Naomi Heller is a volunteer with Earthchild Project. She is a doctor by profession, working in paediatrics with an interest in paediatric palliative medicine (this is an area of medicine focusing on children and families of children coping with life limiting and life threatening disease). Her long term aim is to incorporate yoga into this area of healthcare and work with children, siblings and families managing medical symptoms, grief and emotional trauma.
We took some time to ask Naomi about her personal yoga journey, how it relates to her career, and what she loves about volunteering at ECP.
How did your yoga journey begin? Was it love at first Asana?
My journey started with Pranayama Yoga (for readers, its a special type of yoga focused on breathing techniques), and this was in a therapeutic effort to recover from my experience of severe mental ill-health. So my yoga practice is less ‘en vogue’ than most, its certainly not glamorous and it is more about its healing potential for me and others than its aesthetic or showing I can model the latest brand of yoga leggings. This is personal for me, but is also in the language of my yoga that I now teach. I feel strongly that although I have been doing yoga for 15yrs I am only at the very beginning of my journey, and yoga is beautifully humbling like that.
We understand that your aim is to incorporate yoga into your profession as a medical doctor. Can you explain a little about the complementary nature of the two?
As I have alluded to, I think the health benefits of yoga are far reaching for people of all health and wealth. Not only in the biological and psychological sense, but also in the capacity of yoga to allow exercise and sanctuary for a persons emotional and spiritual needs. As a doctor, I want to incorporate yoga into my profession in order to have tools to be with the patient as a fellow human, particularly at times of grief or exceptional need. I think any effort to broaden ones toolkit for supporting emotional and spiritual needs is a welcomed necessity for today’s doctors to help them create a safe space and empower patients in what can seem to some as a frighteningly cold clinical world.
Do you think that yoga and mindfulness can be used as alternative remedies for emotional suffering (along with medical care)?
I think that’s a good question, I don’t think yoga should be an alternative to anything that’s based on good evidence like lots of clinical care is – but used in addition to medicine, I am reassured by emerging evidence that yoga, mindfulness and meditation are beneficial to social and emotional brain circuitry as well as the appreciated benefits of regular physical exercise. Meditation has been demonstrated in some studies to increase development in (shown by increase in size of) areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, and it is exciting to see if this will translate into real life benefits for people. But like any form of exercise, including neurologically speaking, we need to train ourselves properly with guidance and support, and this needs to be for sustained amounts of time – I consider it a personal challenge to equip young people with the tools to do this for life, with the hope that it will have wide reaching effects on compassion, attention and emotional connectiveness. Apologies, I am a yoga-doing paediatrician trainee with a neuroscience degree, so when I get to talk about children, the brain, medicine and yoga it gets me all sorts of excited!
What has been the biggest shift in your life since starting yoga?
I think the biggest shift for me was doing my teacher training with Divine Light Yoga earlier this year. The idea that I could offer some of this to young people or adults experiencing grief or needing help with symptom management is really exciting… it is just beginning, tips and ideas welcome! But it has changed my sense of self, in that I previously did not think I had much to offer… medicine didn’t feel like it was offering “me”, rather a service delivered by someone who looked and sounded a lot like me – now I feel I can start to make my practice my own.
How important is meditation in your yoga practice?
Meditation is deeply important for me. But I don’t have the discipline to incorporate it into my daily practice as much as I suspect would benefit me. One of the reasons I want to teach regularly is the additional drive to respect my meditation practice. My clients/patients/yogis deserve someone who practices what she preaches … increasing my meditation will benefit me personally and professionally as a yoga teacher, so it becomes a very positive cycle – I am sadly less likely to do it for myself, and while I forgive myself for that I do need to see ways around it.
What do you love most about Khayelitsha?
The children of course! The sight of those beautiful faces with broad and generous smiles when I come round the corner or into their classroom is priceless. But the memory of those cheery crowds calling “Missy, Missy – Namaste!” will sing in my heart long after I leave South Africa. The spirit in Khayelitsha is electric and rhythmic in a way that chimes with something I have in me, too and thanks be to yoga and ECP for bringing us together. I do a lot of dancing in my classes, and my inner child is one of the gang with these young beauties and I love it when we all let go and “move it move it”!
Can you please share one of your most treasured ECP moments with our readers?
Easy! It was my second ever ECP class. I was really far more nervous than the first class, after all this time they knew what they were getting…were they going to want me again? Then, looking into the sea of faces I saw perhaps 18 or 19 of them eagerly looking at me with their hands poised or their lips moving, or letting out teeny whispers of something. What were they doing? Well, some of them had their hands in prayer at heart centre, whispering “Namaste – missy”, others had their pointy fingers wriggling frantically up, down and all around and others were wriggling their bottoms at me grinning cheekily… in the sea of faces was basically a montage of highlight moments from our previous class, the children were standing in front of me with a palpable excitement. And they were asking for their favourite bits again! The special namaste song I made up to teach them and then a routine of their favourite dances is now how we start each class… so there is less and less time for new things because we keep revisiting the old faves – but it really makes me so happy for us all to be doing what we love!
Naomi finished off by saying “The experience of working in Khayelitsha is enhancing my yoga teacher skills, building on my capacity to strengthen and create emotional relationships with children, and it is broadening my work repertoire culturally and socially, all in a vital way. These are the life lessons I seek and crave in order to build my personal and professional portfolio. In particular, the yoga with young people here is providing me with pivotal skills to work as a holistic healthcare worker and remain a resilient doctor in challenging places and situations in my future practice.”
Inspiring words and wisdom from someone who is dedicated to serving in the medicinal field, as well as on a spiritual level. We have been blessed to have Naomi share her skills with us during her time volunteering with Earthchild Project.