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What becoming a yoga teacher taught me about dentistry

As dentists, we face unique mental, physical and emotional challenges each day. These challenges often create discord and imbalance in our bodies and minds, especially when combined with the current state of our political and societal climate.

Contorting our bodies in order to gain better visibility, sitting for long periods, and hunching over our computer keyboards can put a huge strain on our musculoskeletal systems, but is also linked to less-expected chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Additionally, dealing with fearful patients, managing team members, and the frustrations of being in a leadership role can sometimes become overwhelming and lead to powerful feelings of anger, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Soon after beginning to practice dentistry, I began to experience the starting stages of burnout that most of us may go through at some point in our careers.

While working at a community health center has been fulfilling, it has also taken a huge mental and emotional toll on me as a majority of my patients come from communities that are disenfranchised in terms of health care.

Dr. Barrera

Most of my patients are HIV-positive and/or suffer from a multitude of medical comorbidities. I have patients who are homeless, institutionalized, incarcerated, and many struggle with discrimination for being transgender.

I not only act as the dentist, but also take on roles similar to a counselor and social worker as I take the time to listen to the daily struggles that my patients experience.

I discovered the magic of yoga shortly after graduating from dental school as it served as a form of exercise. It also allowed me to disconnect and to focus on nothing else other than my body and mind. I started to build a community with those I met at the yoga studio, and became excited to see how my practice would deepen and involve with every class. After about three years of practicing yoga regularly, I knew that becoming a yoga teacher was something I wanted to do.

I enrolled in a 200-hour yoga teacher training program at Black Swan Yoga in Houston and instantly became even more passionate and curious about the practice of yoga.

As my training progressed, I began to notice small changes in how I practice dentistry and also in how I view my profession. My days began to feel less stressful as I started to become more mindful with each patient I treated. The mindfulness allowed me to notice patterns when diagnosing and treating patients and challenged me to do things like think of alternative treatment options or have deeper conversations with each patient. I started using pranayama (the practice of breath control in yoga) with patients who were apprehensive or had a dental phobia.

I was amazed with how much these small changes benefited my patients and improved the stress level of my staff.  As I dove deeper into meditation and yogic philosophy, I learned to not sweat the small stuff, and remember the bigger picture of why I chose to become a dentist.

Physical Benefits

While the practice of yoga is much more than physical, today’s western interpretation of this is primarily asana practice, or the poses and movements we envision when we hear the word yoga. Yoga will increase blood flow and muscle activation, which will increase our cardiovascular system and build muscle.

The practice also improves flexibility and activates small stabilizing muscles that we don’t usually target. These improvements can help alleviate existing ailments but also prevent injuries common to a career in dentistry.

Yoga also has a positive impact on a wide variety of physiologic functions, such as strengthening bones and reducing osteoporosis, lowering blood sugar levels, decreasing blood pressure, boosting the functionality of the immune and adrenal systems, and improving our sleep.

Mental/Emotional Benefits

While I noticed improvements in my flexibility and strength, it was the mental and emotional benefits that made me fall in love with the magic of yoga. The meditation and mindfulness techniques that you learn through yoga will transfer over to all aspects of your daily life. I began to notice how good it feels to allow my mind to completely shut off during the 1 hour or a yoga class. Additionally, yoga has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, leading to greater sense of well-being and self-control.

One of my greatest takeaways from my training was learning about the Yamas and discovering how I can relate them to dentistry. In yoga philosophy, the Yamas are the ethical standards of how we should conduct ourselves, and the behavior to develop during interactions with others and ourselves. I found it interesting that these guidelines seemed very similar to the ADA Principles of Ethics.

The Yamas

  1. Ahimsa: Non-violence
  2. Satya: Truthfulness
  3. Asteya: Non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya: Non-excess
  5. Aparigraha: Non-attachment

How You Can Get Started

If you are interested in starting yoga, it is important to know that there are many styles of yoga that range from calm and comforting, to powerful and exhorting. I suggest doing research online to find a yoga studio near you or even starting with some online yoga classes. If starting yoga for the first time, doing some research will help you find a style of yoga that is right for you.

Social media is a powerful tool to finding community and gaining support in both dentistry and yoga. I’ve been fortunate to connect with dentists from around the world who are also passionate yogis. Dr. Josie Dovidio helps dentists de-stress with yoga and meditation through her program, Yoga for Dentists and the Dental Yogis, Dr. Cristian Pavel & Dr. Danielle Cascioli, who help lead both dental mission trips and yoga retreats for dental professionals.

Yoga is something I know I will continue to practice for a lifetime and something that will constantly remind me to evolve and grow in my career and my passion of helping others.

Dr. Alex Barrera is a New Dentist Now guest blogger and practices general dentistry at Avenue 360 Health & Wellness in Houston, Texas. He graduated in 2017 from the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston and is a member of various organizations including the American Dental Association, Hispanic Dental Association, Greater Houston Dental Association, and the Houston Equality Dental Network. He currently serves as the chair of the New Dentist Committee for the Hispanic Dental Association and participated in the ADA’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership. Dr. Barrera is a participant in the National Health Service Corps and alumni of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Program. Dr. Barrera is a certified yoga teacher and uses mindfulness and meditation to help better treat patients with dental phobias. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking and traveling.

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