In yoga and medicine: I am an expert in neither, but I am practicing both


Seven years ago, I took a hot yoga class in a packed studio, an R&B playlist bumping loudly, the woman next to me sporadically singing along with the music. Afterward, she smiled at me and said, “It was nice to practice with you!” I was new to yoga, and this was the first time I considered yoga as a practice, a word signifying a skill performed repeatedly in order to improve proficiency. A practice, by nature, is an acknowledgment that we are not perfect – but we are working on it.

Many perceive yoga as a practice of flexibility – but in fact, it is a practice of balance. The practice of balancing sthira and sukha, Sanskrit words loosely translating to strength and softness, effort and ease. The practice of balancing breath, matching each intentional inhale with each measured exhale. The practice of balancing our bodies, physically balancing on one foot or both hands, mentally balancing our resistance with acceptance. As a recently graduated fourth-year medical student and brand new resident physician, I delight in the way both yoga and medicine are considered a practice, an acknowledgment of imperfection. I practiced and taught yoga throughout medical school and found the physical and mental aspects of yoga to be a steady force that helped me maintain balance over the past four years. And now, facing the start of my career as a physician, I cannot imagine one practice without the other.

The first year of medical school reminds me of child’s pose, a common way to begin a yoga class. Newly-minted medical students are fresh and eager sponges ready to absorb information. As we start small and settle into our practice, we accumulate knowledge but are unable to do anything with it yet. Sometimes we wonder if we are doing enough, moving enough, learning enough. We try to be patient, settling into steady breath, allowing this early part of our journey to set the tone for the years to come.

Second-year is like sun salutations. We start to build routine movement, create physical and mental heat, and work our way through familiar patterns. We are eager and excited to progress in our practice as we cultivate muscle memory. We begin to move with tempo, inhaling and expanding, exhaling, and contracting. Becoming more comfortable with our role, we gain knowledge and confidence. The practice begins to feel good.

Our third year resembles the practice of including a peak pose, sequencing a class to prepare for a specific posture. Movements become intentional as we orient our energy toward determining a future specialty. We rotate through clerkships, shifting through various poses, searching for that ideal balance of effort and ease – of strength and softness. We learn to sit with discomfort, to continue to breathe through the parts that don’t fit right. We hope we have learned enough, seen enough, prepared enough that when we finally reach the peak pose, we will be ready.

Finally, fourth-year brings us to corpse pose, savasana, our practice of stillness – the time to soak in all of the physical and mental work we have done as we prepare to start anew. Often the most challenging part of practice; it necessitates full relaxation and quiet – and we as humans are quite skilled at finding distractions to prevent us from being fully present with ourselves. When we finally allow ourselves the chance to rest, we close our eyes and see how far we have come.

But sometimes the distraction is too big to ignore. This year, savasana was thrown off course by coronavirus, and my graduating classmates and I will begin as interns in the midst of COVID-19. Instead of festive graduation celebrations and traveling abroad, we are participating in virtual ceremonies and baking banana bread at home. We proudly watch health care providers put their own lives at risk each day, knowing that we will soon follow in their footsteps. We endure the inevitable instability that accompanies uncertainty, and bravely remember that we chose a life of service. I lean on my yoga practice, both physically and mentally, to keep me grounded and balanced as my colleagues and I dive headfirst into a global pandemic.

Yoga teaches me the importance of being fully present, whether moving on my yoga mat or giving a patient my undivided attention. Yoga is where I learned to cultivate breath, both to keep me steady in a challenging posture, and to keep me focused under a sterile gown in a hot operating room. Yoga emphasizes observation without judgment, whether noticing my own body’s flexibility or learning about a new patient. Through instability, doubt, insecurity, and fear, I return to my practice to find balance. In yoga and medicine: I am an expert in neither, but I am practicing both.

Caitlin McCarthy is a psychiatry resident.

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