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.