Building a self-care toolbox is as easy as 1, 2, 3

Cultivating self-care practices has become increasingly essential in today's fast-paced and demanding world. As publisher of Rapid Growth, I have been thinking a lot about the topic, and lucky for locals, I have discovered in West Michigan, we have more choices than ever before. So I sat down with three locals who each have a distinct practice and are willing to share ways to set themselves up for success when approaching the topic of mindfulness. 

Tina Derusha of Luna Zen Breathwork is a seasoned wellness guide. She empowers individuals on their healing journeys by incorporating breathwork and somatic practices, enabling emotional balance, spiritual liberation and creative flow. Alexia Walker of Speak Love To Her is a trauma-informed yoga and meditation leader who prioritizes inclusion, accessibility and self-acceptance in group and private sessions, fostering holistic well-being on and off the mat. Meanwhile, Shane Wymer, an ordained Dharma teacher at Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple, provides various avenues for self-care, including meditation classes, weekly groups, book studies and Buddhist-based recovery meetings. Together, these individuals emphasize the significance of building a self-care tool kit to navigate life's challenges and nurture personal well-being.

Courtesy of Tommy Allen
Tommy Allen (TA): When describing your services to folks, what is the core of the work?

Tina Derusha (TD): Breath is the foundation of everything I offer. All practices begin with breath awareness and, importantly, how to modify and manipulate the breath to regulate your nervous system and emotional response. It’s a bottom-up approach to help move stuck emotional energy and rewire disruptive patterns of thought. 

TA: Can you give me an example? 

TD: We use our sensory experience to tap into and resolve the things that hold us back in life. I teach people to listen to their body’s messages and navigate their emotional landscape with breath as the vehicle for discovery, empowerment, healing and flow.

TA:  Why do you believe we have to start with the breath? 

TD: Breath is a self-healing tool that’s freely available to everyone. It has a huge impact on so many different aspects of our lives. It affects your sleep, digestion, muscle repair, alertness and brain function and regulates your stress response and release of hormones. Once you understand how good breathing habits impact your overall well-being, you have control of a powerful tool. As you learn to harness your breath, your healing potential becomes limitless.

TA: Why is it vital that we rediscover our breath when we are experiencing stressful moments in our lives?

TD: Most people breathe too quickly and shallowly. This sends a signal to our nervous system to be on high alert at all times. So when we get into a situation that’s perceived as stressful, whether real or imagined, it releases the hormone cortisol into our system, which affects our ability to feel calm and make good decisions.

TA: So breathing helps us navigate?

Our response to stressors is dictated by something called our Window of Tolerance – this is our emotional “comfort zone.” When we fall outside of this window, we tend to either become anxious/panic-driven or depressed/dissociative in our behavior.

TA: I observe within myself and others all too often that our reactive selves tend to rule many of our executive functions these days. I imagine adding breathwork as a device can potentially help us create a more positive outcome for our mental health space, right? 

TD: In terms of mental health and emotional well-being, learning conscious, connected breathing patterns provides a way into your subconscious so that you can do the deep work of understanding your patterns. You’re able to move your body out of a fight-flight-freeze response to resolve internal conflict and build emotional resilience. 

TA: Ok, but some may say this is touchy-feely stuff. How do you reply to this line of thinking?

TD: Research backs up breath and other somatic (body-based) practices as vehicles to help positively change and rewire neural pathways. Neuroscientists are currently doing longitudinal studies and publishing data with brain and body scans that show the long-lasting benefits of regular practices like mindfulness, meditation, and breathwork. The big win in the last two decades is that science is finally backing up what yogis have known and practiced for centuries — breathwork is a therapeutic practice.

TA: While I was taking one of your breathwork sessions earlier this year, which I cannot recommend enough, you mentioned that what we experienced that night could go into our self-care toolbox. What do you mean here?

TD: We’ve all been taught the hard skills necessary to get along in life. However, it’s the soft skills that help us navigate the challenging situations we all eventually encounter — they’re the emotional regulation tools that provide resilience and stability. That’s a relatively new emotional-social learning phenomenon. The stigma and shame are finally subsiding around supporting mental health and the well-being culture openly.

When we use breathwork as part of our self-care toolbox, that’s simply establishing it as a routine practice. The key is that your practice is malleable and evolves with you. You learn to use the right tool for the job at hand. So, having more than one practice to draw from is helpful.

Courtesy of Tommy Allen
TA: While the breath is an origin pattern that will stick with us for our entire lives, what other areas of practice can one consider when seeking to add techniques or practices to their self-care (or mental health?) toolbox?

Alexia Walker (AW): In Vinyasa yoga, the breath and movement are inseparable. While there are many other modalities that support mental health – mindfulness meditation, somatic movement practices, EFT tapping, and so on, breath is the foundation. There is so much power in a single deep breath as an immediately available tool to bring us back into the present moment.

With the understanding of always being able to come back to the breath, yoga is another way of recreating or strengthening the mind-body connection. Syncing breath to movement allows us to become more attuned with the sensations and subtleties within our physical experience. Coordination requires attention and shifting our focus onto movement can make it easier to release any distracting thoughts, physical tension or drown out other external stimuli.  

TA: What if yoga is not for you? Other ideas?
AW: If not yoga, there are many other movement-based practices like Tai Chi, Qigong, Pilates, that explore techniques for fostering mindfulness through breath coordination. Something as simple as a long walk could be used in place of a structured movement practice so long as it is supportive of your needs and goals. Keeping your toolbox full may require getting creative about what those tools look like at any given time. 

TA: How does yoga help with the healing of trauma both in the present (our physical body/tension of a moment) and/or one buried deep within our past or consciousness?

AW: Trauma can be described by such a wide range of events and experiences, but at its core trauma involves a loss of power, control or agency. Because of this, trauma often disrupts the mind-body connection and leaves folks feeling detached and disconnected from their body. Creating a consistent yoga practice, particularly one focused on more gentle and restorative movements, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and helps regulate the body's stress response.

TA: How is trauma stored in us?
AW: Trauma can be stored in the body in a number of ways and these experiences can linger as physical sensations or body memories long after the traumatic event has occurred. It is very common to see emotions surface, allowing for cathartic release and the potential for emotional healing, while moving through a yoga practice. Crying, laughter, rage — are all valid and normal forms of emotional release. It's important to note that trauma healing is a complex and individualized process, and even yoga should be approached with sensitivity and, if necessary, in conjunction with other appropriate therapeutic support. Choosing practices that emphasize self-compassion, nurturing and gentle exploration of movement are keys to avoiding re-traumatization. Always listen to your body and honor its limitations.

Courtesy of Tommy Allen
TA: When I started yoga in the 1990s, this area of self-care was relegated to something for women, but over time men have begun walking through the door accessing the health benefits yoga offers us. Shane, can you share how this has manifested within your Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple practice?  

Shane Wymer (SW):  Men are served just as women and nonbinary folks are with open arms, respect and compassion. I understand the question and the difficulty for some men to enter spaces of wellness/mindfulness; however, here at the Grand Rapids Temple, we do our best to cater to everyone’s needs, no matter how they identify. Specifically for the recovery meeting again we encourage anyone to come and we hold a space and atmosphere of respect and anonymity.

TA: We hear a lot about safe spaces these days. So help me understand you also offer a “safe zone” for men in your practice. Can you expound upon why this is necessary?

SW: As a teacher at the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple, I strive to make sure everyone who walks through our door is warmly welcomed, regardless of gender, identity or background. Our community is open to anyone who wishes to learn about mindfulness, and we strive to create a safe and welcoming space for everyone. Our recovery groups create a particularly safe and judgement-free environment for men, where they can openly discuss all forms of addiction, from pornography and hard drugs to alcohol, marijuana, sugar, phone and social media addiction’s with the assurance that everything said will be held in anonymity. It has been said that our Monday night recovery group is one of the best meetings in town.

TA: Since we are speaking directly to men right now, what can we expect from someone entering your practice?

SW:  When entering our practice, you can expect a warm welcome, complete with a friendly smile and eye contact. We ask that you remove your shoes and hat, silence your cell phone, and not  bring food or drink into the Dharma Hall. For meetings in particular, we practice 20 minutes of silent meditation together before the meeting. We sometimes exchange contact information after meetings and have an accountability group that offers words of encouragement. I want to emphasize that all gender identities, backgrounds and religions are welcome here, and we treat everyone with respect and without judgment.

TA: Just as we heard from Shane that men are walking through the doors of many health-centered organizations, what other misconceptions or barriers within other groups are we seeing lifting within society?

AW: As a Plus-sized, Black Indigenous Person of Color (BIPOC) yoga teacher, I find there is often a disconnect between conversations around inclusion and what that looks like in practice in yoga studios and wellness spaces. Creating an inclusive environment is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and commitment. 

TA: I recall the early days of yoga and despite its historical roots, it was so very much about one group's participation and not at all very representative.

AW: The wellness industry has historically been dominated by a narrow image of wellness tied to whiteness, thinness and able-bodiedness which can make it challenging for people from marginalized communities to feel welcome and included in these spaces. Creating an inclusive environment requires more than simply having diverse teachers and students; it involves addressing and dismantling systemic barriers and biases, as well as creating a culture of respect and understanding, and zooming out on our ideas around diversity to include the sensory, processing and communication needs of neurodivergent folks.

TA: How do you approach the solution within your practice at Speak Love To Her?

AW: In my classes, I make a point to give clear expectations for the use of time and space – which for both neurodivergent folks and trauma survivors can help to reduce anxiety and increase feelings of safety and control. I often also use dim lights, avoid physical touch or forceful language, and allow the student every opportunity to feel empowered in making choices that feel safe and right for them. 

TA: How do you see it manifesting right now, this move to being inclusive?

TD: Mental health equity is a prime issue that’s ready for the spotlight. Often the groups that need support the most — BIPOC, LGBTQ, Veterans, etc — are left behind because of income barriers and lack of visibility. We need to address this from a community awareness and advocacy standpoint — programs and initiatives that are offered by the practitioners working within our wellness community. This means reaching out, collaborating and doing what you can to effect change and make sure everyone has a seat at the table.

TA: Solutions?

TD: In my business, I offer a monthly donation-based session. In addition, I’ve created a wellness equity scholarship for an upcoming retreat specifically catered to those from underserved populations. This ensures that there are diverse voices in the mix, lending their perspective and benefiting from these wellness modalities. A rising tide lifts all boats.

TA: When I used to write about the arts, one of my “hidden goals” was to remove the barriers of access to an arts experience. So what advice do you have for someone who may be venturing out on their own but unsure about their first steps in building their toolbox?

TD: Start with a daily commitment to yourself that doesn’t feel intimidating. I encourage selecting one technique for soothing the mind, one for calming the body and one for regulating your breath.

You can add visualization exercises, guided meditation, humming, affirmations, tapping, mind mapping, art-making or time outside in nature. These are all free and can be paired easily with other day-to-day activities. If you like a more structured approach, integrating a yoga practice is a good choice. What I love about yoga is that it serves the whole person — physical, mental and spiritual — and it’s grounded in a strong breath practice!

TA: I am beginning to see that the building of one’s own self-care toolbox is not a one-stop approach and that each of you offers something very distinct for the community. 

TD: Breath is my primary modality, but I’ve also spent time learning other body-based practices. I’m certified as a flexibility and mobility coach and a HeartMath trauma-sensitive practitioner. And I’m pursuing an eco-art therapy certification to help people explore the creative process through time in nature.

SW: Meditation, I teach two types as taught by the Buddha, Shamatha also known as Clam Abiding and Mettā or Loving-kindness meditation. In calm abiding, I invite practitioners to have a point of focus or anchor. There is a common misconception that you have to empty your mind in meditation, which is not the case. 

The way I teach meditation is very simple: when you get distracted or caught up in a thought, I have students come back to their breath and count down from five until they reach zero. I give the image that they are an immovable mountain, and their thoughts are clouds; there is no need to push the clouds away or grasp onto them, just observe them without judgment. This practice helps with being able to see emotions and thoughts rise up before reacting to them. You can see how beautiful and interconnected the world is when you sit in silence and listen to it with all your senses.

TA: And for Lovingkindness….

SW: In Lovingkindness meditation, I instruct you to first send love and kindness to yourself - “May I be well, may I be at ease, may I be free from suffering, may I be happy!” - and then to your close friends and family, your neighbors, acquaintances, and coworkers. Then, you spread it out to strangers, people in grocery stores, etc., and even to people you don't like, people who have hurt you, and those you don't agree with or may hate. Finally, you send it out to the entire universe, every living being in all directions. This is a powerful practice because it shows how important it is to love yourself first - you can't pour from an empty glass - and how you can then emanate love out to those close to you and even those you can't stand. It also shows how interconnected we all are, and how vital love is, especially when shared.

TA: And if it is not a good fit… 

TD: A practice is just that – A PRACTICE. There is no arriving, per se; it’s an ongoing and evolving process of self-discovery. It’s about showing up for yourself with intention, awareness and consistency. If a particular practice doesn’t hold your attention and keep you curious about how you can learn and grow from it, then it’s time to move on. Find practices that do resonate. Take a “try-it-and-see” approach. Give yourself at least a few tries at a particular practice. A better fit keeps you dedicated and coming back for more.

TA: While on the topic of building a toolbox, what is in yours?

TD: My toolbox includes a few nonnegotiable daily practices — breathwork, journaling and yoga. Within those practices, there is variety and, based on the demands of my day, they fluctuate in the amount of time I dedicate. However, the minimum time I spend is 40 minutes. Other modalities I sprinkle in throughout my week include creative time, walks in nature, mind mapping, mantra meditation, affirmation recitation, sacred reading and seasonal rituals.

AW: As a full-time parent, the tools I reach for change day to day. Ideally, I prioritize practices that ground me back into the present moment. I find that engaging or withdrawing sensory input can be a powerful tool for regulating the nervous system (and for me, regulation is the goal). Some days that looks like firing up through a heated yoga class in the presence of the community, other days, it’s using noise-canceling headphones and closing my eyes to escape the chaos of life for a while. Having limited and often unpredictable time to dedicate to myself, like many, I believe it’s important to remember some practices can be easily incorporated into a busy schedule. Breathwork, meditation and yoga does not have to be limited to showing up at or sitting in one place.

SW: My own toolbox contains meditation and reading the Dharma or the Buddha’s Teachings as its foundation, it also includes Wim Hof breath work and cold exposure to activate the body's healing mechanisms. I also practice active dreaming to explore the depths of my subconscious, as well as mindful walks and spending time in nature to enrich my spiritual connection with the world around me. This unique combination of practices helps me to stay grounded, connected and balanced in the face of life's challenges.

TA: As you look to the future of our wellness community, are there any other practices emerging around the world that you hope will begin to take root here?

TD: I see mindfulness emerging as a way of living. Societal standards are shifting away from focusing on exercise exclusively in pursuit of the “perfect” body. People are beginning to crave a whole-being wellness approach that supports a healthy lifestyle. I believe it’s essential to establish inclusive, community-minded networks that embrace an egalitarian future where we’re working together to raise well-being standards for everyone. Connection is at the heart of any good practice.

SW: I agree wholeheartedly with Tina, mindfulness is absolutely essential in our current society. Taking the time to be present in the moment and become one with our mind, body, and spirit can be achieved through meditation, yoga and breathwork. Additionally, I believe that death cafés should become more popular in our communities. Death is a delicate subject that has been taboo for far too long. By engaging in conversations about death and grief, we can learn to accept the impermanence of life in the same way that Buddhism teaches.

AW: I would love to see more practices centered on processing grief and loss. I agree, Shane, open discussion of death and loss is so important because it is an experience that none of us will be an exception to. Encouraging folks to embrace the full range of human emotion connects us to our shared humanity. We create well-rounded and balanced practices by acknowledging and working with these emotions.

Photos by Tommy Allen of A + P Studio at Tanglefoot
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