The gentle lull of chant filled the space, spare with white walls, the morning light streaming through the expansive windows. I added my mat to the row of students, young and old, stretching and chatting before class began. My night shift had been busy; the peace of my yoga studio brought a welcome calm.
Yoga, the ancient Indian practice of physical postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana), has become increasingly popular.
My mother has practiced yoga for decades, leading us in sun salutations many mornings of my childhood. Yet I didn’t start a regular practice until medical school, which offered a free class led by a fellow student. The movement and meditation was a relief from long days hunched over journal articles or retracting in the operating room.
The benefits of yoga for doctors
My current yoga teacher, who became acquainted with the stresses of working in healthcare as a former pharmaceutical sales representative, feels doctors and nurses are professions in the most need of yoga and meditation.
When she learned of my work in the pediatric emergency department, she immediately helped me recognize how its environment—fast-paced, unpredictable and full of intense emotions caring for suffering patients and their families—stresses the autonomic nervous system, keeping the mind and body unnaturally in sympathetic “fight or flight” for hours. My shifts leave me with my cortisol surging and in dire need of autonomic down-regulation.
A growing body of evidence supports the benefits of yoga for anxiety and stress. A randomized controlled study in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice examined the effects of variable doses of yoga and breathing exercises on those with major depressive disorder. The study found that participants experienced an improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety, decreased exhaustion, better sleep quality and increased feelings of positivity. This reinforced prior research in the journal showing that yogic movement and breathing affect levels of stress hormones, neurotransmitters and markers of inflammation. As a mind and body therapy, many find it can also help increase flexibility and alleviate physical pain, according to the journal Children.
Personally, I’ve found yoga helps regulate my mood, restores my energy and helps my sleep feel more restful. It also gets me out of my head (where so many of us in medicine focus) and into my body. I use yogic breathing to help center myself during particularly stressful moments at work, and I’ve even tried doing it with patients who need strategies to calm down and return to the moment.
Yoga: A new prescription
I’m not alone—doctors are beginning to prescribe yoga for both the mind and body, as Yoga Journal reports. A textbook—“The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care”—and numerous therapeutic yoga trainings are now available for doctors and other medical professionals. Yoga programs for patients have proliferated at hospitals such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and the UCLA Medical Center. My residency program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center even started a lunchtime yoga for doctors class—a cherished break in our long calls.
So often we treat others’ bodies and minds, yet often neglect our own. While we encourage our patients to roll out their mats and settle into their asanas, we can remember to do it ourselves. When we treat our stress and anxiety, we will be better able to treat our patients.