It didn’t take long after becoming a dentist when Alex Barrera, D.D.S., began to experience the starting stages of burnout.
Working at a community health center, while fulfilling, took a huge mental and emotional toll. Most of his patients often come from communities that are disenfranchised in health care, including those who are HIV-positive with a multitude of medical comorbidities and those who are homeless, institutionalized and incarcerated.
“I not only act as the dentist, but also take on roles similar to a counselor and social worker as I take the time to listen to the daily struggles that my patients experience,” Dr. Barrera said.
In search for some relief from the high-stress world of dentistry, Dr. Barrera found it in yoga — a practice rooted in Indian philosophy that has become a popular way to help foster physical and mental well-being.
Dr. Barrera said he tried yoga as a form of exercise but discovered it allowed him to disconnect and focus on himself. It ultimately helped him feel less stressed and become more mindful with each patient he treated.
For Shivani Kamodia Barto, D.D.S., she developed her passion for yoga after she started attending studio classes in college.
“From a young age, I was influenced by my parents to practice yoga,” she said. “My parents are both from India, and my mom has always had a strong meditation and pranayama (breathwork) practice, and my dad practiced yoga to stay mobile and pain free as a dentist.”
But it wasn’t until she was a stressed out college student when she became passionate about yoga, Dr. Barto said.
“I always felt better after yoga classes, mentally and physically,” she said.
For both Drs. Barrera and Barto, the mental and emotional benefits of yoga have been so evident that they’ve taken it one step further: becoming yoga instructors.
By the time Dr. Barto entered dental school at the University of Michigan in 2014, she was already a yoga teacher, having completed a 200-hour training program in 2012. During the weekends and in between dental courses, clinics and studying, Dr. Barto can be found teaching one to two classes a week.
“I was in a unique position in dental school; I was in an extremely high stress environment but I was also a trained yoga teacher with the tools to manage stress,” Dr. Barto said. “It took me a bit of trial and error before I found the right balance, but with yoga, meditation, journaling, and other wellness tools I was able to not just survive in dental school, I was able to thrive.
For Dr. Barrera, he knew he wanted to become a teacher after three years of practicing yoga regularly. A 2017 graduate of the University of Texas School of Dentistry in Houston, he enrolled in a 200-hour yoga teacher program Black Swan Yoga in Houston, completing the program in April 2021. He currently teaches weekly at the Black Swan Yoga while applying aspects of yoga to his practice of dentistry.
Having a clearer mind allowed him to notice patterns when diagnosing and treating patients; he was having deeper conversations, and he started using pranayama (the practice of breath control in yoga) to help ease patients who were apprehensive or had a dental phobia.
“I learned to not sweat the small stuff and remember the bigger picture of why I chose to become a dentist,” he said.
In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, yoga can help dentists with their physical health as well.
“Dentistry can take a toll on the body,” Dr. Barto said. “Chronic back pain is a common ailment for dentists, but with a consistent yoga practice I believe this can be totally preventable.”
Yoga combines strength, flexibility, mobility, breath control and meditation.
“Yoga is a 5,000-year-old philosophy that is proven to benefit your mind and body; it’s like a toolbox with everything you need to practice to prevent injury and mental and physical burnout,” she said. “And the science is starting to catch up.”
Dr. Barto has her sights on expanding her ability to teach wellness practices for dentists. She is hosting two to four wellness retreats a year focused on yoga and meditation for dentists and health care professionals as a way to “recharge their batteries.” Her next retreat is in Portugal in May 2022. She is also building an online course and coaching program that will be available in the new year.
Both Dr. Barto and Barrera cite other dentists-who-are-also-yoga-instructors such as Cristian Pavel, D.D.S., and Danielle Cascioli, D.D.S. — known as the Dental Yogis — and Josie Dovidio, D.D.S., who began Yoga for Dentists, as inspiration in their journey to teaching yoga.