• Balancing a Career and a Yoga Practice

    “I wish I had enough time for yoga.” How many times have you heard those words, or said them yourself?

    Something that I get asked about on a regular basis is how I’m able to keep the balance between a demanding career and a dedicated yoga practice. These questions come from both people that I work with, and people that I practice with. I am a medical doctor, specializing in obstetrics & gynaecology (OB/GYN), and my Ashtanga practice has me learning Intermediate Series. One thing that often prevents people from dedicating themselves to a daily practice is the perceived impossibility of fitting it into their already-crammed schedule. Certainly, before I started practicing yoga, I wondered how people had time for work, physical activities, volunteering, and socializing. These super-human individuals seemed to have more hours in the day than the rest of us mere mortals. I added yoga to my life over three years ago, from a previously sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. Having seen both sides of the coin, I can tell you that it’s not possible to invent more hours in the day. That said, it is completely possible to manage a busy career and a demanding practice.

    As the yoga practice took hold in my mind and soul, what had been a weekly exercise became a daily practice. This process evolved over the course of about a year. I noticed that the more time I committed to yoga, the less time I devoted to other things. This natural evolution in my priorities is something that is ongoing. Going out for a big night isn’t something that interests me much anymore. Neither does staying up to date on the latest episode of Queer Eye. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these things. Rather, I moved them down my list of priorities so far that they rarely happen anymore. Other things became more important: yoga, work, and a small circle of loved ones. One of the benefits of starting a physical practice from a place of inactivity is the abundance of new energy that comes along with it. So, while you might not be able create more hours in the day, you might be able to do more in the hours that are given to us. Prior to committing to a daily practice, I would often feel sluggish after work. Now, I look forward to getting on the mat, be it at home or in the shala.

    Along with working long hours, I also work unusual, irregular hours. This is something that I have learned to embrace. I get to be quite creative in my practice schedule. An Ashtanga practice lends itself well to this sort of flexibility of schedule. Did I really just say that, about the style of yoga most known for its disciplined structure? In a word, yes. However, I am forced to veer away from what tradition dictates, which is early-morning practice, 6 days a week. Evening practice suits me better, and is more sustainable for me. I often swap around moon days, which are meant to be days of rest, for other days to accommodate my schedule. Most importantly, I have a sequence that I can do anytime and anywhere, and there is power in that. If I’m in work until 9 pm, I can come home and do as much of my practice as I’m able for. If I’m doing one of my 24-hour-long, in-hospital shifts, I might get a chance to do a Surya Namaskar or two in the on-call room. Working a night shift? Get on the mat at home or in the shala in the morning.

    In addition to learning to be flexible with the times that I practice, I’ve expanded my definition of what practice is. Working in my career, I am regularly expected to be awake (and functioning!) for 24 hours in a go. This usually involves long hours standing, and doing physical work on my feet. These things naturally take a toll on my body. Some days my body is only able for the Surya Namaskar and the finishing postures. Other days, a full-power, long practice is what I need. Most days, it’s somewhere in between. In my early days of practicing Ashtanga, I would beat myself up if I didn’t have the capacity for a full practice everyday. I pushed and pushed, often to the point of injury. My type-A personality and need to achieve were something I had to confront on the mat. Learning to accept my limitations, and accept where I am any given day, has brought me a lot of peace. There will always be ebbs and flows of busy times at work and softer practices, to balance with less busy times and more energetic practices. It’s all practice!

    I’ve talked a lot about the physical practices of yoga, but that’s not all there is to yoga. Within the 8 limbs of yoga, we also have codes of conduct and personal disciplines, the yamas and niyamas. Applying these ethical guidelines to our day-to-day life is another important way of practicing yoga. I also like to think of my work as a form of karma yoga. That is, good work, done unselfishly, to benefit another, is a form of prayer. While I’ve written mostly on navigating the often-negative impact that a busy career can have on a yoga practice, there is a lot to be said for the impact that the practice has on career. In yoga practice, we are continuously being confronted by difficult situations, and are asked to sit with them. This brings up our stuff, whatever that may be. This can have manifold benefits. By unpacking our own demons, and challenging our habitual patterns of thinking, it’s natural to become more compassionate towards others. That pose that challenges us immensely might bring up anger, frustration, or sadness. We can now see that when someone at works acts in an unpleasant manner, they are really reacting to something within themselves. In knowing that, it is easier to address the negative behavior, and forgive the person. This way of thinking has changed the way I interact with colleagues and patients alike, for the better.

    I’ve also learned to extend this kindness and compassion, and what is essentially ahimsa, to myself too. Being more in tune with the body and mind has made me realize how badly I was – and often still am – abusing both in the name of work. Inadequate sleep, poor diet, less than ideal posture, negative self talk. All these things can easily happen when we put career first. However, the yoga practice continuously brings my awareness back to these habits, and challenges me to change them. Through the yoga practice, we become more resilient, and able to recover from failures. How many times have we failed on that difficult posture, only to try again tomorrow? Difficult situations arise in my line of work frequently, and being resilient is essential. Being present, empathetic, and kind in stressful situations are skills that can be learned. Being able to not become attached to the situation is often more difficult, but yoga helps us practice that. My way of approaching the yoga practice won’t work for everyone or every job. They are simply the things that I have learned over time. Hopefully something I’ve shared can help someone out there struggling to find time for the mat.

    Namaste.

    By Alison DeMaio

    Alison is a medical doctor, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology in one of Ireland’s leading maternity hospitals. Originally from the Bluegrass state of Kentucky, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences in 2007. The following year she moved to Dublin where she completed a graduate medical degree at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. In her early years of working as a  doctor, Alison experienced a great deal of back pain and stress.  Yoga became a deeply transformative tool in both her physical and emotional healing. Alison is committed to her daily Ashtanga Mysore practice, despite the demands of a busy job. She has been fortunate to practice with some world-renowned teachers, and she is currently learning the Ashtanga Intermediate Series in the traditional method. Keep in touch with Alison (@ashtangi_ali) on Instagram.

     

  • Blow your mind with Meditation

    To me, the popularity of the war-time phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ seems out of place in one of the most prosperous and war-free societies in the world. In our connected, fully wired 24-7 society, it can be hard to switch off.  Our normal rhythms are easily out of sync and ‘stress’ has become an everyday word.

    As a lawyer, I remember hearing stories about how – before email – documents took days, if not weeks, to be passed around by hand, typed and re-typed with corrections handwritten in different colours – now it takes seconds to ping an email to everyone and complex contracts can be marked up overnight with tracked changes. The pace of modern life is sometimes astounding. 

    It’s easy to lose ourselves in the rush and pressures of modern life.  Meditation is an antidote; a route to perspective and calm, to navigating the hectic traffic we experience in all areas of our lives. Meditation can change how we work, it can improve our health, and it can affect how we relate both to ourselves and to others.  Beyond a mechanism for coping with stress, mediation can be a vehicle towards finding more meaning, purpose, depth and connection in our lives.

    The mind is a surprising instrument. So powerful that science has yet to understand more than the basics of how it fully functions. But then, trying to understand ourselves has always been a tough, yet valuable pursuit.

    Our minds (along with our bodies) have developed over millions of years of evolution to give us the best chances of survival in a sometimes hostile world. Our brain is rewarded with pleasure – with substances such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin – when we do something that evolution would suggest is survival-enhancing. And, of course, the other side of the coin is pain when our survival is threatened.   When we sit in meditation and train our attention, we are acting against many of the reactionary tendencies that we have developed as a result of evolution.    

    Our evolutionary tendencies have helped us to survive so far, but some of them now lead us to overreact.  We have, for example, developed a bias towards negativity, giving far more weight and attention to negative events and emotions than positive ones.  And, particularly, under stress, we overestimate and ‘dial up’ the perceived ‘dangers’ around us. The evolutionary ‘down’ that we sometimes experience after the ‘high’ of being with a partner, is designed to draw us towards that person helping us to mate and procreate. But if that evolutionary tendency is too strong in us, our neediness may get activated and end up pushing the person away. Meditation helps us to temper the reactions that evolution has set in motion, so in that sense it is going against some of our evolutionary instincts.  But maybe, that’s what’s needed for us to evolve even further.

    Previously the purview of monks and lamas, meditation is now being used by the likes of Google, hedge fund managers  and MBA students to boost their performance. Scientific research supports many health benefits of meditation mainly associated with stress reduction, and ability to focus.  Cautiously promising research in its early stages even suggests that meditation may have some effect on a cellular level on patients in remission from cancer. Further evidence is needed to confirm that. So, maybe, in terms of health and focus, meditation is giving us an extra edge. 

    Meditation affects the quality of your attention and where you place it. And, as Stanford scholar and international meditation teacher B. Alan Wallace, PhD explains in his book The Attention Revolution, ‘Our perception of reality is tied closely to where we place our attention’. What we focus on shapes our experience and the things we ignore, pale into insignificance for us. In 2012, Usain Bolt says he won the 100 meters in 2012 by concentrating on his strength on “concentrating on his strengths” (execution) rather than his weaknesses (his poor start). Meditation allows us to choose where we place our attention.  That, in turn, gives us more control over how we shape our lives.

    Meditation also helps us to navigate our emotions. Neuroscientists debate whether regions of the brain perform specific functions or whether a more interconnected view is more accurate.  It is, however, established that the amygdala (emotional centres) play a huge role in the fear response. In order to deal with the fear-causing – at an evolutionary level read ‘life threatening’ – situation, we dissociate. We stop using the logical, decision-making functions of our brains. I interviewed Louann Brizendine, neuroscientist and author of bestseller, The Female Brain. She described this to me beautifully, using the analogy of a car with the clutch being pushed in. When we are in a state of stress and fear, the gears are unable to engage with the decision-making functions of our brains.

    Of course, modern day stressful situations are not always related to mortal danger. And, in a non-life-threatening situation such as work, most of the decisions we make would probably benefit from some logical engagement! Awareness developed through meditation can help break the cycle and get you back there. 

    Meditation helps us to press ‘pause’ on our reactive patterns. It gives us perspective and choice. This allows us to be cool under fire.  In this sense, it helps to blow the patterns that have been deeply ingrained in our minds out of the water, leaving us clearer, calmer and more available for genuine meaningful connection.  Any takers?

    By Mia Forbes Pirie

    Watch Mia’s course, Intelligent Start, on Omstars

    Join Mia’s 5 day meditation challenge and see how meditating for as little as 5 minutes a day can make a difference to your day https://intelligentchange.life/five-day-challenge/ or be part of Mia’s small Facebook “Not too Perfect”  Yoga & Meditation community https://www.facebook.com/groups/379578869076090/