#YOGAOFLIVING | How Yoga helped me as an Occupational Therapist
It can be said that the negative energy that whirls around us in the world is an outward manifestation of the whirlwind of energy going on within ourselves. This can manifest outwardly through our words, deeds and thoughts, pervading our body, mind and soul. My dear friend, Occupational Therapist and yogini, Theresa Wagner talks the art of maintaining a safe, nourishing environment and making the commitment to safeguarding that environment for oneself and others through the practice of ahimsā, or non-harming.
Ahimsā: the foundation of my practice
I considered writing about the self-awareness and confidence I have found through yoga, the journey from dislike to love of my own body. I considered writing about the wonderful people I’ve met through my practice, from passing acquaintances to life-long friends. I thought about writing on how yoga has helped me process personal traumas, how it taught me everything I need to heal and succeed is already within myself. I thought about all of these thing. Then, I thought about each of these was a spark of a greater truth: that yoga is beyond what you do on the mat; yoga is a way of living a positive life. Nothing taught me this more than the yogic observance of non-harming called ahimsā.
Ahimsā comes down to compassion for all living things with respect to the body, mind, and spirit; it is a selfless concern for the well-being of others in the world and is a quality all of us in helper professions share.
In Occupational Therapy (OT), there is a code of ethics called Core Values we follow, much like the Yamas of yoga. Yamas are one of the so-called 8 limbs of yoga. In OT and Yoga, practices are built upon a shared foundation of non-harming:
AHIMSĀ the first observance of the yoga yamas, and ALTRUISM, the first core value in OT.
THE CORE VALUES OF OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY PRACTICE:
THE YAMAS OF YOGA PRACTICE:
- ahimsā (non-harm)
- satya (truth)
- asteya (non-stealing)
- brahmacharya (purity)
- aparigraha (non-attachment)
THE PRACTICE OF AHIMSĀ/ALTRUISM:
Ahimsā is more than just a consideration; a yogic lifestyle sees ahimsā as a fundamental duty and responsibility. The concept of ahimsā is the observance of altruism. It is right in the oath I took as an Occupational Therapist and is part of the Hippocratic oath that all doctors take as well.
The oath states: do no harm.
As an occupational therapist, I know that people first learn by seeing. When I work with children, the most fundamental thing I try to teach parents is that if they want their child to do something, they have to do it too. Beyond leading by example in action, they must also lead by example in composure. If they’re feeling anxious or all over the place, their kids will feel this energy too. Children radiate the energy of the environment around them: what they see on television, what their parents say and do. Even beyond parents, they’ll look to others in their lives, celebrities, and others they admire... If, as role models, we are projecting harm or negativity in our behavior toward others and even toward our selves, others are affected by this energy, and children are no exception. So we find that ahimsā matters in the connections we make with others. "Do no harm" may seem simple enough to practice, but it really is a subtle practice of mindfulness, compassion, safety, and trust.
This of course, is easier said than done. I work in a sensory clinic for children ages 2-18, and per diem at an inpatient psychiatric unit. The most important part of my work is establishing a connection with my patients, and making them feel safe and secure so they can move beyond treatment and into daily life. I let them know I’m open and there for them by conveying compassionate body language. This is impossible for me to do if I am stuck with negative self-talk or forget about compassion. I understand that I need to leave my personal baggage at the door. This means that I need to be able to take the time to address my own anxieties and issues in order to be effective in my work.
Ahimsā in the Workplace; Why an Occupational Therapist needs to stay Zen
It’s hard to put into words the effect that your personal demeanor has on people. I think it’s easier to explain with two examples, one positive and one negative experience:
+ My positive experience: With my psychiatric patients, a lot of them have alienated family members or are too paranoid to be connected with the community. One such person was in my care, who I’ll call Dean for purposes of confidentiality. Dean was on a “one-to-one,” meaning he needed to always be monitored by a mental health assistant because he was a danger to himself/others with an aggressive and very paranoid personality. Out of three of the groups the OT department ran, he came to only one (because his 1:1 took him there). He sat in the corner, not saying too much. The COTA (Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant) put out a pegboard for him, knowing that he had seemed to enjoy it a few days before. He wasn’t engaging, so I simply sat next to him and began talking with him. He reached for me and hugged me (with the entire staff on edge, watching and waiting for him to make the wrong move) and began talking back, for the first time. He engaged me in conversation, though fading in and out of reality.
There were those brief, beautiful moments where I saw Dean with such clarity. He’d never interacted that way with any other staff, according to them. I think I realized why- everyone around him approached him with anxiety, and he felt that. He knew I wasn’t scared, threatened, or threatening, and when I didn’t avoid him, we connected and he opened up. All he wanted was someone to listen without the risk of feeling threatened or judged.
In my work, I’ve learned how crucial it is to be absolutely zen in order to have a successful treatment; provide support through the right balance of understanding and firmness, within practical boundaries. (I’ve actually had to say things like “no, you can’t eat the balloon,” or “no, you can’t run into the wall for fun”). All things that can carry over into my anxieties.
- The negative experience: I had a session with a kid I’ll call Jess. (Clearly with these names I’ve got “Gilmore Girls” on the brain). Jess was a child diagnosed with Autism and Anxiety, someone I had to walk on eggshells with to a void one of his outbursts, which involved up to an hour of crying and yelling at me. I was so worried about our sessions and it ended up being one of my worst. He came in on-edge and I was right there with him. I told him to write out his plan, so we’d know what to set up and what goals to accomplish. He looked at me and screamed “NO” at the top of his lungs, and cried for the rest of the session.
Happy ending- I ended up going into our sessions much calmer after this incident. He ended up making amazing strides to the point where I could even challenge him. I proposed to him: “I want a turn on the swing. How would you feel if you asked a friend to use the swing, and your friend said no?” with him responding: “Not good, you can have a turn.” He was discharged shortly after that and is doing awesome!)
The big difference was where I was- had I taken time to practice yoga that morning or gone for a hike that weekend? Had I met my own needs? Where were my own thoughts and feelings? Whenever I hadn’t addressed my own anxieties and concerns, I noticed I wasn’t as successful in my sessions.
My major realization was that taking care of my own needs, reflecting a spirit of ahimsa/non-harm toward myself, helped me to be kind and compassionate towards others, and to help them achieve the same feelings.
It is SO important to strive to live with compassion, toward others but also toward ourselves. The way we can make a change right in this moment would be to start with ourselves, and create a positive example. We can smile at strangers, open doors, and give a kind word. We can live the yogic value of ahimsā by caring for each other. The hardest part for me seems to be removing harm for my patients and in the world. In some instances, people need to suffer natural consequences in order to learn many hard life-lessons (like telling a child not to touch a hot stove- they don't seem understand why until they get burned from touching it). Now, this is not to say that parents should put their children in situations where harm is inevitable, but to let mistakes occur naturally, through personal experience, even though this may bring about temporary pain or harm.
I am not suggesting that all people should start going to yoga classes and master the compass pose in order to stop violence and harm in our world. (Although, āsana can be a good place to start). I am suggesting that we begin to practice the core belief I’ve been going on about, in our own way whether that manifests as making an effort to decrease bullying, fostering kindness to others, or limiting self-defeating talk and self-neglect so that we may feel positive and confident to support the people around us. Sprinkle kindness into your day whether it’s a smile or a “hello.” It doesn’t take much to act with compassion towards others, and that’s the yoga our world needs now.
Theresa Wagner, MS OTR/L, has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient psychiatry, outpatient rehabilitation, and early intervention programs. She is a long time yoga enthusiast and is certified in ChildLight Yoga for children ages 2-11. Through her professional practice she hopes to address the mind-body connection, help build self-esteem and facilitate success in daily living. She hopes to spread her love of yoga across all populations!
Photos by Jasmine Wilfong
Edited by Jolisa Wilfong