Dental professionals face unique physical, mental, and emotional challenges each day. These challenges can create discord and imbalance, especially when they're combined. Contorting our bodies in order to gain better visibility, sitting for long periods, and even hunching over our computer keyboards can put enormous strain on our musculoskeletal systems. Dealing with fearful patients, uncooperative team members, and the frustrations of running a small business can sometimes become overwhelming and lead to powerful feelings of anxiety, anger, and even depression. Numerous coping strategies are available. One ancient remedy is my favorite and can help alleviate the detrimental effects of these varied stressors. That remedy is the practice of yoga.
Derived from a Sanskrit word meaning to "yoke together, unite, or integrate," yoga is based on an Indian body of knowledge at least 2,000 to 3,000 years old. As yoga continues to evolve and become increasingly diverse, it has become difficult to find a single, common definition that can be agreed upon by all practitioners. For the purpose of this article, yoga can be defined as the process of harmonizing the body, mind, and breath through the coordination of various physical postures (asanas) with specific breathing and meditation techniques.
It is this synchronization of the breath with the movement of the body that is the basis for many of yoga's benefits. Breathing in rhythm with the poses is what separates yoga from other physical disciplines. Without coordinated breathing, one is merely stretching. With the breath, one is doing yoga. While a variety of breathing techniques (pranayama) can be used to accomplish specific effects, the one most commonly used is a deep, smooth inhale with an exhale of equal length. For instance, take a deep breath for a count of four seconds. Now exhale for four seconds. Get into a rhythm with that. When you start to feel yourself relaxing, expand the inhale to five seconds, and the exhale to five seconds. Next, try six seconds.
Deep breathing has many physical and mental benefits. These include detoxifying the body, releasing muscle tension, improving focus and an awareness of the present moment, facilitating a feeling of calm, and strengthening the lungs, heart, and immune system. It's very simple, and very effective.
As a regular yoga practitioner for more than 15 years, I have experienced firsthand yoga's many physical benefits. Yoga can be used therapeutically to alleviate existing ailments and can also be employed preventatively. Modern medical research continues to verify the validity of yoga as therapy to improve overall health. Given the wear and tear our bodies experience over time as we practice dentistry, yoga is especially beneficial for the dental professional.
One of the obvious benefits of yoga is improved flexibility, but the postures also build muscle strength. That additional muscle strength, particularly of the critical core musculature, is balanced by the increased flexibility to help improve posture, both when sitting and when moving through space. This, in turn, reduces strain on the back, neck, shoulders, and other muscles and joints, which decreases the practitioner's chance of developing future degenerative musculoskeletal conditions.
Yoga improves blood flow by increasing your heart rate and delivering more oxygen to your cells, which then function better. While some styles of yoga can get you into an aerobic target range, studies have shown that even those that don't can improve your cardiovascular conditioning.
Other studies have shown yoga's positive impact on a wide variety of physiologic functions, including strengthening bones and reducing osteoporosis, lowering blood sugar levels in diabetics, decreasing blood pressure, boosting the functionality of the immune and adrenal systems, and improving sleep. In addition, because yoga is a low-impact practice, it's gentle on joints that may be weak or compromised. In short, yoga offers a way to counteract or avoid many of the chronic physical conditions that are commonly seen in dental team members.
Mental and emotional benefits
While it is the positive physical impact that initially draws many people to yoga, it is the mental and emotional benefits that keep many coming back. As yoga has evolved, the posture (asana) component has become more emphasized. In fact, classical yoga teachings saw the physical component as a way to strengthen the body so that the yogi could sit comfortably in meditation for long periods. It was the meditative practices that would lead to the ultimate goal of yoga, which was a calming of the "fluctuations of the mind." As all dentists know, there are numerous times during our normal day when those "fluctuations" lead to stress and anxiety. Yoga lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to greater sense of well-being and self-control. This, in turn, improves performance, regardless of the setting.
Even such diverse groups as elite athletes and the Navy SEALS use yogic-inspired breathing techniques to lessen the impact of stress during events and missions. Physiologically, yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the relaxation response. This is characterized by decreases in respiration and heart rates, as well as blood pressure.
Another important and beneficial component of yoga is its emphasis on the present moment. Regular practice of yoga and meditation can significantly improve concentration, and this improved focus helps practitioners decrease the chance of reacting negatively to challenging circumstances that arise. It allows us to truly be "the calm in the eye of the storm." This increased awareness can help us identify and break free of destructive habits ranging from chronic anger, fear, and frustration, to addictions such as smoking. Once we have done so, we are more likely to experience more positive emotions, such as gratitude, empathy, forgiveness, and increased self-esteem.
Having practiced dentistry for more than 25 years and yoga for more than 15, I am very familiar with not only the physical, mental, and emotional challenges each one of us faces daily, but also the effectiveness of yoga in dealing with them. Through my yoga practice, I have experienced changes in body and mind that I never thought possible. If you are curious about yoga, I strongly encourage you to explore what it has to offer. You could try public classes, private instruction, videos, or online instruction.
I suggest trying different styles and teachers until you find a style and teacher that works for you. You may not like yoga at first; it can feel uncomfortable at times. I encourage you to try at least a few classes, though. As your body starts to open, you are likely to enjoy the classes more.
You can even practice yoga at work, such as by concentrating on your breath. You could take a break of a minute or two just to bend forward (head toward your feet). Let your arms hang. Let your head and neck hang. Bend the knees slightly. Relax and release. Don't pull. Don't strain. Don't worry about how far you can bend. Breathe in and out at the same rate. When you start to feel relaxed, you've probably gotten what you need from the break.
I hope you'll experience many benefits from yoga, and that you'll also see quiet yet positive changes in your practice, your relationships, and your world.
David Hennington, DDS, has been a solo practitioner in Georgetown, Texas, since 1991. He has practiced various styles of yoga for more than 15 years and in 2012 was certified as a yoga teacher through Yoga Alliance (RYT-200). He recently participated in a podcast with Dentaltown's founder, Howard Farran, discussing the benefits of yoga for dentists.