Self-care will always be an important part of your conscious parenting toolkit. Here are some of the ways that I keep myself healthy, so that I have what I need to raise healthy kids.
I love my children, really I do. Being a parent is the absolute, most wondrous thing that I have ever experienced. Still... every now and then... my little darlings can be a real pain in the neck.
And I'm not speaking figuratively. Adolescence has blown right past the "terrible two's" when it comes to cringe-inducing, brain-frying, jaw-clenching behavior. Some days I can actually feel the muscles in my neck tightening up. Then my right eye starts to twitch. Soon, my head is pounding.
Just another day of parenting pre-teens.
Of course, I can't blame it all on my kids. There is also my laptop, which I spend too many hours hunched over, typing away my life stories (or compulsively playing Freecell.) And then there are those forty-pound bags of salt, which I need to purchase and carry regularly to feed the voracious appetite of the water softening system in our basement.
There is much in life to strain, tighten and generally abuse our poor neck muscles. Fortunately, with a little extra attention, we can give them the care they need to stay strong and healthy. Here are three great ways to be nice to your neck:
1. Check Your Posture
Yes, I know, people have been telling you to stand up straight all your life. Still, if you start making a habit of checking in on your posture periodically throughout the day, you just might catch yourself doing some unnatural things with your spinal column. How are you doing behind the wheel of your car? Are you sitting comfortably, with your weight distributed evenly and your back and neck supported? Or are you listing to one side, determined to rest as much weight as possible on your left arm, propped up against the car door?
When you drop off to sleep at night, are your mattress and pillow supporting the natural contours of your body? Or is your neck bent at an unnatural 45 degree angle, because your mound of pillows is too hard or too big... perhaps it's the only way you can watch Jay Leno while still reclining?
I know that I need to remain vigilant whenever I am using my laptop. If I am not careful, I will find myself furiously typing away with my back rounded, shoulders hunched up around my ears and chin jutting forward to get my aging eyes just a couple inches closer to the screen. This position might work well if you are a lizard, but for humans, it is not good.
Tip: One of the best things I have found for training myself in the practice of good posture is yoga. When I started practicing yoga regularly about fifteen years ago, I was amazed at the difference it made in my posture, my strength and my overall sense of well-being. If you cannot make it to a studio on a routine basis, try the Total Yoga 4-Pack with Tracey Rich and Ganga White. It includes four DVD's of varying lengths and rigor, all of which are narrated with gentle, clear instructions. The "original" workout was my first ever yoga routine. Fifteen years later, it is still the best, most comprehensive yoga practice I have found.
2. Learn How to Care for Your Muscles
Do you know the difference between your sternocleidomastoids and your trapezius? Have you ever heard of referred pain, or trigger points? My massage therapist turned me on to the amazing Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief, by Clair Davies.
Davies describes trigger points as small contraction knots in your muscle tissue. They can apparently occur in just about any muscle in your body -- and Davies' book does indeed cover the human physique from head to toe. I've been reading the chapters on head, neck and shoulder pain over and over again.
For an information junkie, the easy-to-read, layman's descriptions of muscle function and dysfunction are fascinating. And the illustrations make everything crystal clear.
"So, that cord of muscle running from the back of my ear, down the side of my neck to my collar bone and currently stretched tighter than a rubber band wrapped three times 'round a deck of cards is called my sternocleidomastoid? Who would've thunk."
Perhaps the best thing about the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook is the inclusion of detailed instructions for self-care. First, you identify where you are feeling pain. The step-by-step guide then walks you through likely culprits -- i.e. the specific muscles that are "referring" pain to your point of discomfort. (For example, Davies explains that trigger points in your sternocleidomastoids could cause -- in addition to a stiff neck -- headaches over the eye, behind the ear and in the top of your head.) Finally, you are given clear instructions for massaging the muscle in question. Ta-da! Relief.
Tip: Can't reach that pesky trapezius, whose trigger points can also cause a stiff neck and which happens to splay halfway down your back? Try this nifty tool: The Thera Cane Massager is a sturdy plastic device that looks kind of like a shepherd's crook with various spikes and knobs sticking out in strategic places. It allows you to massage all sorts of hard-to-reach muscle tissue. I got one for myself and another for my mom. (Which ensures there is always one on hand when visiting the parents!)
I don't know anyone living in the world today who isn't bombarded by a relentless ocean of stress. We may think we are handling it just fine, but I respectfully beg to differ. That stiff, achy neck? Might be more than just a missed yoga class or too many hours in front of the computer...
In her seminal work, You Can Heal Your Life, Louise Hay tells us to listen to our bodies. Our various aches and pains might be our body's way of telling us to slow down and deal -- with our past and our present; our worries and our emotions.
Not surprisingly, Louise suggests that neck problems have to do with flexibility (or the lack thereof.) Take some quiet time and listen to what your body might be telling you. Have you made a habit of being stubborn, insisting that it's your way or the highway? Are there areas in your life where you are refusing to see another's perspective, or consider a different solution?
Where might a healthy dose of flexibility bring more peace to your life?
Tip: You may be thinking, "I'm too stressed/tired/ill to meditate." Or, "I'm listening, but my body's not saying anything." I've found a wonderful book for those of us who seek enlightenment, yet continue to struggle with the day-to-day stress of modern life. It is called, How Meditation Heals: Scientific Evidence and Practical Applications, by Eric Harrison.
It's western approach to the science of relaxation -- coupled with a full range of easy, practical tips -- might be just what you need to get started with your own meditation practice.
Be nice to your neck. Be kind to yourself. Relax and enjoy!
Remember, self-care is not a luxury. It is a necessity for today's busy parents -- especially those hoping to practice conscious parenting. For more ideas on how to take better care of yourself, see "It's All About You!"
I keep wondering how to live my life without accumulating stress faster than I release it. The best answer I've found so far is to live in the present. Read more in, "Happiness Now!"