“Ok we definitely need to practice headstands after class today, and seriously I really want to learn grasshopper pose!” That’s my best friend on speaker phone circa December 2012 as I’m walking from the library in the blistery cold, cursing the concept of winter. Having grown up in California together, we found ourselves separated by 2,000 miles as she studied to be a physician assistant in Arizona and I was clawing through second year of medical school in Pennsylvania. Having simultaneously fallen in love with advanced yoga practice, we would regularly set up video chats and laugh hysterically, watching the other person fall face first into their carpet while trying a challenging posture. My then-fiance-now-husband would waltz through the living room, unfazed by the scene before him. This, my friends, is how yoga became my therapy.
My yoga practice started during my pre-med years, blossomed as a medical student, and remains my most effective method of centering and recharging during residency.
In Santa Monica, CA at a small vinyasa studio, I found myself at my very first yoga class. I was a graduate student in exercise physiology (while also preparing for med school applications); prior to this class my concept of yoga was so warped. Being a self-declared athlete (rugby, track & field, cross-country) I imagined yoga to just be deep breathing and stretching, leaving me with a "wasted" hour because I'd still crave a good sweat later. Yeah, I was very, very wrong. The whole experience was incredible and I immediately knew it would be a permanent interest. Through this first class (followed by several more drop-ins) I realized how dysfunctional my body was in terms of flexibility and static strength. Sure, I could squat a decent amount of weight, but I couldn't stand in warrior II for longer than ~20 seconds without shaking/wobbling. What a strange and wonderful experience to find a form of exercise to which my body had never learned. In just those few classes, I was hooked. With the luxury of variety in Los Angeles, I went on to practice many different styles to see which one I liked best. I went to vinyasa yoga, power yoga, bikram yoga, yin yoga, asthanga yoga, you name it, I tried it at least once. Vinyasa was, and still is, my absolute favorite style. It’s a method that encourages modifications and pacing that best fits your breath, and even though there is a classic sequence, there are infinite ways to modify a vinyasa flow.
Shortly after starting my practice I moved to a small suburban town in Pennsylvania for medical school. In hindsight, I'm so thankful yoga was already in my life prior to starting this very overwhelming journey into medicine. Only when I started practicing regularly in the midst of my studies did I appreciate the mental and emotional benefits of yoga. My intentions didn't change-- I loved showing up to classes and getting in a fantastic workout, but by practicing consistently I had a personal escape from books that left me so mentally rejuvenated.
Not until about 2 years into practicing yoga did I even attempt an arm balance or headstand. I had a fantastic instructor who would walk us through crow pose, but it seemed impossible. Having never done gymnastics, I assumed failure for any difficult balancing posture. Then one class I just decided to go for it, and actually held it for a couple seconds. IT. WAS. AWESOME. I felt so rejuvenated by doing something so playful! That's really what arm balances and fancy inversions are to me-- play time. You feel like a child learning how to walk; you're doing something that is seemingly so difficult but in reality it's just FUN. Advancing my practice by doing difficult postures is actually more mentally beneficial than anything. I'm not truly focused on the present moment until I'm upside down balancing on my forearms trying to wrap into eagle legs (I mean, really, try to think about deadlines in a time like that.) After an inhumane number of hours spent hunched over looking at pharmacology diagrams or pathology text, I’d run home to FaceTime my best friend and learn a new inversion with her. Either in a studio or in the comfort of my home, yoga kept me sane during the darkest year of medical school.
During 3rd and 4th year I was constantly on the road, living out of a suitcase while completing my rotations at various hospitals throughout Pennsylvania. I was so thankful to have developed such a strong practice that allowed me to do yoga anywhere under most circumstances. In my student housing room I’d stretch out a mat and stop thinking for an hour, just jiving, leaping, flowing to the beat of my own heart. The calm continued through interview season when I’d bring my mat to every hotel for a little pre-interview flow. After the Match I was so thrilled to have a stable location with my husband, and of course, to find a new local yoga studio.
So how's my yoga practice these days during residency? Consistently inconsistent. With frequent changes in my schedule, workload, and time of day that I'm working, it's difficult to fit in a regular practice. Undoubtedly though, practicing has helped me work through the inevitable emotions that accompany residency-- feeling overwhelmed and mentally depleted, and even processing death & dying. With limited time and also valuing other forms of exercise (plyometrics, sprints) I use yoga as a dynamic meditation and cool-down at the end of a workout. Additionally I'll do a drop-in studio class on a weekly basis to really get a full juicy flow.
After years of practice, I've found the parts of yoga that benefit me the most, and thus make them a priority to do consistently (even if it means for a shorter duration.) I advise anyone interested in starting a practice to take from it what you need, and ignore the “yoga purists.” If you like the athletic side of it, do just that! If you’re here for the savasana (resting pose), even better. You don’t need a divine meditative aura to call yourself a yogi. I'm so incredibly thankful for finding a practice that's enriched my life and kept me grounded through my medical training. Yoga for you may be a different experience entirely, but I can promise that if you commit, it will be transformative.
Shannon is a 2nd year internal medicine resident at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, happily married, and owner of this world's greatest dog. She uses social media including her Instagram and blog (shannydo.com) to encourage preventive medicine and healthy living, especially for those working in the medical field.