In Michele’s words…
I met Sue Steindorf at a yoga teacher’s training many years ago. Sue and I connected through our interest in the therapeutic aspects of yoga. As a nurse, it’s the healing potential of yoga that attracts me the most.
When I started my training, I never thought I would become a teacher. I just wanted to explore yoga for myself. I had taken time off of nursing to raise my kids, and it was during those years that I dove more deeply into my personal practice. In doing so, I received more and more training in how to apply yoga techniques for holistic healing.
So much of what yoga teaches is that there is no separation between our body, mind, emotions and spirit. The habits we develop in our physical movement reflects the patterns in our thoughts and vice versa. Ancient yogis and rishis sat in stillness to study the mind and their connection to all things. When their bodies’ discomfort began to distract them from their meditation, they would stretch and twist. They noticed how different poses changed their energy and how it connected them to something larger than themselves.
Some poses can elicit an emotional response. For example, going upside down brings up fear in a lot of people; balancing on one leg brings a sigh. But any reaction to a pose can be potent and juicy. If your mind is judging while you are trying to do a pose, it’s important to ask, “How is that going to affect your body?” That kind of self-talk affects your reality. If you don’t balance, if you fall out of a pose, or maybe you have an ongoing injury that makes it really hard to balance, then how do you make that okay instead of being negative about it? Can you accept what is happening for you in the moment? Can you hold it without a lot of story?
When I returned to nursing a few years later, I was reminded that while hospitals should be considered temples of healing, the system as it has developed in the West is focused on fixing problems. With laser focus on the illness, the procedure, the event, and reimbursement, we miss the whole person. And this is true for both the patients/clients and members of the health care team. Nurses and doctors are not seen as whole people through this lens either. There is an imbalance in the system, and the economic realities of health care pressure health care professionals in many ways. Fortunately, there are many health care workers who are doing groundbreaking work using mindfulness practices such as meditation, visualization, aromatherapy, Ayurveda, yoga, chi gong, and tai chi into their patient care plans. I would like to see more health care providers using these practices for themselves as well. My hope is, in the future, yoga will be incorporated into health care as we know it.
I’m fortunate to work in labor and delivery, where I can develop a one on one relationship with my patients, and apply my knowledge of yoga to my nursing practice. Things can get stressful during childbirth. It’s a huge transition becoming a mother, and there is a lot to take in to consideration when a woman is labor. I look at their bodies and see where they are holding on to tension, to talk to them about their breathing. I apply therapeutic touch and compassionately coach them. I reassure them that they are okay.
In my nurse-patient relationships, compassion is everything. I work with people from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of issues. To come from a place of compassion is to know I am no different from another person. Someone could be a drug addict, for example, but as I get to know them as a person I know at the core, we are the same. We all experience the same human emotions.
In my very first yoga practice, after being a nurse in oncology for about seven months, and having seen a lot of suffering, I felt a deeper level of meaning than I even knew was possible. My teacher, without even knowing me or my story, showed me great compassion. Just the words that she used, and the way she led the class, the way she moved through the world. The message I got from her is that everything is okay.
I had come from many years of dance practice which was very disciplined. It had to be done a certain way; you had to look a certain way. If your body wasn’t perfect you were no good. And yoga is so different than that. My teacher accepted everything, everyone and every body type. In doing so, I learned to accept myself, and to give that same deep compassion to my patients, and to my yoga students.
I teach hatha yoga at Dayaalu. I also teach the 8-week Connections Yoga Therapy Program with Sue. Yoga therapy is a one-to- one relationship with a yoga therapist who knows you and your body and can guide you through whatever challenges are going on. So this class series is designed for a smaller group. We meet once a week for 2.5 hours. With two teachers, students get a lot more individualized attention. If someone has spine or knee issues, or even fear or anxiety, we can tailor poses for them and show them how to use props.
The series is good for beginners, but also for people at all levels of yoga experience. Students get to learn more about yoga and themselves, and how the practice is a map for a richer life. Along with poses, we talk about the philosophy of yoga and how to apply it to the rest of life. This branch of yoga is called, swadhyaya. It’s great to see people taking the time to engage in this kind of self-study. It provides students with an opportunity to think more consciously about how they go through their lives. To observe different situations and notice their reactions. To ask if their reactions are useful, if they really serve their larger intentions. We also bring that philosophy into actual poses. Humans are such complex organisms, so everything becomes a learning opportunity. Ultimately, it is a class that reveals to people that they are their own guru and have access to their own wisdom anytime.
In the future, I would love to offer a yoga class for pregnant women and their partners. It is such a perfect marriage between my nursing profession and my yoga practice. Connecting yoga therapy to this stage of life is so applicable and powerful for women going through this transition. It’s these big transitions that can really rock your world. You have to bring a greater level of self-awareness and self-acceptance as you learn a new way of being you. And, I can imagine incorporating a beautiful blessing ceremony at the end of the class series.
My nursing background has taught me that the body is the body, and it does what it does! As a nurse, I have to maintain a grasp on concrete reality. And while I love the more ethereal and spiritual aspects of yoga that can be experienced, that is not where I spend most of my time. Many of us, in this culture, are what we callhouseholders. We have complex busy lives. So while we do our daily spiritual practices and occasionally disappear into the forest or to an ashram to have deep experiences of connection with ourselves and the universe, the real practice for me is maintaining an expanded awareness in the midst of the chaos of my life.
But, I’m not totally there yet. I have a job, stress, a boss, kids. My life can be messy, and yet when I come to yoga I can be totally present and get so much out of it. And I hope, when people come to my class, they understand that I have a full life. I’m not meditating all of the time. I can model what it means to bring one’s whole self to class and find compassion and acceptance. This is the core of all healing.