Self-Care Ritual: "Mat Time"
I clearly remember the first time I became aware of the sacredness of my yoga mat. I was a junior in college, at a yoga studio in New Orleans, with twinkly lights around all of the windows and the relaxing smell of incense filling my nostrils and mind. I was new to yoga, but familiar enough to understand the rhythm of a class and just barely beginning to tap into the quiet calmness that the practice can cultivate.
As I rolled out my mat to rest in child's pose before the class began, I looked around at everyone else creating their own peaceful little space. Folded over my knees, I thought to myself that over the course of my lifetime, through every change and chapter; this mat, and this pose, would always be there for me. On that particular day, I was in a relaxed state without much besides my normal routine taking up my headspace. As I rested quietly, I let my mind wander down different projections of my future.
Someday, I would be on my yoga mat while grieving the loss of someone I love deeply, or filled with worry about leaving a new baby at home for the first time. I became poignantly aware that in the future, as I moved through the happiest days of my life, and the worst days of my life, as I changed and transformed, this mat and this space would be there for me. I'm prone to overthinking, so you can imagine what a rabbit hole this turned into for me. I spent the whole class swept up in imagining my return to this mat through different seasons of my life; broken hearted, lost, engaged, as a mother, etc. Envisioning all of the twists and turns ahead of me, but knowing that this place would be a constant refuge and witness to it all, felt like a big revelation.
My yoga practice, along so many other activities I enjoyed, suffered immensely as I shifted from episodic to chronic migraine. I felt like my body was pushing me farther and farther away from everything that made me, “me”. My relationships suffered, as I was filled with anger and fear and couldn't comprehend why everyone around me didn't feel the same way too. I started to dread seeing friends, as plans filled me with anxiety instead of excitement. Simply interacting with people predictably triggered migraine pain, something I was so desperately trying to keep at bay. Exercise felt punishing, as doing anything aerobic started a pounding in my head that relentlessly morphed into the familiar sharpness behind my eyes, over and over again. As I stood on this new, desolate, storming island of chronic, daily pain, desperately waving my hands for help, it felt like nobody could hear me. Afraid of what was happening to me, unsure of the person I was becoming, I shifted into survival mode.
It took at least a year and a half until I started to scrape together some coping tools that helped me begin to feel like myself again. Working with a chronic pain psychologist was a pivotal part of my treatment, and helped me to cast out lifelines to my family and boyfriend. Learning how to communicate my needs, own my emotions and share my experience in a way that was healthy, improved my relationships dramatically. I also started working with a health coach (Sarah Small, highly recommend!) and exploring the emotional side of healing.
After working together for a while, Sarah and I were stuck trying to come up with a morning ritual to help me feel grounded and calm in the midst of so much physical chaos. Mornings were, and still are, extremely variable for me, migraine wise. Often before even opening my eyes, I'm confronted with migraine pain which I know will require icepacks, medication and at least four hours (often longer) to begin to subside. Other days, I am able to get up and have a "normal" routine, with what I think will be a tolerable level of pain, only to realize after an hour, that it is not the type of pain I can push through, and I have to go back to bed to rest and treat it.
I felt like this level of variability restricted me from engaging in a morning routine, and struggled to come up with ideas that seemed feasible. Even more than that, I was frustrated that every time I did try to create a routine, I could never sustain it for more than a few days. This inability to commit to a morning routine felt like another cruel compromise to migraine, another area where I could not win.
But during one of our calls, we came up with the idea of "mat time". Mat time would be my morning-(ish) routine, and it could be completed at any time of the day. The only requirement for mat time was rolling out my yoga mat, and being on it physically, for ten minutes every day. During these ten minutes, I could listen to a guided meditation (this is when I started using the Calm app, still my favorite meditation resource), journal, do stretches, write a gratitude list, do yoga or even just move from lying in my bed with ice on my eyes to lying on my mat with ice on my eyes. The point was not about what I did on my mat, but simply that I made it to my mat.
This routine gave me so much confidence and was one of the first small ways I really felt myself taking my power back from chronic migraine. Every single day that I completed my new routine, I felt pride in having done so and anchored to a deeper sense of calm. Rolling out my mat again, I was reminded of the insight I'd had three and a half years before, as a college junior, untouched by chronic illness. I reconnected to the idea I had become so disconnected from, about the sacredness of this mat, this space: about how time and space would change me as a person, but how no matter how circumstances shifted, this mat would be here for every version of me, time and time again.
I had a long hiatus from connecting with my yoga mat, but it somehow reinforced the lesson I had learned so long ago even more. No matter how long you go without kneeling on your mat, it will always be there. To catch you at your lowest low, or to support you during your highest high. Bringing my new consciousness about mindfulness to my yoga mat allowed me to understand and appreciate this special time on an even deeper level. To use it as a tool to anchor me into the present moment, whenever and wherever that moment is.
I think we all have places and spaces like this in our lives, that with awareness, we can recognize and honor. Spaces that no matter what changes, will always be there for us. Today, I don't use mat time daily, as I have lots of other tools in my self-care toolkit to connect me to that sense of calm. But I do still use it, and I know that through all of the seasons of my life, it will be there for me.