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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

Pretzel Twists and Introspection

When I first stepped onto a yoga mat in my late twenties, I had no idea yoga entailed so much more than just moving my body into more and more challenging pretzel twists. I had a serious crush on the young male instructor, along with all the other young women in the class. Go figure. This crush, along with my ego, is what kept me showing up day after day and month after month, no matter how tired or sore I was from the previous day’s practice. I prayed that he would place his hands on my sacrum when I was in downward dog, and a year later, I would almost faint when he held my hips in place while I leaned over into a back bend. Achieving enlightenment was galaxies away from my mind at the time; I just wanted to push my body to the edges of what was possible and impress those around me.

Now I know better, or at least am aware that traditional yoga practice encompasses not only the physical postures I am already familiar with, but also mental and spiritual disciplines. The goal of yoga is not to be the most flexible person in the room as I once thought, but rather to try to blend together my mind, body, and spirit. Something I have found is exponentially harder than a handstand or a backbend.

After clearly recognizing my own burnout as a practicing physician in the last year or so, my commitment to the physical postures (asanas) of yoga, combined with a daily meditation practice has become my new workout, though with less focus on the work and more attention on turning inward. Yoga and meditation have replaced the many miles I used to run, the weights I lifted, the hills I climbed on my bike, and the countless laps I swam in the pool. I no longer have any future races or triathlons to train for. I only have the present moment to live in. Yoga and meditation offer me a pathway to improve my mental health and decrease my suffering.

Very slowly, one day, one posture, one minute of meditation at a time, these practices are decreasing the intensity of my burnout. They are turning down the dial of my sympathetic nervous system, which has been on overtime since the pandemic started two years ago. It’s no surprise that very early studies in the 1960s on experienced yoga practitioners demonstrated their ability to slow their heart rate, or continue in a state of alpha activity brain waves (a deeply restful non-REM state) as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). I can hear my heartbeat slow down with my breathing during my meditation sessions and I feel a deep sense of rest after my yoga practice, something quite different than the post adrenaline high I would experience after a hard run or challenging bike ride.

I am obviously not the only one experiencing a profound decrease in my stress levels by using yoga as one of many tools in a healthy living toolbox. A 2020 systematic review found that most types of yoga asana practices reduce stress in healthy adults, while another 2017 meta-analysis of forty-two different studies found that yoga reduces blood pressure, heart rate or pulse, and cortisol levels in the blood. And while there is still more methodically sound research that needs to be done, using yoga can help with burnout in healthcare workers.

My focus on trying to impress other’s in a yoga class with my strength or bendiness has shifted, just as I have surrendered the need to compete in athletic events. I am learning to slow down, turn inward, to aim for the communion of body, mind, and spirit that traditional yoga was intended to create. Instead of craving an instructor’s special attention in a yoga class, I crave the snapping sound of my mat unfolding, the feeling of my bare feet on the sticky nubs, the rooting of my legs onto the solid ground, and the lengthening of my limbs toward the sky as I breath in deeply. The positive effect on my sense of well-being is enough to keep me at it, no matter how many hours I have worked, or how early I need to get up to squeeze yoga into my day. I may not be a yogini by any stretch of the imagination, but I am here on my mat, breathing in the present moment, bathing in the relaxation of my parasympathetic nervous system. The shroud of burnout is falling away.

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