On Sunday 10th February 2019, we welcomed the first group of VetYogis to the inaugural ‘Surgery to Sanctuary’ event at Bethells Beach near Auckland, NZ. The Kiwi summer really turned it on with blue skies and beautiful sunshine; we could not have asked for better weather. The group consisted of a variety of small and mixed animal vets, vet nurses, and a receptionist, ranging from those newly and recently graduated, to vets with decades of experience under their belts.
Set in a stunning circular temple surrounded by forest (and minutes away from the beach), ‘Surgery to Sanctuary’ aimed to enable modern-day veterinary professionals to utilise aspects of the ancient practices of yoga and meditation, in order to improve wellness, increase resilience, and reduce some of the well-documented mental health issues endemic within the veterinary industry. (See HERE for more info, or to contact Vetlife.org.uk for help and advice).
Having trained as a yoga teacher with the specific intention of sharing yoga and meditation with fellow veterinary professionals, I was so excited that the day was finally here! After months of hard work and organisation, alongside my co-host, support, and now, lovely friend, Dr. Sylvie Mclean, it was time to welcome our guests (some of whom travelled from as far as Kerikeri and Matamata).
The day started with a welcome, introductions, and a specially-brewed tea by vegan chef and caterer, Angus Mclean (The BareFoot Chef). Sylvie and I introduced ourselves (for more info see HERE), our passions for veterinary and yoga, and the idea and purpose behind the event, whilst encouraging everyone to set their intention for the day.
The first session was a 90 minute Hatha yoga class lead by yours truly, aimed at energising everyone whilst helping them to settle into their bodies and breath, and targeting areas of the body upon which active veterinary roles take their toll, in order to release tension.
After working up an appetite, we headed up to the outdoor seating area to enjoy the weather and the views, and to be spoilt by Angus with a breakfast consisting of chia pudding, plum compote, granola, coconut yoghurt, and fresh berries. We were joined by Angus’ adorable little rescue pup, Elsie, who completely stole the show and became our mascot. As you might expect being around a group of vets and nurses meant she was not short of attention and cuddles!
Next up was Sylvie’s ‘Vitality in Veterinary’ 90 minute yoga workshop, where the benefits of a regular yoga practice were discussed, and there was an introduction to morning and evening practices; how they differ, how vets and nurses can use different postures to either set them up for a busy day, or relax them after a long, hard shift. Sylvia then demonstrated a simple uplifting morning sequence, and a relaxing evening one, to provide guests with short, easy practices they can take home and build into their days. Postures were chosen to also help to target the areas potential problem areas for veterinary professionals, such as shoulder and hip openers, postures to protect and strengthen the back, and relieve tired, aching feet and legs.
We know first-hand how important food is for keeping vets and nurses happy, so after another solid block of exercise, it was time for lunch! On the menu this time was the BareFoot Chef ‘Yogi Bowl’. Elsie was once again on hand to provide moral support and encouragement, and lunchtime provided an opportunity for everyone to become better acquainted with colleagues from other vet clinics. Sometimes just hearing that other people face the same challenges that you face at work, can help to ease the burden and make you feel aware that it’s not just you.
We settled in the afternoon with the ‘Share in the Sanctuary’ session, a peer-based learning discussion group focussing on wellbeing ideas and experiences. We invited everyone to share the ways they deal with having a bad day when they get home, and had many different ideas including walking the dog, paddle-boarding, escaping into a good book/Netflix series, and cooking. Trying to concentrate on positive ways to handle negative days, we came up with suggestions for how we can find the motivation to do the things which we know will make us feel better, even when we are low on time and energy. Popular suggestions included getting any stuff required for the activity ready before work (i.e. gym gear, yoga mat, dog lead) so that you have everything you need to hand at the end of the day, and are less likely to make excuses, and also involving other people (family/friends) in your wellness activities so you can encourage each other and there is some accountability.
It was noted how difficult it can be to switch off the mind after a hectic or disappointing day, and how many vets are prone to mentally taking the day home with them. During the day people were discovering how yoga and meditation can help them to do this, but other suggestions included taking ‘home’ clothes to work with you or getting changed out of your work gear ASAP, going straight for a walk after work, downloading interesting non-veterinary podcasts to listen to on the way home, or driving a few different ways home throughout the week, to promote focus and prevent endless rumination of thoughts in autopilot mode.
These sessions are always more fulfilling when everyone is happy to share their experiences, and be open and forthcoming with ideas and suggestions, and we were delighted with the level of honesty and positivity that came out of it. We closed the circle by asking everyone to think of one small change they could make straight away based on what they had heard today, that could help to improve their wellness in the future.
After a quick stretch and water break, it was time to settle down for ‘Meditation Medicine’, so I lead the group through an introduction to pranayama, the benefits of meditation, and an exploration of some of the different styles of meditation available. Some of the group had meditation experience, whilst others had never really tried it. We discussed a lot of the different options out there, from classes, to Apps and online guided meditations, and then had a go at trying a few different techniques, including breath work, mantra, mudras, and practicing gratitude. Explore them for yourselves here:
To make the most of our surroundings, we headed out to the deck behind the temple, amongst the peaceful calm of the trees, to enjoy homemade kombucha, and cacao and peanut butter ‘bliss balls’. They tasted as good as they look!
The purpose of the day wasn’t entirely educational; we also wanted our guests to go home feeling refreshed and relaxed. Therefore we decided to finish the day with Sylvie leading a restorative Yoga Nidra session, which was excellent news for me as I just got to lie back and make the most of it! Yoga Nidra, or the yogic sleep, is a deeply relaxing experience which encourages brain wave changes from the alpha state to theta and delta waves. Half an hour of Yoga Nidra can be as beneficial as 1-2 hours of regular sleep (see HERE for more information). We hope everyone felt like they gave their adrenal glands a rest for the day and got some well-earned stress relief.
All that was left to do was draw the first VetYogi event to a close, and thank all of the attendees for putting their faith and trust in us to host them, coming with kind hearts and open minds, and embracing yoga and meditation as means of wellness. Each participant receives a certificate for the sessions eligible to count towards CPD (total of 3.5 hours), and hopefully will go away feeling that they have some tools to deal with the physical, mental, and emotional challenges that present within the veterinary industry. Having the chance to bond with like-minded colleagues hopefully also generates some reflection on all the positives that come with being a member of our profession, as it really can be a wonderfully supportive place to be.
This event has inspired me to continue to bring yoga and meditation to veterinary professionals, so if you’re in the UK, you can catch me at WellVet Weekend in Cambridge in September, and watch this space for ‘Surgery to Sanctuary UK’!
Photo credit: Bronnie Howell