Finding Compassion: How Yoga Improved my Career in Nursing

Imagine for a moment there’s a person in front of you screaming in pain and looking at you with desperation to ease their suffering. Imagine your heart is racing, breathing is becoming shallow, and a sense of panic is washing over you.

I don’t have to imagine this. This is the reality I face everyday in my job. 

I am an Emergency Nurse - and I work in one of the busiest departments in Western Australia.

I must be one of the lucky few who not only knew what they wanted to do for a living ‘when I grew up’, but still, after nearly a decade later, loves the job I dreamt of doing since I was young. However, it is my double edged sword. I love what I do, but as you can now imagine from the scenario above, it’s extremely taxing on my mind, body and soul.

I’ve been working as a Registered Nurse in Australia across many specialties including General Surgery, Trauma, Oncology, and have even worked overseas in Tanzania, Nepal, and, most recently, with refugees in Bangladesh; but my passion is for Emergency Medicine and Community Health. I love being in the extremes of managing a life threatening situation, and also preventing one as well.

Over time, however, the stress of the job - along with all the accumulated night shifts, and the general physical and mental demand of being a nurse - changed me. I found myself over the years becoming more and more apathetic towards my patients, disconnecting from their suffering in order to protect my own emotional reserves, and I didn’t recognise myself anymore as the caring compassionate person I once was. 

At one point, I lost my ambition and motivation to stay in this job any longer, and seriously questioned whether I should quit and find a different career altogether.

This is where I found yoga; or maybe, where yoga found me.

Since nursing school, I had been sporadically practicing various types of yoga for the physical benefits, eventually finding and sticking to Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. But when I felt my heart begin to harden from seeing so much suffering without a way to rationalise it, I dove deeper into the philosophy and roots of the Ashtanga Yoga System.

I resonated strongly with the ‘Eight Limbs’ and learnt how to apply them practically into my life; in particular, the first two limbs known in Sanskrit as the ‘Yamas’ and the ‘Niyamas’.

The ‘Yamas’, or ‘moral disciplines’, involve non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, self-control, and non-greed.

The ‘Niyamas’, or ‘personal observances/practices’, involve purification, contentment, discipline, self study, and faith in a higher power.

When I observed my own behaviours not only at work towards my patients and colleagues, but also towards myself in my life in general, I began to see how I had swayed from the path of love and compassion and was walking down a road of anger, resentment, and frustration, which prevented me from having meaningful and loving interactions with the people around me.

I started to practice the Yamas and Niyamas daily, along with the asana, pranayama, and meditation I was already incorporating in my life, and felt my heart soften and open again, which was amplified even further after my Yoga Teacher Training.

A tangible example that I can share happened recently with my patient who presented to the emergency department with abdominal pain. I spent time being very thorough with my examination, and really listened with empathy to his complaints. He must have felt comfortable with me, and decided to share further information about his personal life. 

He told me a heart breaking story involving his family, which lead him to become dependent on alcohol to cope with his grief, and was now feeling suicidal. In that moment, I felt the compassionate version of myself again and looked at him as a suffering human being instead of just a number on a list. I reached out, grabbed his hand, and told him how genuinely sorry I was that he was going through such a difficult time, but that I was so grateful he decided to seek help and was in a safe place to receive it. The man started crying, and grabbed my hand with his other one, and thanked me for my kindness. 

Suddenly, we were not just a nurse and a patient, separated by a wall I would’ve instinctively built between us; Rather, we were two human beings, sharing an honest and meaningful connection, and acting from a place of genuine care and compassion. 

I truly believe that shifting our mentality towards a place of love and acceptance, which takes time and dedication to practice, can heal the world. When we all see each other as equals, and have compassion towards the suffering of others, we will treat ourselves and each other with much more love and kindness. 

In the meantime, yoga has healed my relationship with my patients, and revitalised my career as a nurse - a job that I hope to never take for granted. I now have a much healthier mind and body through these practices, which make me more resilient to the stress of the job, and allows me to provide better care to all of my patients. I feel inspired again to stay in this job and build my career in this profession again, now knowing how to connect and care from a place of love and true compassion.

It is my hope that others can be touched by the same beautiful light that yoga has shown on me, and be able to apply it in a meaningful way in their lives as well.