The Importance of Ritual in Self-Care

Self-care has become a wildly popular concept in the last few years, especially in the field of mental health. While everyone has their own views of what constitutes self-care, I like this definition from PsycheCentral: “Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”

Despite its wholesome aim, self-care has a darker side. Anne Helen Peterson wrote about the negative effects of the commodification of self-care: “Give yourself a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! But much of self-care isn’t care at all: It’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate the burnout cycle, but to provide further means of self-optimization. At least in its contemporary, commodified iteration, self-care isn’t a solution; it’s exhausting.”

This is the primary problem with self-care: for many, it becomes just another task to squeeze into your schedule. In a society that encourages people to feel productive every moment of the day, it’s a cruel Catch-22: in trying to take care of yourself, you end up feeling guilty--or even more stressed out!  Beyond this, many people may not have the funds or the time to schedule regular massages, yoga classes, or even lunchtime walks outside (which points to a much larger conversation about money, power, and privilege).

Given these obstacles, how can we cultivate a form of self-care that truly betters our lives?

The answer can be found in this quote by Evette Dionne, editor-in-chief of Bitch Magazine: “Self-care is not about vacations and bubble baths--no matter what you’ve heard from an Instagram influencer. It’s a set of cultivated habits designed to preserve mental, emotional, and physical health.” The phrase “a set of cultivated habits” denotes that self-care needs to be integrated into our lives in a consistent, fundamental, and ritualistic way.

In a religious context, rituals are routinely-performed ceremonial acts, often in a community setting. In a self-care context, people adopt or create personal rituals for a variety of reasons: to calm, to ground, to set intentions, to feel empowered, to celebrate one’s body, etc. Humans have been performing rituals for at least 70,000 years, but in these busy times, we don’t always make space for the habits we know will nourish us.

Regular practices like yoga, meditation, and therapy are becoming more socially acceptable forms of self-care. And it can be particularly helpful to work with an expert in a self-care capacity, whether that’s a yoga instructor, meditation teacher, or therapist. Experts can help you create a safe space for self-exploration and self-support, as well as discuss ways in which you can further cultivate self-care on your own. When working with any teacher or therapist, it’s important to both take the time to find people who respect your agency and comfort, and to check in with yourself frequently throughout the process.

There are also many types of rituals that can be done on your own. On the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, one of the hosts sets aside her birthday “day” every month to work on items that are important but hard to make time for (create a budget, pay bills, etc.). Some create daily routines that help them take care of their minds or bodies. Ayurvedic practices often include daily practices of self-massage with oil, as well as a focus on the types of foods ingested. All rituals have the common thread of engaging in self care with intention and mindfulness.

As a therapist and yoga teacher, I’ve found that the cycles of the moon are an excellent opportunity to engage in self-care. Each month, the New Moon offers the start of a new cycle in which one can release what’s no longer needed and set intentions for the month ahead. Each New Moon is in a different astrological sign, an opportunity to focus on different areas of one’s life (career, relationships, home, etc.). I’ve led New Moon Circles with a group, but more often I do these practices on my own. Integrating this ritual into my schedule on a monthly basis gives me the opportunity to set aside time to focus on the inner work that I may not have the “time” to do otherwise.

Whatever rituals you choose, the sense of sacred ceremony imbues self-care with an extremely empowering message: my well-being matters. It becomes less about buying products and services, and more about taking the time and space to tune into oneself. Becoming more aware of our inner world is a gentle invitation to deepen our understanding and compassion. It also opens space for us to facilitate changes in other parts of our lives. Therapist Jack Moran stated: “Whenever you make a mindful choice to respond differently than usual, combining awareness with concrete action, your goals and motivations make a leap toward actualization.” Ritual self-care can give us a strong platform with which to move towards that actualization.