“Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others”—useful reminders on finding balance.
In my previous life as a flight attendant, I used to utter the words above on a daily basis. They have followed me far past my short-lived career in aviation, through many life circumstances, and into my current role as a yoga teacher, wife, and mother of three girls. This advice rings true in my life today and acts as a spiritual guideline when the going gets tough.
Living in The Netherlands, we celebrate a certain Christian holiday every year in the fall, right after the North American Halloween. Many Dutch people have forgotten about the meaning of the holiday and so it has been an interesting theme in my regular yoga classes for several years.
The Netherlands is full of some beautiful (but often overlooked) stories that remind us of how we can live in alignment with abundance and love. The incredible story of Saint Martin is such a story, and is the root of the current festival. On an evening halfway through November, usually in the cold and rain (this is Holland, after all!), many Dutch children will light their lanterns and go out to the streets. They go from door to door and sing songs about Saint Martin to receive candy and goodies.
The sweet tale of Saint Martin and his compassionate generosity is one that resonates with us today.
The story of this saint is beautiful and simple: once upon a time one cold, stormy night in France, a young Roman soldier arrived at the city walls of Amiens after a long and harrowing trip with his army. He was tired and cold and longed for a meal and warm bed and shelter for his horse.
Within the safe city walls he knew he would find an inn that would provide him with food and shelter. But just before he entered the city gates, he saw a beggar outside of the city walls, naked and cold. The beggar was in great despair, had no clothes and was crying out for help. He pleaded in agony for Martin to take pity on him. The young soldier stopped to help the poor soul, but not having any food or money to give him, he cut his cape in two and gave half of it to the beggar.
That same night as Martin slept safe and sound at the inn, he had a dream, a vision where the same beggar appeared and honored Martin for his good deed, proclaiming that what he did for the poor man, he did for God.
A beautiful lesson can be taken from this story: it is as important to take care of yourself as it is to share. For a long time, I was baffled about why Martin gave only half of his cape. It seemed a little selfish to keep half of it for himself, if he really wanted to help the man. In the past few years, it has started to make more sense to me. By sharing only half of his cloak, Martin gave the beggar all he could without leaving himself exposed completely to the elements. In those days, a cloak was much more than just a cape; it was a valuable commodity that lasted for years. It was not something to give away easily or carelessly.
This is a powerful metaphor to remind us how important it is to keep our boundaries and stay true to ourselves. It is only when we provide for ourselves that we can be of any use to others. This is a seemingly hard statement—just writing it down feels egotistical! We find it so difficult to start with ourselves first, at the risk of being selfish, especially with our loved ones. But in reality, if we’re here to help others, we have to be able to help ourselves first. This starts with love.
Putting on your own oxygen mask: self-love and generosity
Applying this to our life off the mat, consider what happens to us in relationships when we give too much of ourselves, or give our entire cloak away, so to speak. Have you ever felt like the work, the thought and the care that you put into a relationship was so much more than what the other party was putting into it? Giving it your all and not getting anything in return? I have, and those situations inevitably have led to suffering.
Every relationship, from parents to co-workers to lovers, consists of a dynamic balance between giving and receiving. Remaining true to our selves, loving our selves and respecting our own boundaries is vital to keeping this balance. Denying ourselves care and love leads to resentment, blame and all sorts of other negative emotions that can spoil the beauty and abundance of any relationship.
At the same time, we are not empowering or giving the other person in the relationship the space to take up his or her own part. We may all find ourselves in a situation like this at some point in our lives, and assessing our own part in this process is the key to bringing the relationship to a place of healthy balance. Our life’s purpose is not to be carried completely by others, or to carry them completely. We are all responsible for our own part in the whole, loving ourselves fully and firstly and from that place, sharing the abundance. This path of being is empowering to everyone in the relationship and creates equality and balance.
Taking it to the mat
In our practice, it starts on our yoga mat. Many people (myself included) have high expectations of themselves when they’re on their mat. They push their bodies to the brink, the muscles harden and they often forget about the need to breathe, to soften, and to absorb what’s happening in the process of the practice. This is a vital aspect of the practice of yoga—we progress by practice and contemplation.
Asking yourself these simple questions will lead to a deeper understanding of your attitude in the equation: How are you dealing with yourself on your mat? Does your practice come from a deep self-love or the feeling of inadequacy? Do you place yourself in a position to receive – do you feel worthy to?
The sometimes delicate balancing point of the giving and receiving can quickly get lost on a bad day when we’re not paying attention to the balance or when we don’t feel like we deserve the bounty; at the end of the practice, there is frustration, physical exhaustion or worse, an injury. Practice mindfully and with great care for your boundaries, and set your intentions on (self) love.
From this starting point, your yoga will blossom.
In this light, it is important to take moments in your life, daily, weekly, to look inside and ask what it is that you need and what you would like to invite into your body, into your life. Set your attention to receive abundantly and with great love for yourself.
This helps you to get a better picture of what you can give out as well; the more you receive, the more you are able to give. It’s that simple. Relationships are not based on just giving. There are no freebies to get into a well-balanced connection. Everybody has to put in the work, and by staying true to our own needs, we can honestly, freely and lovingly share what we have to offer.
Native Dutchie Sandra Carson loves to tie stories of all ages into her yoga and life. Using stories, personal coaching and the practice of yoga as ways to come to a deeper understanding and acceptance of herself makes her a nicer person and a better yoga teacher. You can read and see more about her on Flow with Grace and Ekhart Yoga.
Editor: Edith Lazenby
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