Some somatic philosophising, with a dusting of social justice ranting… as it is my belief that my feeling for my own well-being is deeply intertwined with my feeling for the well-being of others.
My work is predominantly as a Rolfer, which is a kind of manual (hands-on) therapy; if what you read here interests you, please find out more about it over at http://www.theoldsurgeryleeds.co.uk/about-rolfing/ and https://www.rolfinguk.co.uk
I have to confess that I struggle with the term ‘self-care’ – oh, I understand the positive connotations but I squirm with the adoption and commodification of something that should be a basic human right as something that:
- further entrenches a sense of entitlement for only part of the population and
- furthers the individualism of late capitalism
(phew, that was a mouthful!)
(Never mind actual caring-for-others being undermined before the pandemic and then patronised and valorised during the pandemic).
I’m also aware that these are tasks that become mission-like where children, poverty and uncertain housing are concerned. I’m not advocating for any code of self-improvement here. I’m advocating for being, without doing… to let all the doing un-do.
Some ways I make sense of the idea for myself include:
Lose track of time for a bit.
Lie down, if you can.
Ask where gravity is happening in your body.
(like a verb version of ‘sensory’, definitely one I’ve made up).
Use your hands to feel your skin, to remember where your physical boundary is.
Notice that you are breathing, whether you like it or not – whether you feel breathing as breaths of ease or space or need or difficulty.
Check that the ground is still there, not by looking, but by feeling it with the soles of your feet and your toes, or any other parts you might be weight bearing on.
Rinse out the notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptability’ currently trending politically; indulge a momentary curiosity as to whether those hailing our collective resilience from positions of power are having to practice ‘resilience’ to survive (it smells a bit Darwinian to me).
All of these can be done in small spaces, like the shower or a bath, in the kitchen preparing food, in a car or public transport. They don’t need much time and are free to use and can be done in any order, though slowing down is probably a good starting point.
Standing and Sensing
Where we stand determines what we are able to see.
To a tired person at the bottom going up, the reality of a staircase is already imbued with the heaviness of their tired body; it literally looks longer and steeper (yes, it is just you – in the sense that it is absolutely your perception and also a verifiable phenomenon).
To a disabled person, the stairs are symptomatic of an enabled assumption of access. The reality of the staircase is exclusion: we need to widen our understanding of different bodies.
So, how we stand also determines what we can see.
I like to imagine my Parallel Universe Self (she’s a mathematician) delivering this next bit:
There are side effects for every choice/non-choice – it is impossible to determine the future of complex systems with any degree of certainty. The present conditions of any complex system (any individual, for example, in the context of their life environment would be a good example of a complex system) shape the expectations, assumptions, wishful thinking, behaviours and reactions available to that individual. They shape what each individual is able to see of the world.
In the midst of relative health, it is hard to predict illness and in the midst of illness, to predict health. We tend to base judgements about the future on what we have experienced in the past and are in the midst of presently.
In the midst of an ongoing global trauma, it is seemingly hard for us, culturally, to leave space for decompression, processing and grief for all that has changed, and continues to change, so very rapidly around us.
It feels like we skipped the bit where we saw enormous upheaval and loss WORLDWIDE and went directly to ‘getting over it’… that we are chasing our virtual tails to recreate life-as-we-knew-it online, over-productive and too-fast, even whilst we witness the failing of those same systems.
Without putting myself (further) out of business, but in tandem with a long-view reading of biology and complex systems: I believe it’s ok that we give our own dynamic, creative and vital organisms the opportunity to recuperate, to regenerate. In this case, that includes foregoing the slight positive stress of manual therapy, stimulating your system to respond or shine some light over in dusty and tight psychophysical corners.
Diane Jacobs, a Canadian physiotherapist, characterises manual therapy in the following manner: it is optional. It might be optimal, but it is entirely optional. She’s a bit of a radical PT.
One thing that we miss out on is the potential for deep rest that can come in these sessions. That is one thing that can be hard to do alone when we have had many stresses and traumas (even before a life-threatening virus takes hold of the world as we knew it).
I know, from my own experience and learning, that this recommendation of slowing and resting is often impossible if the legacy of trauma (of whatever stripe) is still paramount in your system. If your system has gotten a bit stuck in sympathetic arousal (that’s the heart-pounding, dry-mouthed adrenaline surge we think of as ‘fight-flight’) or the dissociative trance of a freeze state from the older vagus defense (think of the mouse playing dead in the cat’s mouth), the extra space afforded by slowing and resting often means a resurgence of the very thing you are trying to protect yourself from. Part of a therapeutic process is a co-regulation process and that means we help hold the hard bits so rest and stillness can be experienced and re-calibrated as safe and even enjoyable. In that sense, skilful therapy is sometimes a necessity to come back ‘home’ in our bodies.
If trauma, as a descriptor, seems a bit ‘much’ for what you are feeling – that’s ok. I like to remember that even a minor ‘trauma’ like a stubbed toe initiates a bodywide response – from the shout that comes out before I knew I was making it to the way I hobble about after and the tea I spilt when my arms and hands braced. It’s a tiny toe, yet it can hold the rest of me ransom immediately.
To tap into this kind of rest in the meantime, if you have a cat, an older or sleepy dog, or another (ideally calm and steady) human in your household, you can practice co-regulating with them – preferably in direct contact, but just in proximity if not. Try resting a hand, or a head, or whatever feels ok, on your mammal friend’s body somewhere where you can A) feel their breath movement and B) stay in contact with very little effort. They can keep reading their book or watching television, but are preferably stationary – they don’t need to know you are practicing with them for both of you to benefit.
Although this won’t work with the same co-regulatory effect as another mammalian nervous system will, you can also create a sense of safe connection with a heavy blanket, some pillows or bolsters and a steady rhythmic sound – I’m thinking waves rolling in or wind in the trees but whatever soothes you – clocks work very well for some, not at all for others. If you imagine into the nesting currently taking place in the bird world, or the kind of indoor fort you maybe built in a younger version of yourself, try to recapture a bit of that protected feeling with wrapping the blanket around, or draping it over, yourself and arranging soft supportive pillows for maximum comfort. You want to feel held, but not suffocated. Let your hands contact your own body where you feel your breath movement and it feels safe to let them rest.
You needn’t do anything else except stay in contact/proximity and check in with the sensations of your hand(s), the rhythm of either the sound or your chosen mammal’s breath… and gradually lean into your own body sensations, the support of the chair or the ground, your changing breath and temperature. Check in after about 5 minutes and see if you notice any softening or easing as the tension of ‘being ready to do the next thing’ starts to unwind. Check in after 10 if you’ve had a challenging day. Lose track of time if you can.
Where and how are we standing now?
What is it like to be in the world from a perspective of rest? How long does it stay with us?
Maybe (I can’t predict the future and biology is unpredictable even if I could!) we can triangulate through fresh eyes, open footprints and a bit more space for feeling generally – and an acknowledgement that our individual contexts both enable and disable our ability to ‘see’ the staircase that others see.
I am entirely unsure as to when and how I will be returning to practice in the sense in which I value my work, which is through touch to our largest organ, the skin (I am not sure I would be able to do what I do through a glove, for example) and generally directed to one of our other largest organs, the fascial network.
I hope that I will find myself practicing from a perspective of rest and that this will resonate with others. I hope also that we are able to enjoy the privilege of being able to work face to face, or in direct contact. To finish with a lovely bit from friend, somatic movement artist, educator and therapist Fabiano Culora: that ‘joy is not a luxury or a privilege – it is a capacity despite and through’.