When your body gets needy, do you respond with judgement or self-compassion? The latter may be the key to helping your physical and mental health
How many times during this snuffly, sniffly winter of discontent have you felt yourself getting sick and thought, “I don’t have time for this?” Or felt the crushing exhaustion or heavy mood that comes the week before your period and just continued to push, push, push on through, because we’re women and it’s what we do? Too often, we view the more needy sides of our delicate ol’ human bodies with judgement, rather than understanding. And it’s this understanding – and, even better, self-compassion – towards our health, that The Health Shed holistic health coach Sian Leigh and Wellbeing coach Sara Acland are hoping to help people embrace.
‘Everybody needs some self-care … and you should do it before you’re broken. Because unfortunately, everybody breaks at some point in their lives’
“Your experience of perimenopause and menopause is determined by what you start doing in your 30s and your 40s,” Sian says. A large part, she says, of that is managing your relationship with alcohol, to help protect your overworked liver from managing those hormonal changes, but it’s also about changing our relationship to stress. “I have so many successful businesswomen clients, the kind of women you look up to and think, ‘How do you do it all?!’ and they’re falling apart,” she says. “Genetically speaking – we’re still cavemen. Our minds have evolved, but our bodies haven’t.” Our bodies, Sian points out, are fundamentally built to endure 15 seconds of cortisol a day without disrupting our hormones. Most people are experiencing that before they even get out of bed.
Like many people who work in this field, Sian is speaking from experience. “For 15 years I had my own import business and two young kids, and my massive error was I had so much guilt associated with taking a break, with lying down, putting my feet up, always thinking ‘Oh, I hope no-one sees me!,’” she laughs. “I used to say, ‘I have to go and do my meditation!’ and now I say, ‘I’m going to have a nap.’ It’s about embracing the idea that rest is a fundamental part of surviving and then of thriving.”
‘It’s about embracing the idea that rest is a fundamental part of surviving and then of thriving.’
The double shift of motherhood and caregiving is a particularly gnarly part of the mid-life challenge. Of course, it’s not just mothers and caregivers who are burning the candles at both ends – show me a well-rested person in this day and age, I challenge you – but they are generally dealing with less time to do all of the nice, self-care-y things that can help balance out life a bit. As part of her role as a yoga teacher, Sian says she spends the final part of the class going round and putting blankets on people and there is always someone – a woman, of course – who says “No-one has put a blanket on me for about 20 years.”
It’s one of the reasons Sian has teamed up with Sara and has moved into the mini-retreat space, creating weekend or week-long escapes to help whisk people away from their normal lives, cook for them, help them rest, guide them through yoga and mediation, nurture them with massage, jin shin jujitsu and facials, and also educate them about their hormonal health and why, at certain points of our monthly cycle, we need to treat ourselves with the gentle kid gloves we treat other people.
“When you learn about your hormonal health, it changes everything,” Sian says. “Teaching people what’s going on in their 28-day cycle, or after they have a baby, or as they move through menopause… and then helping them have self-compassion for that. Because that self-compassion is life-changing.”
I attended a retreat last year in Glenorchy where I met Sian and, as I wrote at the time*, I felt like the four days there truly undid one full year of pandemic stress. Sian and Sara’s Wanaka based retreats are short, nurturing and designed to prioritise rest, while also setting up the tools you need moving forward. But while a retreat might not be possible for a lot of people, the twin beliefs of valuing rest and practicing self-compassion are far more achievable. This can mean weekly or monthly changes – leaning into the need to lie down when you’re tired, going to a weekly yoga class, booking in a monthly massage. It’s about building your self-compassion tool box, Sian says.
“It’s a case of people recognising that everybody needs some self-care and everybody needs a bit of love, and you should do it before you’re broken,” she says. “Because unfortunately, everybody breaks at some point in their lives; you have a trauma, you lose a loved one, you lose a job, you have a child, you’re raising kids… and you want to have the tools in your tool box and be ready for that situation.”
* I attended the Glenorchy retreat last year as a gifted PR retreat, which featured Sian, and I wrote about it here.