Yoga for Working Nurses

Mariette Tachdijan
February 18, 2013 — 1,296 views  
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How many nurses do you know who step outside for a cigarette during their break, or consume loads of junk food or caffeine at every chance they get? A few, you might say. You may even be one of those nurses yourself. Now, how many nurses do you know who take time out to stretch, quietly meditate, or do deep breathing exercises on their break? Probably none. Doesn't really seem conducive to work, appropriate, or simply practical, you might add.

Well, more and more working nurses (both shift workers and non) are finding there is a need to engage in some form of mind-body practice in the workplace. Calming the mind and rejuvenating the body is a highly effective practice, which can enhance the work experience and may prevent burnout in the long run. After all, when work stress takes its toll on the mental self, it begins to undoubtedly affect the physical body as well. Notice how you breathe more shallowly when you are anxious versus when you are relaxed. How about long-term affects of stress, leading to more serious disabilities? Did you know that multiple clinical studies have shown a correlation between anxiety, depression, and back pain? So, why does our body respond in this way and how can we engage in more positive and effective practices?

In order to adapt to increasingly stressful working environments, some of us naturally overeat, eat the wrong things, drink loads of coffee, or internalize stress by holding our breath or sitting with a poor posture. These habits are all used to cope or simply get through our work shift. While binging on junk food may be one of the more obvious signs, other more subtle forms include neglecting our most basic needs: bathroom breaks, hydration, and most importantly, rest! However, as humans, what we often fail to understand about ourselves is that the "reset button," which helps us feel balanced and whole again, is already programmed within us without the need to reach for things outside of our bodies. 

As difficult as it may seem, it is possible to tap into that nurturing, healing part within us, even for small fractions of time, in order to maintain wellness. As working nurses, it is our duty to be good to ourselves first, so we can in turn give our patients the best care in a mindful and compassionate manner. This is where yoga comes in.

Yoga, derived from the word "yoke" meaning to bring together in union, helps us achieve harmony between the mind, body, and spirit. It also creates a beautiful balance between the opposite forces of strength and flexibility, and control and surrender. So, you say, what does this have to do with my job? For the working nurse, the regular practice of yoga not only gives us tools to cope with stress and fatigue, but also helps us gain strength, clarity, focus, and internal peace. This means working from a more open and compassionate place rather than a hostile and disenchanted spirit.

You may be asking yourself, how can I ever practice yoga when call lights are beeping, doctors are calling on the phone, and families and patients are restless for answers?

The good news is that practicing yoga does not have to be anything formal or rigorous, or for the "spiritually enlightened." Yoga is so simple and universally applicable that it only requires you to be present and willing to try. Yoga practice can be anything from a one-minute meditation to a full 90-minute physical workout. There are three simple ways to practice yoga at the workplace: 1) Meditation, 2) Deep breathing exercises, and 3) Stretching postures. Mindful meditation requires that you mentally tune out, even for as little as one minute, in order to refocus and draw inner peace. Find a quiet corner or room, even the bathroom if you have to, and take a few moments as you close your eyes and shift all of your focus inward.

Every time you feel your thoughts are racing, gently bring them back to the present moment. If you find that difficult to do, try listening to the sound of your inhale and exhale. Now picture every inhale as fresh new positive energy in the form of a gentle light, and exhale that energy back as if you are sending it out to your patients, your coworkers, your family, and even beyond, to the universe. Deep breathing (pranayama) involves various techniques to invigorate and re-circulate the blood between your lungs, heart, and brain. It helps clarify and increase mental alertness. Begin by inhaling from the diaphragm, meaning draw breath deep from the abdomen. Count for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 and exhale for 5 seconds. It is not required to close your eyes for deep breathing, but some people find it more helpful. The beauty of deep breathing is that it can be done anywhere, even while charting or sitting in front of the computer. Try doing this while talking to your patient or discussing a case with a physician. Soon you will find yourself responding much more calmly to a normally stressful situation.

Yoga stretching not only increases flexibility, but promotes muscle strength and prevents injuries. A sun salutation is a sequence of deep stretches, which correspond to deep inhalations and prolonged exhalations. To do a sun salutation: Stand upright, shoulders relaxed, feet together, and arms at your side. Begin by inhaling and sweeping your arms up and overhead, then exhale as your arms sweep back down to your sides. Continue exhaling as you bend from the hips, keeping your legs straight and fold forward with a straight back until your hands either reach the floor or rest on your shins. Let your head and neck hang. Next, inhale as you look halfway up and straighten your spine. Then, exhale by folding forward and letting your head and neck relax again. Inhale once more as you come straight up with a flat back, bringing your arms overhead and exhale bringing the arms back down to your sides, completing the sequence. 

This is one of the most invigorating yoga sequences that does not require having to get down on the ground. By doing this sequence, fresh blood circulates to the brain, nerves and muscles are stimulated and the body is rejuvenated. Practice the sun salutation every couple hours if possible, doing a series of five sequences each time.

If your hospital unit or workplace recognizes holistic practices such as yoga, then it is worthwhile to consider organizing regular on-site yoga classes for your unit or team. Large corporate companies have begun incorporating yoga into their workplace as a means of employee wellness and retention. Shouldn't the nursing profession be leaders in this movement? Perhaps by keeping our own workforce healthy with these preventive practices, we too can work more effectively, be more compassionate, (not only with our patients but with ourselves), and finally embark on a healthy and fulfilling career path.

Mariette Tachdijan

Mariette Tachdjian, RN, MSN, is a certified hatha yoga instructor. She works in nursing management at Providence Saint-Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, CA and also teaches yoga to nurses and to private clients.