the future to turn out the way I want. I want the people I love to read my fickle mind. I want the clouds to part and a birthday cake accompanied with nirvana and a book contract to float down on me, but I don’t want to do the hard part of getting book proposals rejected, of letting go of being annoyed at the dirty sink, of responding with gentleness to my irritating neighbors (both literal and virtual).

Besides, the cake is already here. So is a little bit of bliss.  This has been one of the best years of my life, largely because I finally let so many of my demons go. Now that they’re gone, cake and bliss taste so much better, and it would be a shame to waste either.



Abhynga: Oil Massage

I bailed on an after-work dinner. Walked home with tears in my eyes, lassoed my three quivering dogs, and took them out for a walk. After the walk, and then a challenging yoga practice and meditation, I felt less distressed, but anxiety still frizzled in my arms. In my bathroom, I picked up a bottle of oil on my sink and poured a quarterful into my palm. The oil drained into the spaces between my fingers just before I began to rub it into my feet.

The first time I heard about oil massage was also the first time I met Tiffany. With her short hair and funky glasses, she spoke confidently about how to use Ayurveda to meet the body’s needs from season to season. Each season came with different foods and a different kind of oil massage, or Abhyanga, a practice she said she spent forty-five minutes doing each morning. Nope I told myself while taking notes. Nobody has time for that.

Almost two years later, I met her for a consultation. Perhaps sensing a fellow Pitta, she asked how I managed stress. I started crying. Tiffany listened, leaning in on her knee, and asked if I’d tried self massage. She referred to it as one of her most important stress-relief activities; “If I’m crying a lot, I might do it twice a day,” she said. I took note. Unfortunately, being gentle with myself, as self-massage insists, isn’t my first (or fifteenth) impulse. I will run up the Great Wall of China if you tell me it will make me happy, but I’ll balk at simple acts like rubbing oil into my skin. But what Ayurveda has taught me is the simple cures—lemon water, fresh food, more sleep—are often the most effective.

As the Ayurvedic guidebook and cookbook Eat Taste Heal points out: “Regular self-massage nourishes the skin, relaxes the nervous system, removes impurities from the plasma and blood, and feeds the inner tissues of the body.” I am suspicious of miracle cures. But understanding the body’s physiology make more sense of the practice.

  • Moisturizing: An oil massage can be crucial to rejuvenating dry or overheated skin, especially in the summer (Pitta season) and fall/winter (Vata season). Additionally, Tiffany says, appropriate moisturizing in the winter regulates your body’s moisture so that when the wet, cold Kapha spring season comes, your body doesn’t react to the dryness by creating extra mucus.
  • Immune Stimulus: Under the epidermis, our lymph and blood vessels transport their contents throughout the body. By stimulating these, we stimulate the whole body. “Just think what would happen if every woman spent a few minutes a day massaging everywhere,” Tiffany said, motioning to her chest.
  • Muscle Massage: Simply rubbing the joints and limbs can release toxins and knots trapped in the muscles. As a runner in marathon season, oil massage has helped relax and rejuvenate my contracted muscles after hard runs. When I oil massage, it feels like my entire body wakes up, even though I didn’t know it felt asleep before.
  • Emotional Management: Ayurveda pays special attention to the intersection between body, mind, and emotions. Touch one area, and you touch them all.

How to Abhyanga

The skin is our most absorbent organ, so quality of our moisturizers we put on our skin matters. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend organic, cold-pressed oils; Tiffany puts it more bluntly, saying, “I don’t put anything on my skin that I wouldn’t eat.”

Special oils exist for each dosha type, but heavy oils, like sesame or almond, are best for Vata imbalances because they moisturize dry skin and calm the nerves. Pittas respond best to coconut or olive oil because they are cooling, and Kaphas benefit from light oils like sunflower or grapeseed, or by skipping the oil massage in favor of dry brushing with silk or cotton gloves.

To apply the oil, heat the oil in an oil warmer, or by putting a plastic squeeze bottle of oil in a cup of warm water. When the oil is warm (not hot), massage over your body, using circular motions at the joints and long strokes at the limbs.

Abhyanga is by far my most irregular Ayurvedic practice so far, which has something to do with growing up a multi-tasker and overachiever in a big farming family. For the women I knew, self-care was a luxury. So I make time when I can, and use the oils I have: jojoba and massage oils (both Ayurvedic, and not). This is Tiffany’s suggestion: just try a few things and “notice how you feel when you use them.” So far I’ve noticed the Ayurvedic oils make me smell like cumin and the jojoba lingers on my skin all day. I’ve noticed I still slap on the oil, rush, skip it altogether. But using oil forces me to slow down. I notice how the smell of almonds and cumin smell against my skin, and how my muscles give up under my hands.

“Where do you start—your feet? Shoulders? Arms?” I asked Tiffany, writing notes on every inch of notebook paper.

“Does it matter?” she says. “Does it matter if you believe in Jesus or Buddha, as long as you believe? No. Does it matter if you start at your head or your feet? No. I start at my feet. But as long as you’re doing something, you’ll get there.”