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The Benefits of Yoga Series: Burnout

In this digital age you might find yourself looking at your phone hundreds of times a day. On top of that you may be shouldering concerns about finances, a relationship, work; maybe your own or perhaps a loved one’s issues. These stresses, threats as the body perceives them, tend not to be physical and quickly resolved, such as fleeing from a wild animal (which is what the stress response in the body was evolved to do). Instead our current day stress tend to be environmental, emotional and long-term stresses. It is the long-term (or chronic) stress aspect of this that can lead to burnout.

However, there is hope! There are a myriad benefits of yoga for burnout.

The most currently researched aspect is that of meditation. Yoga-asana when practiced traditionally is essentially a movement meditation. However, you can add meditation as a stand-alone practice, and as an opening and closing to your asana sessions, allowing you to sustain a meditative mindset for your time on your mat.

One of the may benefits is that this mediative approach allows you to connect to your natural state of inner joy and calm, which can become drowned out by the characteristic mind chatter of a stressed system.

Burnout can lead to a raft of related health issues such as M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Fybromyaligia, heart problems, hypertension, digestive dysfunctions and many more besides. Longterm stress has a significant and detrimental effect on the body.

What is the Effect of Stress On the Body?

Fundamentally stress in the body prompts action through a surge of adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones prime your muscles and organs for action. The blood is thickened by increasing the platelets, readying the body for wound reparation, and boosts the white cell count to counter any potential infections. Blood sugar and fats are mobilized for a readily accessible source of energy for activity.

This, the ‘fight or flight’ response, is a stress response and a result of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) being activated. In a balanced scenario after the threat or perceived threat has passed the ‘rest and digest’ state, Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) would kick back in, lowering the body’s stress response and returning you to a relaxed state.

However, in the “on all the time” constancy of the digital age keeps the body’s Sympathetic Nervous System, SNS, fight or flight system firing. This keeps the cortisol and adrenaline surging through the body.

Without the return to the rest and digest mode the constant or repeatedly re-activated SNS, fight or fight mode, starts to cause disease in the body. The result being that: ‘stress fuels some of the biggest health problems of our time, including type 2 diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, heart attacks and strokes, as well as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis.’

Fortunately both yoga and meditation are tools that effectively lower stress levels and stop your mind from working you overtime.

By observing your thoughts as a mindfulness-practice, both in your asana and meditation, by effectively becoming a witness to your mind chatter you are no longer caught in mental loops. With a little bit of practice (ideally daily) tuning into the breath and coming into a short meditation to observe the mind fluctuations, you will come to notice that those things that used to be stressful and bothersome are perhaps not important.

The Benefits of Yoga for Burnout

Yoga as a meditative practice and meditation itself significantly changes the structure of the brain. Recent scientific studies have allowed these changes to be observed and recorded. Whereas before it was thought that each individual was born with a happiness set point, a combination of being genetic and formulated during childhood.

This myth was de-bunked by a body of research by Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin) and John Kabat-Zinn (University of Massachusetts Medical School) who found that mindfulness training actually changed their participants’ emotional set points according to their brain activity. Brain activity can be measured by recording its electrical impulses through the scalp by an fMRI scanner.

Davidson found that the part of the brain known as the right pre-frontal cortex lights up more than the left when people are anxious, stressed, depressed or otherwise upset. Conversely when people are happy, optimistic and energised the left prefrontal cortex lights up more than the right.

Dr Davidson devised a “mood index” based on the ratio of this activity, literally a happiness index, or happiness score. If the ratio shifts to the left the mood is joyful, positive: the approach system. If the ratio shifts to the right the mood is likely low, deflated and gloomy: the avoidance system.

Davidson and Kabat-Zinn decided to use their happiness index to measure the effects of mindfulness meditation on a group of tech workers who were taught mindfulness meditation over a period of eight weeks. They became happier, less anxious and more energised, the index switched to the left on Davidsons’ scale. Furthermore this ‘approach’ system remained the norm even when the participants were subjected to slow, sad music and unhappy past memories.

It is clear that the mindfulness meditation had an uplifting, lasting effect on mood and had also changed the way the brain works, suggesting that mindfulness has a deep-rooted and positive effect on the way the brain functions.

Yoga, Burnout and Breath Awareness

Any yoga practice starts with tuning into the breath. The breath has profound effects on the nervous system and if consciously controlled can have an energising or relaxing effect. Slowing the breath down and gently extending the exhalation activates the ‘rest and digest’ mode (the PNS).

‘Control of the breath leads to health, an increase in strength and energy, good complexion, growth of knowledge and extension of the life span.’

- Swami Rama, The Path of Fire and Light

Slow deep breath means...

= Relaxed nervous system

= Calm mind

= Sense of connection

= Compassion

= Intuition

= Creativity

= Healing

How The Breath Works

There are three parts to each breath, inhalation, retention (optional) and exhalation. In exhaling at length the lungs are being rid of stale air allowing a deep surge of freshly oxygenated air back in.

Yogic breath exercises, pranayama (literally meaning breath control) focus on a prolonged retention and exhalation. The type of breathing that brings deep and beneficial breath as detailed above is known as diaphragmatic breathing. In itself this is a yogic practice and of immeasurable benefit in bringing the body and mind into a calm and grounded state.

Key to this type of breath is an understanding of how the diaphragm works: The diaphragm is a dome shaped sheet of muscle located under and attached to the ribs. Above it sit the heart and lungs, below it sit the abdominal organs, it is attached to the lower spine by a thick tendon.

On inhaling the ribs fill with air the diaphragm contacts and moves down pushing the abdomen outwards. On exhaling the diaphragm relaxes, moving back up and pushing the air out of the lungs, the belly as a result moves in a bit.

Simply put: inhale belly rises, exhale belly falls.

When we are tense it is easy to disallow allow the belly to move in and out in this way while you breathe. This is where on inhaling the ribs lift and the belly is pulled in, on exhaling the belly moves out slightly. This brings the breath into a shortened, staccato form and if you try it you will notice it is similar to the breath one would take on receiving a fright. Essentially this kind of breathing is akin to having thousands of fights a day. So the first step in settling in to the breath awareness is bringing attention to the belly rising on the inhale then softening and relaxing on the exhale.

Yoga To Support Burnout

Pranayama, Breathing Practice:

Prananyama techniques are traditional yoga practices to assist in expanding the vital force and channelling it through the nadis (energy channels of the body) to purify and revitalise the body, mind and spirit.

The Benefits: The benefits to this breathing technique is that it improves oxygen supply to all the body tissues and purifies the blood, it develops concentration by focussing your mind, it remove stress and anxiety by creating calmness and peace by activating the PNS. It also serves to boost the immune system by lowering the SNS (fight/flight) response.

How To: Either lie down, or sit in a chair with your spine straight. Softly close your eyes.

  • Bring the awareness firstly into your body, notice the points of contact between your body and the couch or chair.

  • Notice how you are feeling today – as a witness, without judgement, just noticing with your compassionate and curious awareness how you are doing.

  • Bring their awareness to the mind, noticing any stories, plans, memories or events of the day, just for now, to let those mind stories drift to one side and bring a soft focus on to your breath.

  • Place their hands on your belly area.

  • On your inhale feel your belly rise and expand, and on your exhale feel the belly soften and fall.

  • Continue this for five to ten minutes, allowing your breath to become a little bit longer or a little bit deeper, always feeling comfortable and relaxed.

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