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Can Yoga Save a Profession? by Rachel Gang

Finding a balance between personal and professional life is certainly no easy pursuit. It is often the clients, communities, or populations that serve as students that become the focus of researching the benefits of yoga and other mindfulness practices. However, when I started my Masters of Social Work classes this past year I began to wonder what professionals are doing to help themselves. Working with vulnerable populations whether it be as a teacher, social worker, nurse, case worker, or other health care professional is no walk in the park. It was my own experiences as a public school teacher and current social work student that prompted me to consider how can yoga and mindfulness practices assist fellow social workers, teachers, and other helping professionals in working with clients and communities?

I began to delve into the research and found scholarship that pointed out that serving vulnerable populations may place professionals at risk for professional burnout and other negative-natured outcomes such as decreased processing effectiveness, stress, burnout and intense emotional reactions (Ying, 2009; Eysenack, 1979, as cited in Rosenthal & Gelman 2004; McAuliffe, 2005). The negative nature of the outcomes studied among social workers suggests that there is a need to examine existing research that studies professional outcomes.

Research points to challenges for new graduate students such as anxiety experienced by first-year MSW students working with vulnerable populations. (Rosenthal & Gelman, 2004). In order to address the student anxiety or other anticipated challenges, some preparatory education programs that train helping professionals as education, nursing, social work, counseling, and public health have begun to incorporate topics such as self-care and stress-management into the curriculum (McAuliffe, 2005). Given the emotional and physical energy expended when working with individuals or clients that face poverty, hardship, crime, violence or a combination of adverse factors, helping professionals face increased vulnerability to stress, bringing attention to examining alternatives to stress such as positive outcomes.

A wide variety of discussion exists over how to best assist individuals in avoiding or reduce stress that might affect how long professional stay in the field. For example, in the social work profession, discussions around self-care and avoiding burnout emerge as conversation among university professors and students. In education, terms such as work-life balance, student-teacher boundaries, and mental health days float around discussions. Regardless of how the prevention strategy is phrased, finding methods to keep workers in their respective jobs and sustain themselves is important to employers and the profession as a whole.

In some instances being mindful or engaging in mindfulness practices assists in retention or as measured for social workers, reporting desirable outcomes (Shapiro et al., 2005; Shier & Graham, 2011; Ying, 2009). Other strategies include financial incentives, professional development, continuing education, healthcare benefits, and fitness and gym membership subsidies, possible benefits but not proven strategies to keep individuals in the profession. As a former collegiate swimmer, cyclist, avid runner, and frequent yoga practitioner, daily mindfulness practices became (and still are) the backbone to keeping me grounded in the field of education in a demanding teaching job. Long days as a DC public charter school teacher left me craving an escape and found myself racing to yoga classes via bike after long school days. I credit the self-care I sought outside the classroom as essential to maintaining my own well-being whether it be emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The positive effects I saw in my own yoga practice is what ultimately led me to complete teacher training. I am now more than ever inspired to seek opportunities to share yoga and mindfulness practices with professionals in the field.

It is comforting to know that in fields such as clinical social work, mindfulness is on the rise. Clinical social workers and clients have been shown to benefit from mindfulness skills, which have been shown to develop “core mental processes” (Turner, 2009). Cognitive behaviors and emotional expressions such as attention, affect regulation, attunement and empathy as fostered by clinician and client mindfulness skill training were explored (Turner, 2009). The effect of yoga on client populations especially those who are at risk or vulnerable is a relatively new area for research that continues to be tested. Research on mindfulness practices and techniques, which includes yoga, is generally more widely available. Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga are also linked to stress reduction and other positive health benefits. A review of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found slightly more than half of MBSR studies showed a significant reduction in depression and anxiety, suggesting promise for mindfulness based practice implementation (Toneatto & Nguyen, 2007).

Yet, additional research is needed on mindfulness as targeted research on populations who receive the treatment or training. Currently, both clinical and non-clinical populations have been tested making it difficult to draw comparisons or determine an active control group.

Stress and burnout are real issues that do not appear to be diminishing or growing smaller anytime soon. It is essential that teachers, supervisors, instructors, and consultants recognize the “unusually stressful nature of practice and pervasive hopelessness felt by practitioners (Salmon and Kurland, 1992). Recognition of stressful situation and emotional responses such as anxiety is one thing, but it is even more important that action be taken in designing future preparatory education for social workers and other helping professionals. If given the tools to be calm and reflective in practice whether it be in a clinical or community setting, the individuals and populations served will indirectly experience positive outcomes. If the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and meet basic human needs of all people, then placing emphasis on the well-being of practitioners is not far out of reach. Perhaps, this demonstrated link between mindful and reflective practices and positive outcomes will serve as a call to action for social workers—to examine professional and personal boundaries and reexamine self-care strategies to make the profession sustainable and ultimately be more successful and making peace with the work that takes place from day to day.

Rachel Gang is a graduate of Yoga District’s teacher training and is currently pursuing a Masters of Social Work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Continually inspired to learn as both student and teacher, Rachel teaches yoga to graduate students, health care professionals, social workers, and the community at University of Maryland in Baltimore, where she currently resides.

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