Interview with physiotherapist Yvonne Whitehouse from Birdsong Yoga Physio

Yvonne Whitehouse is a physiotherapist, firstly in the NHS, then for the last 12 years in a hospice. Find out why physio is so important in palliative care, and what inspired her to start Birdsong Yoga Physio, a place for people with palliative illnesses to come to explore movement and reconnect with their breath.

What are palliative illnesses?

Palliative illnesses are a group of illnesses that are incurable, and that have an expected life shortening aspect to them. The most common one is advanced, or metastatic cancer (where the cancer has spread from its original site), and other examples are Motor Neurone Disease, Pulmonary Fibrosis, Dementia and Heart Failure. 

Over the last 15 years or so, as medicine has advanced, the life expectancy of these illnesses has also changed, and people can live for some time having treatments to extend their life. A lot of these treatments often can cause side effects and this is where physio comes in!

Why do you need a physio in a hospice?

Physios in a hospice help people with so many aspects of their life, perhaps teaching someone with pulmonary fibrosis ways to breathe more easily, giving exercises to someone with a brain tumour to improve their balance, assisting someone to walk with a stick or a frame as they become more tired.

We can also help with showing a family member how to help someone move if they are not able to move on their own, managing swelling in someone’s arm or leg if their lymphatic system is damaged after radiotherapy, doing massage to break up scar tissue after an operation, working out ways with a person and their family to manage their energy levels so that they can do the things that are most important to them, and giving people support with the emotional aspects of a life limiting illness.

Isn’t it sad working with people that are dying? 

Yes, this can be sad, but it is also a very humbling and rewarding area to work in and a hospice team of staff are so supportive and amazing. There is always someone to give you some support on days when you need it. It gives you insight into how life can be if you know your time is short, and makes me think about how I can live my best life every day, in case my time becomes shortened. 

The blunt fact of the matter is that the only certainty in life is that we are all going to die, but in the UK, we are terrible at talking about and preparing for this!

Why did you set up Birdsong Yoga Physio?

Last year, I moved house and left my job in the hospice, and spent some time reflecting on the parts of my job that meant the most to me. I have done daily yoga for a few years and used to use a lot of yoga type movement and exercise with the people that I worked with.

This led me onto my new path – doing my yoga teacher training and setting up Birdsong Yoga Physio, a specialist online and face to face yoga physio service specifically for people with palliative illnesses. 

What’s special about Birdsong?

So many people with palliative illnesses have stopped exercising or staying active because their body is changing, and they are nervous about what they can and can’t do. Gyms and yoga studios, perhaps places that once felt fun and familiar to them, can now feel scary and upsetting. 

The great thing about Birdsong is that they are working with someone who understands the physical and emotional affects of illness for a person and their family, and can begin to move again in a safe place.  Our new house has some beautiful woods behind it and in every moment of every day, there are all sorts of different sounds of birdsong to listen to.

I love standing at the back door first thing in the morning before my day begins, just listening, and it was on one of those mornings that the name Birdsong Yoga Physio came to me – it feels perfect! 

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I am just beginning to spread the word about Birdsong as it is still a fledgling! I feel like I have three biggest challenges: I am trying to navigate social media as the online part of my business has the potential to be able to help people far and wide and Instagram really is mind  boggling and time sucking, yet could be the key to helping lots of people!

The other thing I am working hard on are boundaries and balance – I am a bit of mum, wife, housekeeper, daughter, physio, business owner, yoga practitioner, friend, lover of nature, fighter of plastic and hopefully a little bit of the old fun-loving me every day! Michelle Obama inspires me so much – I love her straight talking in her book and podcast series about how she took on the challenge of juggling the many hats that she wore when she was First Lady. 

The third challenge (and probably one lots of people can relate to) is healthcare since COVID. Although we are now in a different phase of the pandemic, I am concerned for people with long term and palliative illnesses, as the NHS and some charities have still not opened back up their outpatient services, and due to a complicated variety of factors, I am not sure everything that was available pre-pandemic will ever be again. 

The outcome of this is that people with these types of illnesses are not able to do the physical and wellbeing activities that they used to and this has negative impacts on both individuals and their families as well as the wider health system. 

If someone has spent over a year largely in their house, not going out much or doing their normal things, then they loose strength, balance and often feel lonely and low in mental health. They then often reach a crisis point (for example a fall,, a fracture) which takes them to A&E, where we don’t have community based services to refer into that we did before 2020. 

Now that gyms and studios are open again, it is really important to me that we address this inequality in service availability between the healthy population and those with health needs. Birdsong Yoga Physio sits outside the NHS but if the public know of services like this, then they can  get in touch and start take back a bit of control and choice over their health and wellbeing again, hopefully before crisis points occur.  

What’s your proudest moment to date?

My proudest moment so far was teaching my first face to face yoga sessions to groups of ladies with advanced breast cancer. Some of the feedback was so positive, and the energy and enthusiasm that they brought to the class really made me feel like I was doing the right thing!

One lady said ‘After my diagnosis, I though yoga wasn’t for me but today I have realised that yoga can be for me, it was just the class that was wrong before.’ This sentiment is so important; as I said before, my yoga physio classes are available and accessible for anyone at all – we can do movement on a massage plinth instead of the floor and a chair instead of standing – no ability to do headstands needed! 

What’s your advice for someone else wanting to start a business?

My top pieces of advice wouldn’t necessarily be about following dreams and setting up a business, but would be more around cutting a lot of the drains and suckers from life to make space for the things that matter.

  • Do you need social media? I have never used it until now, and I can see how it could suck you down a sink hole pretty easily! I’d also ask how often are you on your phone?  
  • Have you got the right people in your life? Some ‘friends’ can be life suckers where all you do is support/defend yourself/ feel put down… maybe it is time to take a look at what you put into and get out of your relationships and potentially reconsider some?
  • How often do you spend quiet time outside? If the answer is not a lot, then why don’t you try it for a few minutes each day and see how it feels? 
  • And lastly, how would it be to start having a nod towards considering your own mortality? For most people that answer may be terrifying, but not everything that starts off terrifying has to stay that way! For anyone curious about this, I can’t recommend two books: Kathryn Mannix’s ‘With the End in Mind’ and Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’, highly enough.   

Find out more about Birdsong Yoga Physio.