Are You Serving From an Empty Bowl?

Lack of self care contributing to mental health crisis in South Asian women

Published in South Asian Woman Magazine- March 2017


"Leh! We don't have time for all these nakhare!” exclaims my mom when I tell her that I am going to go out for yet another coffee with a friend after a long week. She continues to tell me how wasteful it is to spend six dollars on coffee when I can make it at home; in fact, for the money I am wasting on going out, I could make enough for the whole block! 

Over the years, I have struggled with trying to understand why there was no value placed on these small but incredibly important breaks; instead, the focus was placed on how it was a waste of time, money and energy. More often than not, our conversations would end in extreme eye-rolling from my end and irritation from hers but over time, I have realized that I come from a place of great privilege. Her generation did not have the luxury for time outs or time off, between raising children, running a household, maintaining familial and social obligations, and working outside the home; it did not leave much time to focus on the self. 

Like many eastern cultures, ours places great pride, value and emphasis on physical work and work that can be seen from the outside. Women have the added pressure not only of working outside the home but maintaining and running their household, which often includes children, in-laws and extended family members, a highly demanding yet highly undervalued responsibility. For many South Asian women, there was is a great deal of outer work but inner isolation. The demand on their physical, emotional and mental energy going outwards often leaves them depleted without any energy for self-care. When we are facing symptoms stemming from lack of self care, the root cause is ignored and we use other coping mechanisms in hopes of "getting over it" or "toughing it out.” Expressing feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness, confusion or being vulnerable are looked at as a sign of weakness and instead of creating space for deeper connection with ourselves and others, we are often compared to those who can seemingly do it all, with a smile. The suppression of these very human emotions compound over time and result in not only mental disturbance and illness, such as depression or anxiety but also countless physical illnesses. 

Mental health was not a subject spoken about openly in the South Asian community until recently. Most of us grew up in households where we rarely saw our mothers cry or express any feelings that could be deemed negative, unless it was anger, of course. Many women — immigrant and non-immigrant — are suffering in silence because there is deep cultural expectation in our subconscious mind that we should be able to do it all, even if we don't want to and that vulnerability is weakness. This belief system is contributing to South Asian women having some of the highest rates of depression, and under-utilization of mental health resources amongst other groups. 

Self-care refers to any actions that a person takes to reach optimal mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and also includes activities of daily living (ADL), such as showering, brushing our teeth and eating. According to "People all have different requirements for self-care, but in general, the goals of self-care are to find a state of good mental and physical health, reduce stress, meet emotional needs, maintain relationships, both romantic and platonic, and find a balance between one's personal and academic or professional life." 

At some point, we have all heard very cliché yet profound saying, "You cannot serve anything worthwhile from an empty bowl," meaning when we are fulfilled and happy, we are better able be present in life, carry out responsibilities, meet challenges with awareness and make conscious choices pertaining to each one . Without the sense of connection to ourselves we are simply performing the physical acts with little or no awareness, leaving us tired, depressed, resentful, anxious, stressed and angry. 

Through my work and interactions with South Asian women from all different backgrounds, ages and lifestyles, I am able to see a strong connection between lack of self-care, connection to self, inability to express and communicate feelings and decline mental health. Although things may be shifting for the younger age group, the lasting effects from of our mother’s generations around self-care and connection are still very prevalent. How can we even begin self-care without ever knowing the self? Are we fully showing up in the world and offering our gifts from a place of physical, emotional and spiritual abundance or are we serving from an empty bowl? 

Looking deeper into my mom's reactions to my coffee dates, yoga classes and workshops being frivolous, I see how self-care is often deemed as selfish, culturally. How could a woman who is busy doing things for herself ever be able to make roti on time, pack lunches, do pick-ups and drop-offs, wash, dry, fold, sweep, mop, scrub and so on and so on? Women who appear to be taking care of themselves are seen as not taking as good care of others around them, a gross misconception that is slowly killing our women.  Through personal experience and my work with others, I believe that self-care is lifesaving; it doesn't need to expensive, time consuming or complicated, but it does require effort and awareness. 

Ways to Introduce Self-Care into Your Lifestyle 


I regularly hear women express that they don't feel appreciated or valued for all the work they do and my question to them is always, do you appreciate and value all that you do? If you are doing it as an obligation, then it becomes an expectation from others as something you just do; they may not even realize that it is depleting for you. Instead of using passive aggressive behaviour to show your feelings, be clear with what you can and will do, and what you will not. This clarity helps others understand your capacity, and also through clear and connective communication, others are more likely to take responsibility for their share of the work in a relationship. 

I often find Indian women, especially mothers have a tendency to do every little thing for their family members creating learned helplessness. This means that as a control mechanism and a way to feel valued, worthy and important, one will overextend for others by doing tasks for them even when it is unnecessary. This operating system takes away the opportunity for the other person to not only take responsibility for themselves but to learn and grow from the experience. 

Create Sacred Space Internally and Externally 

In your home create a space for yourself, which is free from clutter and is quiet. Use this space to implement daily meditation, breathing and yoga practice if your current health allows. Start by sitting comfortably, taking long deep breaths through the nose and observing the breath for five minutes a day upon rising (increasing up to 20 minutes a day). This will help clear the mind, sharpen the awareness, release stress from the nervous system, and give you a deeper sense of rest and relaxation. This short-term rest has immense long-term benefits not only for yourself but for others around you. A yoga practice along with breath helps to move the energy or prana that is stuck in the channels of the body, bringing you back into connection and awareness with the self. 


We often feel alone in our struggles and our culture further perpetuates the internal conflict by creating great judgement and shame around expression of our suffering. It is important to reach out and connect to others, whether it is our friends and family or external community support. When we feel isolated, depressed, fearful or anxious, this can be a daunting and difficult task, but speaking about our feelings helps us acknowledge their existence. When we step into vulnerability and express our true feelings we find authentic connection. This form of connection is the essential glue that holds our relationships together and vulnerability gives us true authentic power to move through our challenges. 

Cultivate Rituals 

Self-care rituals are a beautiful way to spend time with yourself. They can include anything that brings you a sense of peace, beauty, serenity and joy. I urge women to learn more about holistic healing options, such as Ayurveda and understand their bodies on a deeper level. A daily morning oil massage with warm, organic, cold-pressed oils before a shower has enormous benefits. The sense of loving touch increases dopamine levels, reduces stress, and helps lower nervous, anxious and fearful energy in the body. It is important to find time for the body to rest, especially during the first three days of menstruation. Delegate the household tasks or decrease your activity and use your time to meditate, read or other light activities you enjoy. Lastly, detox your home by replacing the things you use most with organic and toxin-free products, especially fruits, vegetables and daily beauty care products. These toxins act as hormone disrupters and carcinogens, which contribute to mood fluctuations, headaches, nausea, skin disorders and other illnesses from long-term exposure. 

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Self-care is not selfish as it is vital. When we as women start to take better care of themselves, we can help create a better world around us. Start filling your bowl with the best of what life has to offer you; after all you are your most important relationship and investment. 



1. Definition of Self-care