Rachael Teaches Us Yoga for fatigue
In our modern world, prolonged periods of stress are known to be one of the major causes of fatigue. Here we discuss the yoga for fatigue and what you can do to combat fatigue and get your energy back.
For the past year I have noticed a recurring theme when talking to family and friends. Although we have all had varying experiences through the pandemic, coming out the other end of lockdowns with the return to a new normal there is a common feeling that comes up again and again. No matter how much sleep we salvage, how many holidays we have or the degree to which we do all the self-care things, we are still exhausted.
During the pandemic we all became familiar with the post-viral symptoms of COVID-19 fatigue and were well versed in the effects of Pandemic Fatigue, which the World Health Organization describes as
“a natural and expected reaction to sustained and unresolved adversity in people’s lives.” But now it seems adversity and fatigue are here to stay, and many people can’t seem to get back to their full vitality.
What is fatigue?
Fatigue is not just tiredness or drowsiness, where you feel you need to sleep. It’s a deep lack of motivation and desire to act. It expresses itself in disengagement, apathy and hopelessness. Fatigue can be detrimental not only to your physical health, but your ability to work or get through basic daily necessary actions. It can limit your ability to take care of others and yourself, and this lack of self-care in turn leads to further feelings of fatigue, continuing the cycle.
Physically it can be due to a number of illnesses and viruses, or lifestyle factors such as alcohol, poor sleep or lack of exercise. Mentally it can be triggered by many states including anxiety, stress and depression. From the perspective of psychology, fatigue is prevalent after periods of prolonged stress. It is expounded in the psychological model of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) as the last phase after the first three: alarm, counter-shock and resistance, where the body is initially flooded with helpful chemicals to help us cope. The final stage of this model, where all resources are depleted, is characterised by exhaustion as well as many other issues such as poor sleep, irritability, inability to concentrate, restlessness, anxiety and depression. Those experiencing fatigue may be familiar with some, or all of, those symptoms, as they often go hand in hand.
Yogic perspective of fatigue
Through the lens of yoga, fatigue is the depletion of our life force or prana. The concept of prana is referred to in the earliest ancient yogic texts, the Upanishads and Vedas. Yogis believe that we are beings made of a very complex subtle anatomy system, at the heart of which our vital principle of prana flows through tens of thousands of little pathways or nadis. When those nadis are blocked, or when we are sending energy outwards through the senses without replacing it, our resources of prana will diminish and we will lose our vitality. Think of it as a petrol tank. If you’re just driving all the time and not refuelling you’ll end up on empty, unable to go anywhere. Equally, if there are holes in your energetic petrol tank, if you’re not managing energy efficiently, it doesn’t matter how many times you fill up at the station, the fuel will just leak as soon as you leave the petrol station. Yogic practices are aimed at restoring, balancing and preserving our prana, instead of constantly having it drained by the mechanisms of daily life. They free blockages, plug up holes and refuel you in a way that will keep your motor running smoothly, as if it’s just been serviced.
Where prana goes
Everything you experience through the senses, everything you do, is just energy moving through form — in the miraculous shape of you. Every thought, every action, every word spoken, every feeling, every sensory experience, every emotion — is all your precious life force. If you’re not aware of that process, if you don’t start to manage where your energy goes, before you know it the energetic system will be out of balance and your resources completely run down. You may not have even left the house or started the day, and yet find yourself tired within hours or even minutes of waking. That’s because you are using your energy in a bunch of ways you may not even be conscious of. Think of how quickly when you wake up the mind switches on and starts using prana, as you check your phone, look at social media, go through your to-do list before you even make it out of bed. Start to notice all the things that sneakily steal your energy. People, places, experiences, things — they all require prana and it’s ultimately up to you who and what receives it. Some things are healthy and nourish you, others are toxic and do the opposite, which will lead to your tank being empty. This constant use of energy and its impact on every aspect of the self is well understood by the yogic model of the koshas.
Layers of the self
The koshas, or sheaths, provide a framework by which we recognise how interconnected all the uses of our precious life force are. It is said each one of us is like an upadhi, or container. Interestingly this Sanskrit word upadhi can also mean limitation, as ultimately the job of the yogi is to experience that you are not just this container, but that it’s an illusion, you are actually beyond this illusory imposition. But in order to recognise that you are greater than this vehicle you’ve been given, first you need to understand who and what you are in this individual form. The body you are in is made up of five different koshas that are like layers of the self: the physical, mental, emotional, energetic and bliss state. They all affect one another. For example, when you drain the physical layer by eating badly, not hydrating or exercising, and have poor sleep, the mental and energetic layers will be affected in feeling sluggish and flat. Conversely, when we feel sad or anxious, we may not nourish the body, instead consuming our feelings in the form of alcohol, drugs, sugar or poor food choices, which impacts the physical layer by making us feel unwell, in turn affecting the energetic layer, making us feel lethargic. When you spend more time connected to your balanced bliss state, it’s easier to make good food and lifestyle choices. The koshas are constantly in play, either nourishing one another and our overall wellbeing or draining us.
Breath can be thought of as the gateway to prana or life force. It is through the breath that we become animated. It is the first thing we do in this lifetime and the last thing we do. By yama, restraining, and ayama, freeing, the breath, we start to reclaim control of our life force. Pranayama practices are incredibly efficient at rebalancing prana but can be very powerful. In the case of working with fatigue, it is important you go slow, as it will be more beneficial when practices are restorative and gentle. “Breathwork” has becoming increasingly popular and is taught frequently these days. From the perspective of yoga, breathwork is not to be confused with pranayama. And it is crucial that if you want to manage your energy well, you distinguish between the two and that any pranayama is taught by a highly experienced practitioner.
The chakra system, which was first spoken about in the Vedas, provides us with another model to notice how we can easily become exhausted. It is said our unlimited potential and energy lie at the base of the spine in the form of kundalini, a sleeping coiled snake. Yogic practices wake kundalini up so it can move up the central channel or major nadi, sushumna. There are seven energetic centres along this pathway, the chakras, which represent the lenses through which we see the world. They can become blocked or stuck, which prevents kundalini from moving through these energetic knots, and in turn keep us feeling stuck and tired. Through practice, we clear and balance these centres so that prana ultimately flows freely up sushumna, kundalini can rise, and we experience full vitality and potential. Because our perception of the world is mostly understood through our relationship with it, each chakra represents our different relationships in the world, and has an element and bija matra associated with it. For example, the base chakra is related to the earth element, how grounded, safe and steady we feel. It is connected to our home and community. When that part of our life is out of balance, if we feel insecure, uncertain or unsafe or that no one has our back, we will remain in a state of fight or flight. This triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which is helpful in the short run as it triggers a series of physiological survival systems, including flooding the body with chemicals like cortisol and adrenalin to help us get through the crisis. But when we are stuck in this energy centre for long periods of time, not only are we overusing these chemicals, but energy-wise we get stuck at that very first chakra and prana can’t move upwards, keeping us from experiencing full vitality. Our relationships, in all aspects of our lives, will either replenish and fuel our pranic resources, or they will suck our prana dry, keeping us stuck, exhausted and leading to fatigue.
Energy of the mind
If there’s one thing that appears to be contributing to fatigue in the modern world the most, it is prana moving through the channels of the mind in the form of stress. Prolonged periods of stress are known to be one of the major causes of fatigue. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali refers a lot to the power of the mind and how important it is that we learn to wrangle it in order to reclaim our life force. Yoga Sutra 1.2 says that yoga is when we stop attaching to the fluctuations of the mind. Because when the mind is constantly turning around and around, our energy is going to do the same, like a little mouse on a wheel burning energy running on the spot. When we experience anxiety, the mind is literally whirling in this way Patanjali describes. Negative thoughts, the kleshas, or afflictions of the mind such as aversion, hatred and fear, will become like a whirlpool sucking all of your prana into a black hole. Where there is tension or no peace, there is no yoga. In fact, some studies in recent years suggest stress is as bad for your health as smoking — though I’m not in any way encouraging you to light up, rather to find your inner light by using yogic practices to observe and restrain the mind, thus reducing stress.
Fatigue as an obstacle to yoga
In Yoga Sutra 1.30–32, Patanjali tells us that styana or fatigue, lethargy and dullness is one of the nine main obstacles to yoga that can be overcome by practising one pointed focus. In other words, learning to focus the mind and concentrate on one thing at a time instead of being distracted is key to conquering fatigue. Meditation may be one the most important tools for you to combat fatigue as it works at retraining the enormous amount of energy that is normally tiring from your very active monkey mind jumping around from thought to thought. We have so many distractions in the world today in the form of devices, and they seem to provide way more stress than the convenience they afford us.
Leading Traditional Chinese Medicine physician and Jade Owl from White Owl Clinic describes it in this way: “In a new world governed by social media and the overwhelming load of new psychological threats it entails, never before has humanity run so consistently in an adrenalinised state of fight or flight. Adrenaline is now normalised as an energy source instead of a miraculous and essential surge at life-critical moments, and dramatically depletes our vital energy levels that supply its production.”
If we don’t want to be fatigued, if we want to reserve our prana for the things that matter in our lives, we need to prioritise eradicating any of those distractions that provide unnecessary stress in our lives as a matter of urgency. The practice below is aimed at drawing awareness in, instead of out, practising pratyhara or sense withdrawal, meditation and gentle pranayama, and focusing on the energetic experience.
Seated cat cow
Sit cross-legged in sukhasana, placing hands on knees. On the inhale pull the chest forward, on the exhale puff the upper back closing off the chest. Keep shoulders away from ears and connect the movement with the breath taking 5-10 rounds.
Staying cross-legged, take the left hand over the right knee. On an exhale twist to the right. Take five breaths, twisting a little deeper each breath. Swap sides.
Seated forward fold
Fold forward hingeing from the hips, keeping the spine long and collar bones broad, not closing chest off. Take five breaths and swap the opposite leg in front and repeat.
Focusing on keeping the spine free and tall, become aware of the breath moving in and out of the nose, maybe cooler air on the inhale and warmer on the exhale. Don’t control the breath; allow it to be natural, moving of its own accord. Shift awareness to the spine, and as you inhale allow the breath to move up the spine to crown of head, on the exhale let it drop back down. Continue in this way. If the mind wanders, shift awareness more intently to breath moving up and down the spine. Practise for five minutes or longer.
Choose a comfortable seat and sit with a tall spine so the central energetic channel, sushumna, is unhindered. Listen to the sounds around you. Start to pull your senses inwards. Close the eyes. Relax the jaw and let the tongue drop away from the palate. Observe any taste on your tongue. Take in the smells around you. Feel what sensations you can, especially on the hands and fingers. Keep your awareness on the senses in this way, not letting them move out; rather pull them in and observe. Practise for five minutes or longer.
Pranayama — full yogic breath
Recline on a bolster and notice the breath once more lying down. Slowly breathe into lower belly, side ribs, back ribs, filling the container all the way to the collar bones with breath, and then let the breath move out naturally on your exhale. Breathe as normal for a few breaths. Don’t fill the body with breath so much that you feel anxious or stressed. Focus on the lower belly as it tends to be the most challenging to fill and is most helpful in moving into parasympathetic or rest and restore state. Take a good 10 breaths in this way.
Yoga nidra is the yoga of sleep. I used it every day when I was recovering from chronic fatigue and it is my go-to whenever I am tired. There are so many wonderful guided yoga nidras online.
I encourage you to listen to some different voices and find one that resonates for you. The half-hour versions are highly beneficial, but if you don’t have time a shorter one will also be great.
Photography by Tessa Tran