Ashtanga Yoga during Medical School
Julia Loewenthal

lighthouse yoga.jpeg

I started a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practice during my first year of medical school. Prior to this, in an attempt to “get fit” before classes started, I joined a studio and did a 30-day Baptiste yoga challenge. I could not touch my toes or hold a chaturanga to save my life. However, I remember feeling a profound calmness and awareness, especially right after class. Shortly after my yoga challenge was up, I moved to Charlottesville, VA and resumed my usual elliptical workout at the gym. I noticed I was feeling more stressed and had a lot of tension in my neck and back during the day. I attributed this to medical school and carried on. But then I wondered if I could use some more stretching in conjunction with my gym workout, so I signed up for a class at my local studio. There were all of these weird “Ashtanga” classes and I thought I could certainly handle whatever this “primary series” was. I had graduated to level 2 classes at the other studio! Boy, was I wrong.

I clearly remember my first primary series class. It was literally the hardest exercise I had ever done. To be clear, I was never much of an athlete, but the primary series is really challenging! The first thing I wanted to do afterwards was lie down forever, and I also wasn’t sure if I could drive home due to wobbly legs. But I felt remarkably clear-headed. I was not forward-looking and thinking about how to spend the next several hours. In that class and for a short while afterward, I was just living and being in my body. I noticed how my breathing changed during surya namaskar (regular and then slightly deeper) as compared to the middle of the sequence (ragged, barely breathing at all). I played around with the jump back for the first time and felt like a child learning how to walk. It was amazing, it was challenging, and there were all these fun asanas to learn. I was hooked. 

I started going to half primary series and introduction classes at night, along with other vinyasa mash-up classes. I felt wonderful and strong and was gaining flexibility. I could see muscles become more defined. I learned how to do some arm balances like bakasana. My teacher kept telling me to come to this thing called “Mysore,” which, being at 6 in the morning, I thought was some sort of cult. The first 1-2 years of medical school are similar to undergraduate college in that there are classes and labs at various times during the day and evening studying. It is intense in terms of pace and content, but it was overall not much of an adjustment from college. Therefore, I was still going out pretty late at night and wasn’t always ready for a 6am class. One of my friends in medical school had dabbled in Mysore-style classes in the past and convinced me to try it. I roused myself and went to class before the sun came up. I walked into the room, which was pleasantly warm, and there were all these people practicing different asanas all at once. I unrolled my mat and my teacher just told me to start at the beginning of what I memorized. At first, I was very distracted watching someone get into what I now know is a deep backbend called kapotasana. But I was also struck by how everyone was breathing together and also the special experience of practicing with the sunrise. Later in the day it was like a little secret I carried with me all day long. 

To be honest, though, it took me a long time to develop a dedicated Mysore style practice. First of all, since I was in my early twenties, I was not an early riser. Second, it can be hard to motivate yourself to practice without verbal instruction. And finally, it is intense to confront yourself on the mat every day and deal with the same poses when you are feeling sore or crummy. I loved my community but ended up exploring a different Mysore program offered by the university in the afternoon. I was also interested in the integration of yoga into the academic university community. After my first year of school, I noticed that I could study more efficiently and effectively in part due to the concentration afforded by an active yoga practice. This community was a godsend— we had an amazing teacher (John Bultman) and there were undergraduate students, professors, medical doctors, philosophy graduate students, and many others from whom I learned so much. It grew into a dedicated Mysore-style program. I even switched to going in the early morning! A lot of good things happened, like improvement in my eating habits, cutting back on partying, and developing a relationship with my now husband.

However, one thing you can count on in medical training is that it always changes. The latter years of medical school are devoted to clinical training, and as a student you experience different medical specialties for several weeks at a time. You can switch from being in a primary care clinic during business hours to overnight shifts delivering babies in the same week. Then there comes residency training, which begins right after medical school graduation. I matched at a hospital in Boston for Internal Medicine and moved here in 2015. Residency, and the first year called internship, are the most intense and demanding times during training for most physicians. In fact, it is called “residency” because trainees used to actually live at the hospital. The schedule has gotten a lot more humane over the past several decades and residents are now “limited” to 80-hour work weeks. However, most residencies still involve days jammed with work, night shifts, and 30-hour shifts. Mine was no exception!  

Luckily, I had the Ashtanga yoga practice. During my first year in Boston, I realized I lived fairly close to the Down Under Yoga Brookline studio, and it had a Mysore program! I was able to practice there on and off during the year, but mostly practiced at home. Fortunately, Mysore-style practice prepares you for this since it is fundamentally a self-guided practice. However, it can be hard to motivate yourself at home, and also hard to find the right time to practice during an 80-hour work week—I found myself not practicing as much or as long because of hunger, fatigue, full stomach after eating dinner at the hospital, prioritizing time with friends and family, and on and on. The practice can also bring up difficult, strong emotions, which you are dealing with on a daily basis as a new doctor. For these reasons, I scaled back my practice quite a bit in length and physicality. Kate O’Donnell and Rich Ray have been very patient with me since I will disappear for several months at a time and then come back to the Mysore room and have to relearn drop backs (again).

I am now finished with residency and it been 7 years since I started practicing Ashtanga yoga. I am ramping up my Ashtanga practice again and have a steady and predictable schedule for the first time in years. I think other medical trainees and anyone with a demanding career should embrace Ashtanga yoga as a possibility for them, even though it can seem like it doesn’t fit in with their lifestyle. The system can seem rigid, but it is well-balanced physically and lends itself to easy modification for whatever your life brings. Ashtanga has had a strong influence on me both personally, as described, and professionally. Thanks to wonderful opportunities in the Boston medical community, I have had the chance to work in Integrative Medicine clinics and conduct research on the use of yoga to prevent burnout in medical trainees. I have also become more familiar with and accepting of many different systems of healing. Because of my experiences in medicine and yoga practice, I am interested in healthy aging and pursuing further Geriatrics training. I hope to keep yoga as a cornerstone of both my personal and professional worlds and am looking forward to having a more consistent Mysore practice at Down Under!