Wellness Starts with Self … Capital S

Wellness Starts with Self … Capital S

woman meditating silhouette in sunlight

I share a different perspective on “self-care” and how it ultimately benefits the world around us.

This was originally featured in the Traveling Within section of the International Yoga Teacher Spotlight series.

How do we take care of ourselves when things are challenging?

The first thing I would say on the topic of self-care during challenging times is that it is not a luxury, it is a must. Recognizing that some of our time and attention needs to go towards our well-being in addition to the time we may need to give towards managing the challenging circumstances is essential. Our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness is going to directly influence how we can cope with our situation. If we are remaining fairly balanced, then our choices and actions will come from that balanced space. If we are the opposite; stressed, anxious, physically exhausted, nutritionally depleted, then our decisions are going to reflect that state of being. We may find ourselves taking actions in ways that are exaggerating the problems we are facing rather than functioning at our best to manage them.

You titled the article Wellness starts with Self … capital S. What do you mean by capital S?

We often think of self-care as the things we do to nurture and support our physical bodies and emotional being. For instance; some self-care practices we may choose to do include the food we are eating. Choosing to eat healthy and highly nutritious foods and staying away from foods that agitate our nervous systems is a good practice to do anytime but especially during times of challenge. Getting enough exercise is important. Getting enough sleep is important. Talking to a therapist could be necessary. All of these things are important to replenish our reserves, boost our energy and support us with clarity but they are often not enough. When our lives get turned upside down, these are powerful times of transition and transformation. Calling on our deeper Self, the wisest and most spiritual aspect of our nature, that part of us that remains the same no matter what the surrounding circumstances, is what will offer us some steady ground and perspective. It is this Self that can observe with a more panoramic vision all that is going on. This is the Self that is the source of new habits and patterns of being which are often the keys to helping us move forward through these transitional periods.

The Self (capital S) is usually experienced as a deep silence space within. But even though it is felt inwardly as a reservoir of quiet and peace it manifests outwardly as a strong, resilient guide for our life choices. An inner stronghold in which we can rely upon even in the heaviest of storms. A last thing about the Self is that this Self (capital S) is not something out there that we have to strive hard to reach. We are already the Self and all that needs to be done is to recognize this inherent source of creative vitality, wisdom and love.

What are some practices that you suggest we do?

Begin by recognizing and honoring the time period you are in.

Taking some time in quiet reflection to step back from all of the chaos and just listen. Meditation is a great tool for this. Even if it is only for 5 minutes a day. That 5 minutes of doing nothing but just being quiet can become the most important 5 minutes of your day.


Attend to yourself with both wisdom and kindness.

Wisdom is how we gain insight into our deeper selves and kindness is the necessary ingredient that helps opens us up to more care. Treating yourself kindly could be as simple as eating a good nourishing meal or taking a walk in the woods. Whatever it is that you find comforting, do more of it.


Accept the “not-knowing” part of the process.

You may be moving into unfamiliar territory and want to know all of the answers right away. As Raine Maria Rilke says, be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart, learning to love the questions themselves.”


And at the same time, you accept the “not-knowing,”

Live the experience that even though you do not understand; somewhere, it is understood.

Acknowledging the mystery of the Greater Universe and the presence of the Self, the deeper part of your nature that does know that it is all OK just as it is.


Be willing to ask for support when you need it and seek out others’ help and presence.

Building a network of “care-givers” when you are having a hard time caring for yourself is essential.


The last thing I would share is that our “Self-Care” is not selfish.

We can think of it as the foundation of selflessness. When we feel healthy, balanced, nourished and centered in our wisest Self, we not only have more to offer others but what we will offer will be more skillful and compassionate.




Returning Home

Returning Home


I just returned home from leading a 7 -day retreat at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala and I notice that my capacity for the busyness that is going on around me has diminished. I find myself overwhelmed by even the simple act of driving my car to the grocery store and shopping for food. What happens when we go on retreat and how do we return back to our daily life? Depending upon the type of retreat you go on, your days were probably filled with hours of meditation, yoga practice and quiet restful periods where you were removed from the usual tasks that fill up your days. Sounds heavenly’ right?  Well, it is.

Retreats offer us the opportunity to slow our days down so that the quality of our attention can focus more on being rather than doing.  We get the chance to re-organize how we spend our time.  We unplug.  Not just from our technological devices but also from the daily habits that may or may not be healthy for us. On retreat, our bodies re-adjust to new schedules and new ways of doing things.  We eat healthier, sleep better and exercise more.  New friends, new experiences and new insights inspire us. So after all of this, how do we come back home and return to our responsibilities?

Here are 6 things you can do to ease the transition back home:

1. Plant the Seeds

Your transition back home begins when you are on the retreat. If you can plant the seeds for your life after retreat while you are on the retreat, the chances of maintaining what you learned and experienced on the retreat will be more successful. Setting clear intentions to adopt different and healthier behaviors at home while you are in the supportive environment of the retreat is so important.

2. Give yourself time to come back

If possible, organize your schedule so that you have some days off at home before you have to return to work.  This will give you time to re-integrate slowly.  If you were out of the country, you may need some space to re-adjust to a time difference. You can also use the days off to process what you gained from your retreat experience. This off time can also be a great way of supporting your commitment to the healthy new behaviors you experienced on retreat; clearing your pantry of old foods and shopping for new healthier foods is a good way of continuing your retreat habits at home.  Setting up a new meditation space at home can help support the continuation of daily meditation practice. The first 3 days can be disorienting, so allow yourself time to settle back in slowly – even with social activities.  Keeping your calendar simple and un-busy is a good idea as you re-adjust back home.

3. Compassionately commit to changing your habits

I say compassionately commit because changing habits is hard.  You can use your time away on retreat to learn more about your patterns and when you return back home begin to make small adjustments in the areas of your life you would like to change.  But remember to do this with kindness.   Even adding in one small practice to your back home life can help you maintain your retreat.

4. Remember your family

You probably did not have family go with you on your retreat.  They stayed back home and tended to the things that you stepped away from.  It is a good idea to gently remind yourself of this as you transition back home. They did not have the experiences you did and they will most likely feel a little outside of your new sense of self.  It may be necessary to also remind them that you have been away and that you may need a little more quiet time the first few days. Helping your family understand this even before you go on retreat can be supportive. Also, it is good to remember to thank your family for their support.  They may have been taking care of the pets, the house, and other tasks while you were away.   Sharing your gratitude for them can help ease your transition back into your responsibilities.  They may even offer to continue taking over those tasks for the first few days of your return to allow you more time to come back. Sharing your experiences from the retreat and your new insights about what you want to change in your life can be tricky with members of your family as they may not share those same desires.  Be mindful of how to introduce these new ideas into the family household.  Getting everyone on board in a kind and inspiring way has a better chance of success.

5. Find a community that supports your new choices

If you do not already have a community around you that supports what you were engaged in on your retreat, healthy diet and lifestyle, yoga and meditation, now is a really good time to find that.
Look for a yoga studio or meditation hall where you can take classes to continue your practice.  Being around others who have the same healthy interests that you now do can strengthen your commitment to this new way of being.

6. Calendar in another retreat for the future

It is a great idea to schedule another retreat for yourself in 6 months to a year while you are still basking in the energy of the current retreat.  This will help support you when some months have passed and you find yourself losing the inspiration to keep up your good habits.  People who are successful at maintaining their yoga, diet, and meditation practices are those who take the time to refresh their healthy habits every six months or year with some type of immersive time away to practice.   Planning your year with an annual retreat is a good way to strengthen your life journey for years to come.

These are just a few ideas to support your return back home. The gift of retreat is the opportunity to step outside our normal routines and to spend some quality time focusing on you.  Remember when you are filled up, inspired and re-charged, you have more to give.  As I settle back into my daily life back at home, I can sense what I gained from my time in Guatemala in the smallest of ways.  I am still moving a little slower and more mindfully and my appreciation for my practice has deepened.

Finding Refuge in Your Yoga Practice

Finding Refuge in Your Yoga Practice


 Podcast: Finding Refuge in Your Yoga Practice
Questions and answers with Erika Belanger on August 19, 2018

The actual Podcast recording can be found here at this link:
Below are the questions and my answers from the Podcast.  They vary a little from the actual recording.
I hope you enjoy both.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what brought you to yoga originally?

I found yoga in my early 20’s.  My husband at the time was a chiropractor and wholistic doctor and so he was the one who said we should try yoga.  It was not a particularly challenging time in my life…nothing major going on other than the usual.  I was just out of college, getting married and trying to sort out what I was going to do with the rest of my life…which is what you are asking yourself at that time. 

I had been a “spiritual seeker” from my early childhood so trying yoga seemed to make sense.  After my first class, I (like many long time yoga practitioners often say) had an immediate connection with it.  It felt like I had found my path. 

During that time, I was and had been training as a dancer and teaching dance to children.  I was dancing every day, teaching several times a week, doing shows which basically means I did not need more exercise or body movement in my life.  So I was not seeking that from yoga. 

I have told many of people that I did not go to yoga classes in the beginning for the asana practice.  I went for the philosophy, meditation, pranayama and the spiritual teachings.  Luckily for me, my early teachers were students of Krishnamacharya (who was still alive then)  and TKV Desikachar.  These early teachers taught classes that were a combination of asana, pranayama, philosophy and meditation. 

It was only later in my yoga life that I found myself diving deeper into the asana portion of the yogic path. 

How do you define or see the idea of refuge?

I read this statement somewhere written by a Buddhist monk:
When we trust that we are the Ocean, we are not afraid of the waves.”

That is what Refuge means to me.  Refuge is the place I can go  where I can feel that I am the ocean…that vast, infinite, connected to everything space where even the waves that are crashing all around me are OK. 

Of course, this is easier to say then do.  To experience yourself as that deep infinite…OK with everything that arises is a life-long or more likely many lives long practice. 

What does it mean to seek refuge in our practice for you?

Taking Refuge is something we do over and over again.  It is whatever you find that can help you find solid ground again and feel safe.  It is an internal “safe haven”. 

How is refuge different than sanctuary?

Refuge is different than Sanctuary only in the sense that a Sanctuary could be an actual place….like a temple, church, yoga studio, your home, out in nature….a place that you feel safe and secure and that can support you finding your center again.  A Sanctuary could also be a person or people …a community of people. 

They are both important..and often we need to have a Sanctuary to go to so that we can find refuge. 

I think for many people the yoga studio is a Sanctuary for them.  I like that…I often think of that when I am teaching.

How does that type of practice look like/feel like? Energetically, physically, mentally?

A practice that you can take refuge in should do the following:    

    • First  – it should calm you down and help you feel a certain inner peacefulness again
    • Secondly  – It should clear your energy and your mind.  Supporting you to have mental focus and some emotional stability.  This will help you to see things more truthfully as they really are  …help you gain perspective.

I like to say that a “good practice” will help clear my mind enough to give me some “space” from the issue that is bothering me.  That “space” is usually enough for me to then begin to see the issue differently .this often helps me to handle the issue with more skill.

    • And lastly the practice should support you in connecting to something bigger…it should help you experience that sense of being the Ocean…that we are part of something bigger more Divine….something Holy so that you can recognize the Infinite Awareness within …even if it is momentarily.

These 3 benefits must be there for us to truly feel “changed” by the practice. 

We should feel an inner calm, have a quieter heart/mind, able to focus our minds more steadily and to have an experience of being connected to Infinite Awareness….which arises out of our inner quietness.      

In most of the Wisdom/Spiritual Traditions taking refuge meant that you are seeking refuge in a particular Divine Being…like Krishna, Buddha, Christ or any other spiritual deity. 

Taking refuge in this Divine Being means that you both asking for that Divine Being’s support and guidance in your life and you are recognizing that those qualities that that Divine Being possesses, you also have. 

So; in other words, you are saying I will remember that I too am good, honest, courageous, loving, peaceful, holy. 

We also have those wise qualities that this Divine Being has and we bow to that and remember to live in more integrity with those qualities.    

Thomas Merton who was a Trappist Monk and wrote one of my favorite books called Entering the Stillness..wrote about refuge by saying….that he ended each day by being near God.

He said that he would be near God and talk about his day. What was he frustrated by?  What was he hopeful about?  What did he do well?  What did he not do well?  Just talking to “God” as a way to be near to the Divine. 

I like this image of Taking Refuge.  To just be near God, Universal Presence or any other word that helps you to invoke a sense of being connected to something sacred and holy. 

What in your life made you seek refuge in your yoga practice?

Honestly …..everything.

Every day of my life is a call for me to Take Refuge.  I am not sure how anyone else’s life goes but mine is almost always a series of “ups and downs”….some days are amazing…everything going perfectly and I am loving life…and then other days are either some internal battle I have going on….I feel uninspired or challenged by something outside of myself.  Relationships issues, health issues, family issues, etc…

The bigger answer to this question is that from an early age I found that I was looking for a deeper meaning to my existence.  I found most things to be a challenge and I wanted to know why?  And I began to ask the questions most spiritual seekers ask….who was I?….And what was this life about?   What was my purpose in this life? 

Big, deep questions that moved in me the desire to Take Refuge as I like to call it. 

What are your thoughts about pain and suffering in general, as part of the human experience

Hum?   I am not sure how to answer this question. 

I guess I could say that it seems to be a part of our human experience and as difficult as it is to go thru pain and suffering, these painful experiences are often our greatest teachers.  This is the paradox of human experience. 

None of us want to suffer but the suffering is what often moves us out of our unhealthy patterns. 

I think it is not so much that there will not be suffering but how we handle the pain and suffering rather than the suffering itself that becomes the powerful transformer in our lives. 

We can gain enormous inner strength from these experiences. 

This is where our daily practices can support us in finding an inner refuge where we can be in our center even amidst the challenges. 

What parts of the practice are the most potent in your opinion when what we seek safety and shelter?

I obviously think meditation is the most important thing you can do as part of a daily practice. 

A meditation practice that helps you to focus your mind away from all of the distractions of daily life, a practice that supports you in experiencing yourself as you are now, a practice that brings you into the present and a practice that awakens in you the experience that you are not alone, that we are connected to some Divine force…whether you call it God, Divine, Universal Presence, or a more specific name.  And that that Divine Presence is always there supporting you, guiding you and loving you.

And a meditation practice that supports you having an experience of a deeper awareness that is beyond your thoughts, emotions, worries, concerns.”

Many people find meditation to be difficult especially in the early years of their yoga practice.  If that is the case, your yoga asana practice can be your meditation.  As long as you do a asana practice that is mindful enough to help you feel an inner calm and clarity again and when you are done with it, you feel more at ease.   

You also do workshops about the Yamas and Niyamas, I see a clear connection between the two subjects. How are they related for you

According to my philosophy teacher, practicing the Yamas in particular but also the Niyamas help to create an environment around us that is peaceful and safe.

For instance; when we practice Ahimsa, being kind to others, not harming, it sets up both an inner environment and an outer environment which is non-violent.   When we are not “at war” with others in our lives or within ourselves,  the conditions for us to do a  practice are better.   We feel more at ease and the space around us is more at ease.    

Also; according to Patanjali, the reason we practice the 8 Limbs of Yoga, in which the first two limbs or stages of our yoga practice are the Yamas and the Niyamas is to clear away the obstacles that prevent us from clearly seeing the difference between the (never changing) permanent inner light of awareness and the ever changing …ever fluctuating and reactive part of our nature.

This is the reason for the 8 Limbs of Yoga beginning with the Yamas and the Niyamas. 

They are absolutely connected to our ability to Take Refuge. 

How much does traditional texts influence/support you in developing this kind of practice?

Quite a bit. 

I have been fortunate to have been exposed to these great wisdom texts from early in my yoga life. I also consider myself fortunate in that I took such a great interest in the study of these texts.  Often studying them even without the support of a teacher but of course I have also had teachers in philosophy. 

I believe that to be firmly grounded on a yogic path you must study the traditional texts.  They are sacred books that hold many keys to spiritual awakening. 

Why do you want to offer refuge to your students? What do they need refuge from? How did you know/when did you realize you could serve your community in that way?

I do not think I am offering refuge to my students.  I am merely sharing what has been shared with me.  I truly believe that having a good solid daily practice (whether you do it every day or most days) and a good teacher (this is important especially in the beginning) helps to offset the challenges that our lives will always present to us.  We need to develop an inner stability, a balanced and quieter mind that can see things a little clearer.  And I believe that having a connection with (shall we say) Spirit is also essential for up-lifting us on a daily basis.  This Spiritual connection helps to inspire us to become better people and therefore helping us (little by little) to up-lift the world around us. 

What kind of skill are you hoping to develop in your student

Really I hope to inspire them to want to do a daily practice of meditation and self-reflection.  In addition to their yoga asana practice. 

What’s the place or the importance of the community when we seek refuge

Very important. 

Having a good community around us is so important for support on this path.  In the Buddhist tradition, taking Refuge in the Sangha (community) is one of the 3 Refuges.   

Knowing that you are surrounded by like-minded people who are on this path together can bring great comfort.  Plus; we all know that many times the people in our Sangha become our sounding boards when we are going thru troubled times …offering support on so many levels.  And those same people since they are walking this same path can remind us of who we really are when we have lost that inner connection.   

Where can people find out more about you/this?   

I am a local Bay Area yoga/meditation teacher. 

My website is www.erikatrice.com.  You find more about my classes, workshops and retreats there.  Feel free to sign up for my mailing list on my website.  I am also offering a workshop the weekend of September 8 &  9, 2018  in Mill Valley at Yoga Works called The Refuge of Practice.  Just this topic. 

Is there anything important I’m forgetting you would like to touch on?

I think they only other thing I would like to say is that our practice can bring us so much but it is always important to realize that many times we need the support of someone outside of us when times are really challenging.  Asking for this support does not negate your practice but it is usually a direct result of your practice.  Because the practice has brought you some clarity and from this clarity you may see the need to ask for additional support in the way of counseling, or a spiritual mentor or body work or group classes, etc. 

It is important to recognize the role of the helpers in our lives.


Permission to Play

Permission to Play


 I love this phrase.  What does it mean to give yourself permission to play? And more importantly; why do we have to give ourselves permission?  Shouldn’t this just be a natural expression in our lives.

Many years ago I watched a documentary on dolphins.  Some amazing person figured out how to film dolphins in their natural habitat by creating a robot camera that was “hidden” in a fake dolphin.  It could swim with the dolphins and they did not seem to mind it being there.

What was great about this was that so many previously unknown dolphin behaviours were discovered.  One of them was that dolphins retain their sense of playfulness all their lives.

I remember one scene where the dolphins were “throwing” a piece of seaweed back and forth between themselves as if it were a ball.  And what struck the researchers so powerfully was that there was no reason for this behavior, it was just for fun.

I am a very disciplined person.  I do my practices on a regular basis. Oftentimes, getting stressed if I do not get the chance to do them because of life circumstances that arise.

What… who gets stressed if they do not meditate?

Let’s face it…no one should but I often do.  Not a trait that I am proud of.  Being focused and discipline is a good thing but staying soft and compassionate around that discipline is a better thing.

I have been asking myself lately…how can I give myself more permission to play.  And what about play is good for me?  Everything.

Play is defined as “an activity without purpose or aim”.  No goal in mind except for the sense of enjoyment.

Researchers have noticed that in animals this play behavior develops other fundamental skill sets that would normally not be developed.  For instance, connection to others in their group or a feeling arises that stimulates the body’s natural pleasure hormones.  Animals that play often develop new limits to their capacities that they normally would not have experienced.

Think about the times that you just let go in some activity often finding out that your capability was more than you previously experienced.

This was something I noticed when I was learning how to balance in an forearm stand  (aka…Pincha Mayurasana).  I had been diligently practicing at the wall for years with all the correct alignment and then one day I just went in the center of the room, let go of focusing so much on alignment and just played with kicking up.  Bingo….I balanced.  No effort just pure fun.  It was great.

Most of the researches agree….play is a necessary activity for us to feel relaxed, connected to others and happy.

Giving myself permission to play is my new mantra. 

Maybe it can be yours.


Taking A Sacred Pause

Taking A Sacred Pause


 On January 14th, my mother unexpectedly died.   One month before, I sat with  a good  friend of mine as she passed away from cancer.

Since January through June is my busy time of year…teacher trainings, workshops, retreats, my classes full of re-committed yoga students, I kept on going with my normal schedule.  No time to pause and reflect on the affect these major life events were having on me and my life.

 “I will take a break when all of my obligations were complete.” I kept saying to myself while I inwardly knew I needed some time to process.

How well planned and responsible of me.  Complete your schedule as usual and then take a break.

Fortunately; things do not always work out like we planned.

On March 27th, my body not my mind took the steering wheel of my life and turned my well organized plans completely around.  I woke up with a horrible fever and could not get out of bed.  And that is where I stayed for the 2 weeks.

That was my call to surrender to what was really happening, I needed to take a pause from my very scheduled and fully booked life.   I knew I needed time to just be with all that had happened.

 I guess I could say that finally my body had the courage to show my mind what was necessary.

“A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. This pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.”

– Tara Brach

Learning to create an open space within our lives and not fill it up with anything including all the “have to’s or shoulds” takes courage.  Learning to become strong enough to hold what may come up when we take this sacred pause, can feel like an act of inner bravery.

That is what it felt like to me.

Usually the time when we most need to take this pause is exactly when it feels impossible for us to do so.  This is where the courage comes in.  Stepping back in that moment becomes quite powerful because we realize that the things in our lives that we have placed so much importance on……can actually wait ….and…everything will be fine.

Deep breath.

The beautiful thing that happened in my experience is that after I took this sacred pause* and returned to my activities, I returned with an increased presence and an ability to make some different choices.

I felt an inner sense of being more whole again.

A sacred pause* can be any length of time.  A day, a month or months, or years.  It can even be an hour.  It just needs to be a long enough suspension of your normal activities for you to tune into what is actually existing inside of you…as it is….without the need to wish it was different.  And then to just be with what you find with loving acceptance and kindness…and great patience.

Patience to wait until you hear what you should do next.

“Do not try and save the whole world or do anything grandiose; instead create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently…..”

– Martha Postelwaite