March 10, 2021

'Fitness to Practice' - Stephanie Bogan

When I tell people I am a yoga teacher normally the first thing they say is ‘oh I couldn’t do yoga! I’m not flexible!’

There are so many misconceptions about yoga so let’s start with a bit of myth-busting


When I tell people I am a yoga teacher normally the first thing they say is ‘oh I couldn’t do yoga! I’m not flexible!’

There are so many misconceptions about yoga so let’s start with a bit of myth-busting. You do not need to be flexible to practice yoga! It’s hard to miss the images on Instagram of people contorting their bodies or doing impossible arm balances, and I will admit, sometimes that’s yoga. But I want people to see that there is so much more to it. The practice of yoga can actually improve both your physical and mental health. 


I’m a full-time medical student, I work as an organ retrieval perfusionist in the NHS and I’m also a yoga teacher. Yep, I’m pretty busy! Yoga and medicine complement each other incredibly well and it is this that I really want to help people understand. Personally, yoga has really helped me deal with the stresses of medical school and our increasingly volatile and uncertain world. Along with other lifestyle modifications, I am passionate about showing people that yoga can be an amazing tool in the preservation of good health. 


I genuinely feel that lifestyle medicine is still under-played in the healthcare system, where the goal for so long has been to treat or cure when it should have been prevention. 


The word 'Yoga' is derived from the Sanskrit root 'Yuj', meaning 'to yoke' or 'to unite'. The purpose of yoga is to unite the conscious and unconscious, the mind and body. We do this through asana or postures (what people think is yoga), pranayama or breathwork, and meditation. Each of these has a vital part to play in improving health. 


Of course, asana improves strength and flexibility but more importantly, joint mobility and balance. Yoga is a low impact weight-bearing exercise, which increases bone density and is a protective factor against osteoporosis. Strength in muscles surrounding a joint brings stability, which can lower your risk of falls later in life. The practice also brings an awareness of the body and how you physically feel that can be so grounding. Even if you do only go to yoga for the physical workout, you’ll still feel a benefit. But to kick it up a level you need to focus on the breath.


Breathwork alone has been shown to improve respiratory muscle strength and respiratory capacity. It is already being used in the management of asthma and COPD. Paired with asana practice, you can improve your posture, opening up space in the thoracic region and allowing for greater expansion of the chest wall. There is more and more research being published showing the benefits of yoga in a multitude of medical conditions. So exciting and long overdue! For me, breath is the most important part of yoga because each movement in asana practice is paired with an inhale or exhale to create a meditative flow. It is this combination that really allows you to disengage from whatever thoughts are running through your head. I always say, even if you’ve never done yoga before or can’t touch your toes, you can come to class and take child’s pose for the whole time – I don’t mind what you do as long as you’re breathing properly.


Lastly, if I’ve learnt anything it’s that yoga and meditation are good for your mental health. I think most people have this image in their heads of yogis being all calm and zen-like when in actuality, most of us are Type-A personalities filled with all the associated neuroses and anxieties. I’ll hold my hand up as a perfect example! The majority of the time, I practice yoga because I’m stressed or anxious, not to achieve any particular posture. And I know I am not alone. There is so much positive research on the benefits of yoga and meditation in the management of mental health illnesses. MRI studies have shown repeatedly that meditation actually changes neuroplasticity, remodelling your brain, improving conditions like anxiety and depression. I just find that so incredible.


A lot of people come to yoga with an ego. It is often why people are put off after just one class, feeling like they’ve ‘failed’ at yoga because they can’t do what the people in the front row are doing. So, let me say this again, yoga is not about doing pretty postures. It is a way of living, a moving meditation for you to get lost in your head and connect to your body and breath. So, there is no way you can be bad or good at yoga, you just need to show up, move and breathe.


I’m often asked how I manage to fit yoga practice in with my studies and work in such a demanding field. The secret is that always prioritise the time when I can get on my mat, move my body intuitively and relax my mind. Yoga is an amazing way to strengthen your body and to calm your mind. It has helped me to heal and develop strength in my body and mind that I didn’t know was possible. I started to show up to practice with intention, not for a workout, and it was then that I really began to grow. I found that yoga changed not only my physical body but also how I live my life – my attitude, my outlook, and my thought processes. 


Yoga has made me a better medic. I think getting through the last year trying to study medicine in the midst of a pandemic would have been so much harder for me if I hadn’t continued to practice yoga throughout. I can already say for sure that I will use yoga and breathwork techniques with my patients. Yoga has become part of who I am – a healthier, happier human – and I would love people to be able to experience that transition for themselves.