Sixteen years ago, I was pregnant with my first child. As an anxious mother-to-be, I wanted to know everything I could about pregnancy, birth and motherhood. I inquired about pre-natal classes. My doctor suggested I attend Yvonne Moore’s pre-natal yoga classes. I learned so much from Yvonne, who became not just my yoga teacher, mentor and guru, but also my friend. One such thing I learned, relates to the importance of taking care of oneself and when one’s needs need to come first. Yvonne used the example of airplane oxygen masks. At the beginning of every flight, the flight attendant says that in the case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down and you should first put the mask on yourself and then on your child. This, Yvonne, explained, was a perfect metaphor for how one should look at parenting. If we put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, we will have the physical and mental ability to care for our child. But, if we are gasping for breath, how can we possibly take care of a child, let alone ourselves?
This anecdote stayed with me. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the lesson embraced more than just parenting. It relates to every relationship and to our general sense of self. What does it mean to take care of ourselves or to put our needs first?
This can mean making something nurturing a part of our regular schedule: exercise, meditation, yoga, or a night out with friends. More broadly, it is a general way of being and expressing oneself that feels authentic and valid. Ultimately, what matters is that you are true to yourself, that you recognize and understand your needs and you address them in an honest way.
This can be hard. We often feel guilty when we give to ourselves before others. Internalized voices of authority – parents, teachers, significant others – block us from an honest dialogue with ourselves.
Here’s an exercise that might help: the next time you are faced with the choice of giving to yourself or giving to another, explore the ramifications of each choice. How do you feel if you give to yourself? How do you feel if you give to another?
Slowly you can begin to have an internal dialogue, speaking to the part of yourself that condemns you, that won’t allow you to take care of yourself. Then, you can give the love, validation and permission you are seeking. By exploring your internal reactions, you can begin to unpack the unconscious triggers to your responses, and discover your true needs and desires.
So, keep that image in your mind, that simple image of the airplane oxygen masks. Remember that breath is life. YOUR breath is YOUR life. Nurture your basic needs and mother the child within. The sense of well being you seek will not be found in denying yourself, but rather in giving from a place of wholeness.