A blog entry from one of my favorite yoginis, a surgeon, who was coerced into writing under the promise of anonymity:
Lori asked me to write about my professional life and the correlation between my professional life and yoga. But as I started to think about this, it seemed that there were two versions: one for surgeons about yoga, and one for yogis about surgery. Since this is a yoga blog, I figured I’d better stick to the latter.
To be clear, I don’t speak for all surgeons, just for myself. I happen to be both a surgeon and a yogi, and frequently feel like I inhabit two worlds that seem so drastically different that they can’t possibly exist at the same time.
Yet, there is inevitably a common thread. . . . .
A few days ago the hospital chaplain emailed this quote from an unknown author that struck me as a perfect synopsis of why I love both the OR and the yoga mat:
“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
Yogis know this well.
And the best surgeons do too.
Asana is just one limb of the practice of yoga, but for many yogis it is the most fun limb. The same can be said for time spent in the OR; it is just one aspect of a surgeon’s work and is the most fun part.
Non-surgeons often have a hard time understanding the idea that we love the OR. They think we must love the end result, the helping people, the product . . . anything but actually loving the process, the real moment to moment of operating. I do love all those other things, but when I say I love the OR I am referring to the act of operating, the actual doing.
In the OR you lose yourself in your case. Hours pass, sometimes it feels like minutes (and sometimes like years). It’s not that there aren’t interruptions, there are. But everything that threatens to interrupt you, important or not, can wait. You can pick it up when you’re done with your case. Nothing can pull you away from your first responsibility, the patient on the table. Nothing can pull you away from the surgery. You can’t think about all the other things on your to-do list. You’re completely and entirely in the moment, immersed, protected and, in a sense, free.
The only other place I lose myself like that is on my yoga mat. Coming into a practice with my head swimming in all the day’s events, the things to do, chastising myself for all the mistakes I made that day and all the things I didn’t get done or overdid, or said or didn’t say. But a few downward dogs later, all that is gone, at least for a moment. And can be resumed, if still necessary, after savasana.
Sometimes my yoga friends say, “that’s a stressful job, you really need yoga!”
This can be true.
But the other truth is that yoga makes me a better surgeon.
Much of what happens in an OR is very routine . . . . expected. The anatomy is predictable, the organ is removed, the patient goes home.
But sometimes, you get surprised. What you thought was going to be simple, in and out, turns into an abdomen full of tumors and a 13 hour complex surgery.
And you forgot to eat breakfast.
In asana, we practice getting turned inside and out, upside down, twisted in knots and, finally, land back on our feet. We practice righting ourselves from the unexpected. We may even enjoy that ride.
If only yoga could teach us to eat breakfast.
While things in the OR usually turn out okay, they certainly don’t always go well. There is sometimes a struggle, frustration, fear, terror, panic, or anger. With that often comes an adrenaline rush – that flight or fight response that tells you to run .
Yoga teaches us about the practice of abhyasa (strength, steadiness) and vairagya (non-reaction). In other words, it teaches us to take an extra breath before we have to come out of an uncomfortable pose, before we react.
A colleague once said to me, in the middle of a very challenging surgery “oh, you practice yoga, that’s why you’re always so calm and composed when the shit hits the fan.” I found this hilarious at that moment as I was soaked in sweat from the effort of the case we were working on.
But she was on to something. When you get into real trouble in the OR, just like after 5 minutes in frog pose, there is always time to take one more breath before you have to act. The pause of a single inhale and exhale — to think, to plan, to stay for just a moment longer until you can make a move that isn’t a desperate escape.