Managing energy to avoid burnout
We look at the tools and philosophy of yoga to manage our prana better in our day-to-day lives.
Welcome to the modern world. A time when we have everything at our fingertips. It’s a time of increasing convenience. And yet a time when we are all exhausted. This is the age of burnout.
The prevalence of burnout across the world is alarming. A 2021 Forbes study found that more than 50 per cent of the US population experienced burnout, and 59 per cent of millennials. Surrounded by stimulus at levels we’ve never encountered before, grappling with a rapidly changing pandemic landscape and working ourselves into the ground, it’s no surprise. According to a 2018 survey report by the National Safety Council (NSC), two-thirds of the US workforce experiences workplace fatigue. A worldwide survey commissioned by California-based work management app Asana found that Australians had one of the highest rates of burnout of any country in 2020, at 77 per cent of the population. That’s most of us.
What is burnout?
Burnout is defined as a state of emotional physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. If stress is a major contributor to burnout, then let’s go straight to the cause.
Yoga and stress
Yoga to reduce stress
Several studies in recent years have shown that practising yoga has a profound impact on lowering stress and anxiety, especially by decreasing cortisol levels. A daily yoga practice will go a long way to reducing stress. It doesn’t have to be an hour in the yoga studio or gym. Even just 10 or 20 minutes a day of some asana (postures), meditation and pranayama (breath practices) can make a huge difference in supporting the central nervous system. The sequence at the end of this article is a good example of an all-round home practice that moves every part of the spine and focuses on strength, stretch and stability.
Yoga when you’re burnt out
If you are already exhausted or in a state of burnout, not all yoga styles and sequences will be appropriate. Dynamic, yang practices that focus on creating heat in the body and elevate the heart rate are not beneficial. The practice can still be strong, but slow, conscious movements, and breathing designed to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system (or the rest-and-restore response), will be most valuable.
Managing our energy with yoga
I have been known to tell my eight-year-old, more than once, that best way to get out of trouble is to not get into trouble in the first place. The way to avoid burnout is to manage our energy before we are physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. According to the yoga teachings, we are essentially energy moving through the channels of body, mind and breath. We don’t know how long we have this vehicle for, and yet we use it like it has a bottomless fuel tank. If you work with those channels through a yogic practice, on and off the mat, you can control your vitality and keep your fuel tank full. Though we may not be able to control all of our circumstances or our environment, we can learn how to best manage our energy and the vehicle it’s in.
According to yoga physiology, the body is a container or “upadhi”, made up of layers or “koshas” (sheaths). How well we take care of each layer will directly affect the others. For example, the state of the body will impact our state of mind, and therefore our energy. For example, when we don’t eat or sleep well, we have less energy and the mind feels sluggish and doesn’t see things clearly. When the mind experiences fear, the body has a physical response and chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol rise, leaving us feeling exhausted afterwards. In order to prevent burnout, we need to nourish and purify each kosha, and balance the whole vehicle.
It all starts with the outermost layer, or the annamaya kosha. This is where nutrition, hydration and asana are considered fundamental. The healthier, fitter, well slept, nourished and hydrated the physical body is, the clearer your thinking and the more energy you’ll have. Prioritising care of this layer is fundamental, especially during busy times or times of stress, as that’s when we generally drop the ball and eat badly, drink too much alcohol and put exercise off for another day. You never regret that freshly squeezed juice, glass of water, or long walk in nature. They’re great ways of supporting this outermost layer to give you the brain power you need to do all the things you need to do.
The next layer is the pranamaya kosha, or the energy/breath layer. Breath is considered the gateway to prana, or life force. Even just a few minutes of pranayama a day can make radical differences to energy levels. The Sanskrit word “yama” can mean to restrain and “ayama” can mean to not restrain. By controlling and freeing the breath in specific ways in yoga, you start to control and free your prana. You don’t need to be doing complex breathwork to be doing pranayama. It can be as simple as taking a few slow, full conscious belly breaths every day.
It is said that the mind layer is infinitely more powerful than the first two layers. The mind is made up of both manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas, which incorporate all aspects of the mind: thinking, feeling, discernment, judging, intellect, intuition. Given the power of the mind, this is potentially where we need to manage our energy more than any other area of our lives.
At the heart of our container lies the innermost layer: anandamaya kosha. This is like the jewel in our centre, known as the bliss body. When all the other layers are purified, according to the Bhagavad Gita, we are freed from constant hankering and desire and connect to the non-material. I think of this as those moments when you are deeply connected to your soul or spirit. You can’t describe this state, you have to feel it. You know those moments when everything else disappears and it feels like a big exhale? When you feel nothing but peace. Whatever takes you there — make it a priority to do those things. Whether it’s surfing, reading fiction, walking in the mountains, whatever. Find your way to connect to spirit and then make a habit of doing it on purpose.
Just like Arjuna’s bow and arrow in the Bhagavad Gita, in order to spring forth the arrow of intention towards your goals, you need to pull it in to the bow first. That pulling in, taking time to draw inwards instead of always moving out in the world, is necessary to balance the constant activity we are caught up in every day of modern life. Find moments of stillness to regroup, refuel, get clarity and then take conscious action.
The practice below is appropriate to do every day, both to avoid burnout and if you are already feeling exhausted. I use a guide of five breaths in each pose, but feel free to take more if you have the time and if it is comfortable.
Managing the mind
Attention is energy. As they say, where attention goes, energy flows. The modern world pulls your attention in a thousand different directions all day, every day.
If you’re a multitasker, this is the mistake you are constantly making. Because multitasking is a myth.
The great multitasking myth
It’s been proven, time and time again, that there are limitations to how much information the brain can handle. Multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, and creates a dopamine addiction by rewarding the brain for losing focus and constantly searching for external stimulation. It reduces productivity and can be dangerous. A study by Johanna Westbrook (Macquarie University), Magdalena Z Raban and Heather Douglas found in their research examining emergency doctors dealing with multiple patients, nurses and paperwork at the same time, that they made errors in writing prescriptions and left tasks unfinished.
And yet we revere multitasking as if it’s something to aspire to.
We’re so used to having several tabs open on all our screens, and in our lives. We keep them open in our relationships, at home, at work, in every moment of our day. And we drain our battery. But because our tabs are open all the time, we don’t know how to close them anymore. Unless our system crashes, and we burnout or get sick.
In the multitasking age, we are masters of directing our attention in five million different directions in every given moment. Most of the time, we are not even conscious of where that energy goes. It gets hijacked by so many things — people, events, all vying for our precious attention.
If you’re wondering where your energy is going to, start by noticing how much of it you give away unwittingly. The more you notice where your attention is going, the more you can consciously direct it in one place at a time and start to regain control of your prana.
You can keep the tabs open or you can close them and focus on thing one at a time. That’s how you save your precious (battery) life.
Our thoughts are just energy. The nature of the mind, Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras, is for the mind to turn. In Buddhism, it’s referred to as the monkey mind. But as the thoughts move around, they use prana. It’s a good reason to start a meditation practice. In meditation you become a witness, and the more familiar you become with the movements of the mind, the less powerful they are at stealing your prana. The more you can sit in your awareness and watch thoughts rise and fall, instead of just getting caught up in them, the more ease there is in the mind and the more energy you will have.
A yoga sequence for burnout
Cat/cow to downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
On all fours, stack shoulders over wrists and hips over knees. Ground down through the knuckles and hug the outer arms in. Slide shoulders away from the ears. On an inhale breath, drop belly towards the earth, shoulder blades down the back and together and open the heart. On an exhale press the earth away, dome the upper back and tuck tail under feeling the belly draw in. Repeat a few times. Feel free to stay in this movement pattern, or to add on, tuck toes, extend legs and hips high to downward-facing dog. In downward dog, ground the palms, shoulder-width apart, hips climb higher, ribs quiet, quads lift up and heels descend. Take five breaths or more.
Standing forward fold/intense stretch pose (Uttanasana)
Walk the hands back to the feet. Feet hip-width apart. Equal weight across four corners of the feet. Soften the knees. Catch outer elbows and allow the whole upper body to hang. Take a few breaths. Stay here or to add on, place hands on shins, lift chest so spine is parallel to the earth for half-way lift. Get longer through the side waist. Lift naval up. Keep this length and as you exhale, take hands behind calves and fold forward, extending the legs without locking the knees. Lift the quad muscles up away from knees. Shoulders away from ears, shoulder blades sliding down back.
Easy seated pose variations (Sukhasana)
Walk back to downward-facing dog and place knees down. Come to a seated position with legs crossed, right shin in front, ankles in line with knees. Elevate your seat with a blanket, cushion or block if the knees are above the hips. Ground seat down, interlace fingers overhead, extend the arms, take an inhale and reach up, exhale, ground buttocks down as you reach over to the left, stretching the right side body. Take left hand to ground, keep reaching right hand up and over. Stay for five breaths. Come back to centre, reach up to lengthen spine, and hinge forward from the hips a little or a lot keeping spine straight and buttocks grounded. Place fingertips or palms on earth in front of you. Stay for five breaths. Take left hand outer edge of right thigh and right hand behind you, arm bent, fingertips to earth in line with centre of spine. Lengthen spine and twist to right on exhale. Come back centre and swap opposite shin in front. Reach up, interlace fingers, stretch over to the right, right hand comes down and stretch left side body. Stay for five breaths. Back to centre for the forward fold and take five breaths. Right hand outside left thigh, left hand behind, twist to the left. Stay for five breaths.
From all-fours, cross right knee in front of left and then sit back, between the heels. If you need to elevate seat with blocks or blankets. Reach arms out in a T-shape, then reach left arm up, bend the elbow, and catch elbow with right hand for a stretch. Stay here, or reach right arm out, point them down, and then reach arm behind you. If you can catch fingers, great. If not, you can use a belt or go back one step. Stay for five breaths. Swap to the other side, by releasing, arms out in a T-shape, back to all-fours and then step left leg in front, sit back between heels. Arms in a T-shape, right arm up, bend the elbow, take left hand to it, or reach arm around and catch fingers. Stay for five breaths.
Set up on all fours, keep hips above knees and walk the hands forward until the space between the eyebrows, ajna chakra, connects with the earth. Allow the head to be heavy and relax the neck. Lift the navel to the spine. Take five ujjayi breaths. Shift awareness into heart space, soften it and melt it down with every breath. Walk the hands back to all fours. Stay for five breaths.
Lie on back, feet hip-width apart. Lift the hips up and place blocks stacked under the sacrum and rest the lower back onto the blocks. Take five breaths.
Legs up the Wall
Lie on your back and extend legs up the wall. This pose is deeply nourishing. Stay for or good 10 breaths, or five minutes if you have the time. Then come down and lie on your back.
Pranayama — Full Yogic Breath
Lying on your back or with a bolster or pillow under your upper back and head, place hands on lower belly and slowly, consciously breathe into the lower belly, then side ribs and back ribs, all the way to the top filling the whole body with breath. On the exhale, let the breath go — don’t control it. Take two to three more rounds — or more if you have the time — and then rest in savasana for a few minutes.