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Even in pre-pandemic times, medical professionals faced significant job stress. We learn early on in our training to keep up a stoic resolve as we focus on the needs of our patients. After holding the front line against the COVID-19 pandemic for the past two years, many of us are finally admitting that we are exhausted and burned out. Health-care workers are experiencing unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance as a consequence of understaffing, overwork, and the high physical and emotional demands of our work.
Even informal caregivers can experience high levels of stress. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of caring for a chronically ill child, a disabled elder, or another loved one can be overwhelming. The strain can impact the health and well-being of the one providing care.
It is critical for all of us in caregiving roles to take care of ourselves. Mindfully moving our bodies can help.
This sequence encourages you to take a short break from the daily chaos and bring some love to your tight back muscles after hours hunched over a patient’s bedside. These poses help to strengthen your core and arms so you can uplift (figuratively and literally) yourself and those around you. This sequence is also for those who love a health-care worker and seek to share in the joy and hope we bring to others.
A yoga sequence for health-care workers
This sequence does not require a yoga mat and allows you to practice at any time during your busy workday.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Yang)
Stand with your arms alongside your body, shoulders relaxed. Standing tall brings dignity to your practice, as there also is in your work as a caretaker. Take 3 long, purposeful breath cycles—inhaling and exhaling with intention. This may be the only time out of your day that you spend caring for yourself; be fully present for this practice. Relax, let go, and find joy in your body.
High Lunge with cactus arms
From Tadasana, step your left foot back, bending your right knee toward 90 degrees. Inhale to reach your arms overhead. Relax your shoulders and stretch your fingers actively upward. Then bend your elbows into a cactus shape as you open your chest. This stretch opens your upper back and reminds you to stay tall in your posture after hours at your patient’s bedside. Engage your low belly and stretch through your back hip. Stay in this pose for 3 breath cycles, playing with the degree of bend in your back knee to deepen or lessen the stretch in your back hip flexor.
Prasarita Tadasana (Wide-Legged Standing Stretch)
From High Lunge, come to a wide-legged stance. Clasp your hands behind your back or hold on to your elbows or forearms. Inhale as you squeeze your elbows and shoulder blades toward each other as you press your pelvis slightly forward and open your heart. Enjoy the stretch in your chest and shoulders as you gaze slightly up at the sky. Find joy in the breath as you lift through the crown of your head. Stand here for 3 breath cycles.
From Wide-Legged Standing Stretch, keep your fingers interlaced behind your back or continue to hold your elbows or forearms. Open your heart to the sky as you inhale. As you exhale, fold forward over your legs, allowing your arms to reach up toward the sky or hang overhead. Hanging upside down enables you to change your perspective for a moment. Remember you are whole and perfect as you are. This is your moment to open your heart again. There is reason for hope, always. Keep that thought in your mind as you stay here for 2-3 breath cycles. Come up slowly on an inhale.
From Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend, turn your right foot to the right. Bend your right knee, lean your torso to the right, and bend your elbow to rest your forearm on your front thigh. You can also place your hand on the floor or on a block alongside your right foot. Extend your left arm overhead and allow your gaze to follow. Stay here for 2-3 breath cycles. This is a great side-stretch and opening for your ribs, which allows you to take fuller breaths. This posture also allows you to access your vagus nerve, regulating your reaction to stress.
From Extended Side Angle, return to High Lunge with your arms overhead. Pour all your weight into your right foot. Find your balance and lift your left leg up behind you; reach your left hand back to grasp your left foot. Once you have your left foot or ankle in your hand, dip your chest forward and press your left heel away from your buttocks to stretch the right side of your chest. For added balance, hold on to a chair, a wall, or your friend! Be open to smiling or laughing in this moment. You are resilient! This pose is better when practiced together, just like we are better when we work together. Stay here for 2-3 breath cycles.
Return to Tadasana and repeat the entire sequence on the other side.
See more from Ingrid Yang: When Healers Need to Heal.
Models of Medicine
The frontline caregivers demonstrating practices above are anesthesiologist Kelly Bruno, M.D.; hospitalist physician Ingrid Yang, M.D.; and emergency medicine specialist Allison Haders, M.D.