Imagine for a moment there’s a person in front of you screaming in pain and looking at you with desperation to ease their suffering. Imagine your heart is racing, breathing is becoming shallow, and a sense of panic is washing over you.
I don’t have to imagine this. This is the reality I face everyday in my job.
I am an Emergency Nurse – and I work in one of the busiest departments in Western Australia.
I’ve been working as a Registered Nurse for the past eight years both in Australia and overseas across many specialities, but my passion lies in Emergency Medicine and Community Health. I love working in the extremes of managing a life-threatening situation in an emergency department, and also preventing one in my community as well.
Over time, however, the stress of my job – along with all the accumulated night shifts, and the general physical and mental demand of being a nurse – changed me. I found myself over the years becoming more and more apathetic towards my patients, disconnecting from their suffering in order to protect my own emotional reserves, and I didn’t recognise myself anymore as the caring compassionate person I once was.
At one point, I lost my ambition and motivation to stay in this job any longer, and seriously questioned whether I should quit and find a different career altogether. This is where I found yoga; or maybe, where yoga found me. So many aspects of yoga helped me return to, and stay in, optimal physical, mental, and spiritual health whilst maintaining my job as a nurse.
However, you don’t need to be a nurse, or even work in the same environment that I do, to understand how I feel. We all experience stress from a multitude of sources around us, whether that be from an over-bearing boss, a passive aggressive colleague, demanding children, a tense relationship with a partner or family member, or just simply sitting in traffic for long periods of time each day. These sources of stress, where ever it comes from in life, all affect us in the same way, and over time, if they are not acknowledged and managed appropriately, will inevitably result in illness of the mind and/or body.
So here are the ways yoga has helped me, and can help you, maintain good health throughout your career and in your daily life:
Through daily practice of ‘asana’, or ‘postures’, I have been able to stay flexible and strong, which allows me to keep up with the demands of patient care and prevent injury. Having a strong core and back is essential when caring for patients who cannot look after themselves, especially since back injuries are the leading cause of worker’s compensation in health care employees. But asana is also essential if your job involves sitting at a desk all day long. Developing good posture through asana practice has a direct impact on the function of every organ in our body and the way we feel overall.
Some mornings, when I start my shift at 7am, I only have time to practice five ‘sun-salutations’ before rushing out the door; but that simple habit of daily practice still creates a positive domino effect of healthy choices that I make for myself for the rest of the day. Simply being in the habit of daily practice means that on the days when I have more time for asana, I will dedicate the time for them knowing how much it helps me maintain a healthy body, so that I can continue doing good things in the world and for other people.
‘Ashtanga’, meaning ‘eight limbs’, refers to the eight aspects of yoga philosophy which help guide practitioners towards a path of spiritual wellness. The first two limbs in particular have helped me to make decisions and actions in my life that have allowed me to become not only more compassionate towards my patients, but also create positive and meaningful experiences and relationships in my life as well. These limbs, known as the ‘yamas’ and the ‘niyamas’, can be likened to an ethical guideline, and involves suggestions such as ‘non-violence’, ‘truthfulness’, ‘self-discipline’, and ‘contentment’.
When I observed my own behaviours, not only at work towards my patients and colleagues but also towards myself and in my life in general, I began to see how the physical and mental suffering I was experiencing was directly related to how much I had swayed from the path of love and compassion and how I was instead walking down a road of anger, resentment, and frustration, which prevented me from having meaningful and loving interactions with the people around me. When I started to practice the yamas and niyamas daily, I felt my heart soften and open again, which was amplified even further after my Yoga Teacher Training. I no longer view myself as a ‘nurse’ and other people as my ‘patients’, separated by a wall in the past I would’ve instinctively built between us; Rather, we are two human beings, sharing an honest and meaningful interaction, and I am providing care from a place of genuine compassion.
‘Pranayama’ is translated from sanskrit as ‘extension of life force’, and refers to control of the breath. This essentially means practicing particular breathing exercise to enhance mental and physical health.
“Pranayama enables you to control the flow of your breath and increase your vital energy. These breathing exercises uncover the light of pure consciousness and bring mental clarity.”
– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, 2.49 and 52
I inconsistently practiced various pranayama techniques over the years from my yoga teachers, not really understanding the full extent of their affect or importance. It wasn’t until I experienced severe burn-out from chronic stress that I understood how vital it was to incorporate a breathing awareness practice into almost every moment of my life. By simply developing awareness of my breath, I could not only understand the amount of stress I was in at that moment, but also move myself into a more relaxed state of being so that I could respond to whatever was going on with words and actions of love and peace. Now, when I experience a stressful situation as I have described above, I can take a moment to simply breath slower and deeper, and can assist my patient with a clear head and an open heart.
Once I understood how to become aware of and control my breath, it was so much easier to meditate, something that previously I had struggled with for many years. Meditation activates the prefontal cortex of the brain – the seat of higher thinking – and stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and brain opiates, which allow us to feel happiness, improved self-esteem, pleasure, and a reduction in pain. There is no single drug that can simultaneously choreograph the coordinated release of all of these chemicals like meditation does.
I truly believe that through daily practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation, we can shift our mentality towards a place of love and acceptance, which can heal the world. When we all see each other as equals, and have compassion towards the suffering of others, we will treat ourselves and each other with much more love and kindness. In the meantime, yoga has healed my relationship with my patients, and revitalised my career as a nurse – a job that I hope to never take for granted. I now have a much healthier mind and body through these practices, which make me more resilient to the stress of the job, and allows me to provide better care to all of my patients. I feel inspired again to stay in this role and build my career in this profession again, now knowing how to connect and care from a place of love and true compassion.
It is my hope that you can be touched by the same beautiful light that yoga has shown on me, and be able to apply it in a meaningful way in your life as well.