Self-Care: The Power of Routine
Gracy Obuchowicz is a self-care coach whose work is grounded in Ayurveda, a traditional Indian system of wellness. She’s also a yoga teacher, and she lives and works in Washington, D.C. When I talked with her recently, she had a lot to say about the importance of routine to self-care.
MD: How do you think about self-care? What’s the core of your approach?
GO: I work with women, so we we make a lot of space for the emotional journey, and we work on how are you sleeping, how are you feeding yourself, all these very basic cut-and-dry self-care skills. The emotional journey won’t work without the nuts and bolts. It’s not about routines, it’s about feeling fulfilled and good about yourself. But you need the routines to get there.
I started doing this work when I found Ayurveda, which is a sister science of yoga, but older. My life seemed to get a lot better when I had routines, and I [found I] could help other people do that as well. It was that basic.
MD: There was a piece in the New York Times recently about self-care and work (“Work is My Self-Care” by Anna North). In it, North makes the case that self-care in the West has come to be equated with idleness—but that it’s actually meaningful work that has the power to make us feel really good. What’s your take?
GO: It’s about balance. In the Ayurvedic view, we’ll go too far in one direction and we need to balance ourselves out by going in the other. If we’re too busy, we have to slow down. If we’re lethargic, we need to move. It’s really basic.
An essential Ayurveda concept is the idea that when we go out of balance, we start to create more of what unbalances us. Like people who are chronically stressed always taking on more.
So a lot of self-care is understanding where we get out of balance. Understanding our tendencies. We’re habitual creatures, and too much freedom unbalances us pretty deeply. Like a baby that needs to be swaddled, we need to be held by our daily routines.
Many people don’t feel safe in their lives. We look for safety in other people, we look for it in food, we look for it in things—but really, it’s our ability to care for ourselves that makes us feel safe.
MD: Often I hear people say You gotta take care of yourself if you’re gonna take care of others. What are you gonna give if your well is dry? and there’s something a little … defensive about that.
GO: If we’re authentically caring for ourselves, we probably do feel more connected to ourselves, less likely to take advantage of each other. Or the Earth.
Self-care is such a huge thing, and hard to define. I DO define it as something that gives you energy. A lot of people go down the numbing road: wine, tv, brownies. These things feel like self-care in the moment but they actually take your energy away. I always come back to it has to feel good the next morning. I have to feel proud I’ve done that thing, and not groggy.
MD: Why is self-care such a difficulty for women? Do you think it’s something that never gets transmitted to us, in the West, if we don’t grow up in, for example, an Ayurvedic culture?
GO: Yeah, I think that’s the crux. We know what we should do. We’re smart women.
It’s a question of role models. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how we’ve never had the role models of women who’ve had full autonomy. This has been our journey as women for a long time. Being told what to do. In the past, we had to do it!
Now there’s more rebellion. But if we don’t see it modeled for us, [it’s hard] to practice self-care.
So part of it is education. And part of it is looking for role models.
For me, everything has been inspired by meeting other women, Ann [Friedman, who with Aminatou Sow hosts the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend] being a great example of that. Seeing what Ann has done in her business has inspired me to take steps forward with my business.
As women we can either get threatened by that and shut down, or be inspired by that and step forward.
Same thing with self-care: We can look at someone taking good care of themselves and think Well who is she to do that? or we can think Well, why am I not doing this? If she’s getting a graduate degree and I’m jealous, maybe I want to study more.
But it’s two-pronged. We actually need to practice self-care to feel more valuable. More worthy. The more we feel it the more we believe [we’re worthy], which makes it easier to say Yes to things that are self-caring.
MD: A cycle of virtue. And that’s a good place for routine, because you can start one without belief in your value. I can decide to get a little more sleep or eat this thing that’s better for me without needing proof that I’m worth it.
Like, you can be wobbly in the theory department if you have a routine to keep you in place.
GO: Perfectionism is really the block. I tell my clients to make three tiny changes. I say “stupidly small.” We feel like we can’t change because we’ve tried to do it through willpower. “I’m gonna be this whole new person!” But we’ve failed again and again, not realizing it’s the system that doesn’t work.
Small changes, rewards, being gentle with ourselves: that does work.
MD: Well the whole context is fake, right? Perfectionism! If that’s your context, you’re dead in the water.
GO: Yeah. I’m so grateful to Brené Brown and her book The Gifts of Imperfection, because that’s what changed everything for me. Realizing Oh, this thing I’ve been trying for my whole life is actually the thing that’s keeping me miserable? Okayyyyy. Total game-changer for me to find that work!
MD: Back to rebellion. I imagine your clients hear about routines and think That’s a great idea! I’m gonna do that tomorrow! and tomorrow comes and they’re like Nahhhh…I’m not gonna do that. How do you work with that?
GO: I like to anticipate it, first of all and to speak about it before it happens. And to call it what it is: Resistance.
For some people resistance is over-scheduling themselves, some people will try to do it too well, some people will just get angry, like, Who is Gracy to tell me to do this?!
I think that’s great. I make a lot of space for resistance. Because it’s healthy. I don’t want you to do something because I told you to. I want you to do it because you want to do it. That’s where empowerment comes in—with self-awareness.
I always use the formula “self-care + self-awareness = self-love.” Just having habits—people can go through those in a very mechanical way, even in a damaging way, like overexercise, anorexia. And self-awareness might not be grounded in anything. So we need to have both.
And the rebel’s so healthy! That’s another thing I really stress, because the rebel is the part of us that stands up against wrong, and is self-differentiating, and helps us to take leadership, and advocates for us. So it’s about how to recognize that part, and not use it against yourself.
MD: If people fall out of their routine, what do you tell them about getting back on the horse? What’s the first step, and the next step?
GO: I’m always happy when, in my ten-week course, someone backslides. We learn to get ourselves out of it, and it wouldn’t be a sustainable course if we didn’t.
So yeah, people get excited, [they make changes], they start to feel really good, resistance comes in, they stop, and they feel bad about themselves.
This is where a group really comes in handy, for accountability. In [my class] the first step is sharing it. They have to tell the group, Hey guys this is what’s happening, I’m feeling like crap about this.
And the next thing is not to choose the hardest thing in the world to get back on track with. That’s how we sabotage ourselves.
MD: What do you tell your people about Ayurveda? Is it explicit?
GO: Yeah, I don’t know how I would teach about self-care without Ayurveda. I always share the Eastern and the Western perspective and I really love that place where they intersect. I tell that to people: Take what feels right.
MD: If people want to learn more about Ayurveda, what would be a good beginning resource? And if they want to work with you?
MD: Gracy, one last question: If you could make the world over in such a way that self-care was easy for people, what would you change?
GO: I would let people know it’s OK to care. We’re so numbed from our ability to care about ourself or care about other people. And I don’t think it’s because we’re bad people. I think we don’t know how to handle suffering.
First starting with yourself, letting yourself know it’s okay to care about yourself. And then understanding that that links to your ability to care about other people.
MD: Thank you so much.
(Even the most humble routines, like doing the washing-up, can be nourishing. Hey—is that a cloche?)
Image: De ketelschuurster, Louis Bernard Coclers, 1780. Rijksmuseum.