Bend, don’t snap: wisdom from a veterinary wellbeing warrior
With mental wellness for veterinary professionals catapulted into our consciousness over the past few months, we wanted to catch up with Chloe to chat all things side-hustles, stigmas, svansanas and giving back to the community.
Why yoga, and how does this fit into your busy life as a vet?
I qualified as a vet (and) went into mixed practice for three years. It was quite stressful to begin – and a massive learning curve. At five-foot-tall - wrestling cows did lead me down the injury path. I had existing sporting injuries, which meant that suddenly I found myself in a position where I had back and shoulder issues. I knew if I didn’t fix them – I wasn't probably going to be able to practice for as long as I wanted.
Then I went to Australia by myself to work as a locum. I met wonderful people, but it can be quite a lonely place after a bad day. It can be hard to cope, and hard to call home because of the time difference. I found myself getting on my yoga mat more and more. It became a little island of mental refuge. I could travel with my mat and put it down anywhere. I started to discover meditation techniques and found generally I was happier when I was doing regular yoga. And then you know before I knew it, I could touch my toes again, which was a big win after injuring my back.
When did you know that yoga was more than just a hobby?
I’ve always hated when people say “I’m just a vet”. For me, personally, being a vet wasn't my sole identity. I was talking with a friend about how much I love yoga. That particular friend had no idea about the mental health and suicide problem that we have in our profession. I was explaining the situation to him and I just said, flippantly, “If only more vets and nurses could just get on their yoga mats.” Then the next day, I just sat there thinking well, how can we get more vets and nurses on their mats?
I knew from doing so many different yoga classes, with so many teachers, the kind of yoga class that would be good for veterinary professionals. I wanted someone who knew their anatomy and could be realistic with our available timeframes and expectations. Two weeks’ later - I booked my 200-hour training was off to Bali and I got qualified, and then set up VetYogi. The company snowballed from there.
In your opinion - why has there been a slow pick-up amongst veterinary professionals to prioritise their mental wellness?
I think it's multifactorial, like many complex issues. We have historically been a community of strong, capable individuals who don't always want to admit when they need help: to other people or to ourselves. You become so used to looking after everybody else: your patients, your friends, your family; to actually admit to yourself and to others that you need help is really hard.
To begin with, to become a vet, you have to strive to be the best – you need top grades and the all-singing/all-dancing extracurricular activities. You need to pass every exam. Then you feel you need to sustain this, keep going on that perfect trajectory. To ask us to slow down and take time for ourselves doesn’t come naturally.
the nature of our job doesn't always allow downtime. You’re dealing with life and death; animals don’t stick to being sick to a 9-to-5 schedule. Sometimes you’re working unsocial hours; nightshifts and weekends. There's no real natural ebb and flow. It takes a lot of effort to make time for yourself which is hard when you’re used to go go go. Then when we do, it takes a lot of practice to not feel guilty or selfish; when you’re so used to giving – taking doesn't necessarily feel comfortable.
We’ve been in lockdown for 12 weeks and restrictions are starting to lift which may affect the profession. How do you think the vet sector should “come out” of lockdown?
We’ve come to this point where mental health issues are endemic within our profession. I'm not entirely sure that we should just go back to normal. For some, normal wasn't that great. Do we want to carry on with disproportionately high suicide rates in the profession?
Many vet professionals will be glad to be returning to practice or welcoming colleagues back. But I think in some ways as lockdown restrictions ease, anxieties could be lifted up in other ways. It’s going to be very tempting just to revert back on that ‘treadmill’. As the government restrictions are lifting, the routine visits that have been delayed could hit us all at once – meaning we will be busier and busier. So, I think it's actually going to get worse before it gets better.
What’s your advice to veterinary professionals over the next few months to maintain or improve their mental health?
Check-in with yourself. Everyone is going to be different. There is no real one size fits all when it comes to mental health. Some vets will thrive off being busy. Some will need some extra downtime.
It sounds really cheesy but be true to what you're feeling. If you're feeling like you can't wait to get back to work and throw yourself into it then sure by all means do that but just make sure that you have that time to recoup the energy that's needed to do that. If you feel like returning back to work is not going to be good for your mental health then see who you can speak to, and give what you can so you can do your job well.
And in terms of yoga – the beautiful thing is that it’s accessible. All you need to practice is your mat, or even a vet bed or towel. Yoga is always there. I teach pranayama, and meditation techniques, even five minutes of practising breathing techniques in a dark room in your practice can make a world of difference to someone if you feel like you're spiralling. You don’t need to attend a full class. Sometimes 10 minutes before bed is fine, other times you may get 90-minutes in three times a week.
Use yoga as a tool and don't let it become another source of stress. Sometimes people put yoga on their to-do-list and then all they become is another thing to tick off and another thing in your head you have to do otherwise you're not good enough.
I'm really keen for that not to happen, which is why on my YouTube channel I try and provide a bit of everything. I’ve got sequences on there that are just five minutes long. Five minutes for shoulders or your feet or wherever you're hurting; whatever you need. Let’s get rid of this idea that yoga has to be set within these boundaries. You can fit yoga in a busy lifestyle you can make it work for you.
VetYogi branches into yoga teaching, equipment and now VY Home Fragrances. For the rest of June, VetYogi is donating 20% of the profits from the “Balance” VY Home Fragrance range to Vetlife. Email Chloe firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase, and choose from candles, reed diffusers or wax melts.
Yoga props are also available.