The Optimized Doctor

Yoga life lessons


I love empty storefronts. The realtor headshot in the window is a sign of hope. What was here is no more. What is coming will be better.

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I’ve waited a year for one such sign to come down and scaffolding to go up. Just one block from my condo, my curiosity has been slaked: a yoga studio! At first, disappointment; so many potentials unrealized: a coffee shop, cleaners, speakeasy! Yet, I decided to make the best of it. I bought Rainbow sandals, a Lululemon mat, and a pack of 10 classes. As it turns out, yoga can transform your life.

I didn’t realize how beautifully yoga combines physical exertion, meditation, and spirituality. It is both a model for understanding and a ritualistic training for life. Take resting pigeon for example. (Yogis reading this will forgive my imperfect explanation.) This moderately difficult pose opens your hip and stretches your glutes. Imagine doing a split but with your front knee bent and your forehead and arms resting on the floor in front of you. Done correctly, it puts a stretch deep into the hip of the forward leg. It is uncomfortable. Holding it for a minute or 2 is hard. But rather than just focusing on releasing, with each breath you find yourself deepening the stretch. Sweat streams down your arms and the discomfort builds as you hold. All you can think about is your breath. Then, it’s over. You feel freer, lighter than you were before. The deeper the discomfort, the deeper the delight that arises afterward. You are wise, yogis would say, to have chosen “the good over the pleasant.”

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

We have many opportunities for resting pigeon in everyday life. The patient to be added to your Monday morning clinic – which already had added patients. The Friday afternoon Mohs case that went to periosteum and still needs a flap to close. The “yet another” GI bleed patient that needs to be scoped tonight. These are all deep stretches, uncomfortable hip openings. Part of what I learned from yoga is to not give in to fear of what is ahead. Rather, when you must be uncomfortable, breathe and lean into it. Choosing the good sometimes means choosing suffering, but it isn’t the pain that makes it hard to bear. It is a lack of significance for that difficulty. By choosing what is good, you answer the question: “Who am I?” I am the one able and willing to endure inconvenience or disquiet to help others. This is my job, what I’m here to do. The pose, the call, the case will be over quickly. The freedom you feel after, along with the satisfaction you have served your purpose, will sustain you.

There are many poses and endless lessons from yoga. In fact, doing yoga is called “practicing.” Each time you learn and try. Each time you are imperfect and uncomfortable and reemerge sweaty and satisfied, just a little better human than you were before.

Dr. Benabio is director of health care transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at [email protected].

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