Can yoga help prevent burnout?

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

This weekend I went to a 'yoga teachers workshop' based around self-care and restorative yoga. I went for the restorative yoga, and just whatever learning would come my way. With various modalities of self-care mentioned, and yoga not being one of them (in a room full of yoga teachers), I sat patiently waiting for it to be said. Nope. So I had to pipe up, eventually suggesting that the notion of 'actionless action' as found in The Bhagavad Gītā would actually help prevent burnout or fatigue. I was informed that what I had said could be 'spiritual bypassing'; one of the new buzz words, which like them all, does exist, is not a good thing, but is brandished around when perhaps a full understanding hasn't been reached. Totally my fault. I had made the mistake of jumping towards the end result of the path of yoga, somewhat expecting yoga teachers to understand this. The error of my ways was an expectation of the result of my actions (dammit, my 'yogic action' isn't quite in every action yet); people understanding.

The Bhagavad Gītā is found within the ancient Indian epic, the Mahābhārata,

This post is to try and help show how yoga can help prevent burnout or fatigue and is in fact the opposite of spiritual bypassing. For me, the suggestions involving self-care are just sticking plasters. They do not address root causes, but merely help us to 'cope'. This is unfortunately typical of western medicine and thinking in general. The idea of the post is to provoke thought, which you don't have to agree with. It is not an academic piece, so there may be a lack of citation in areas, but that is an invitation for you to do your own further research and reach your own conclusions.


Burnout is defined by the World Health Organisation as


“...a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job;

and reduced professional efficacy.” [1]


Again notice the western thinking- 'stress that has not been successfully managed'- not looking towards root causes, but management of symptoms.


To get to that place of 'chronic workplace stress' I would suggest that one has to work hard/a lot. One hour a week of stressful work would be far easier to 'manage' and most likely not result in the chronic state. So why do we work so hard?


There are numerous possible reasons, which will vary person to person. The first I am going to suggest is addiction. Gabor Maté, for me, is one of the pioneers of western understanding of addiction. He defines it as 'manifested in any behavior that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up. In brief: craving, relief, pleasure, suffering, impaired control.' [2] 


Do many of us actually go to work as an escape, for temporary relief? Is this you? Notice the wording 'suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up'? Does work give you negative consequences and can you give it up if so? This is why I believe more of us are actually addicted to work than we may realise.

I am skipping a lot here, which is where you are welcome to fill in the hows and whys with your own research, but Dr. Maté suggests to us that the root cause of ALL addiction is a childhood trauma. This for me is why he is a leading thinker, as he looks for the root causes and treats them. You may not think you suffered with childhood trauma and may be fortunate to be right. Equally though, consider that if one time when you are crying as child and your care giver ignored that cry, it would potentially be a traumatic experience to the child. Are you potentially overworking as a coping mechanism from a childhood trauma?


So how does yoga fit in here? It can help us to understand what is going on, and can also provide a healing modality. Each of us have samskāras which are our conditioning from the past. Traditionally this comes from our past lives, which you are welcome to believe or disbelieve. What is now evidenced is generational trauma for up to three generations, [3] and shamanic traditions believe this to be up to eight. These samskāras feed vāsanas which are the impressions of this lifetime, and these two go back and forth throughout our lifetimes until healed. Consider childhood trauma as a vāsana. These impressions then effect our vrtti, or thoughts/emotions. This has an impact on our actions, or karma, which then goes on to reinforce the vāsana.


Notice, the result of overworking ends up being similar to what the child may have experienced. This is sometimes called 'victim blaming', but in my opinion it's really not. It's 'victim' empowering as we have the power to decide to heal the samskāras and vāsanas. There are numerous healing modalities, both western and eastern, but they are useless until we realise that is what is happening. Yoga helps us with that. There are also tools within yoga such as the practice often referred to as Yoga Nidra which can help with the removal of samskāras.


Another reason that people are working so much is the 'need' for money. The society that we are in requires money to survive, unless you're Bear Grills. This need ties can tie us into our work. There are (far too) many of us working on a breadline, where every penny goes. Now if you study where every penny was going would you be able to say that it all went on survival? Some will do, and some won't. If it was purely on survival, is there an element of luxury to that survival? For example, I could say that all my money goes on survival, but that survival is in my million pound mansion, eating out every day. Guess what? Yoga teaches us about these matters too!


Chapter 3 of the Gītā teaches us of kāma (desire) and krodha (wrath). Much of our need for money actually stems from desire, and this is one of the biggest 'challenges' facing the western 'yogi'. We are bombarded with messages telling us all these things we need. Equally we are receiving messages that we are not enough. These two are the mainstay of the capitalist economic model, so at present are intensifying- I have seen this growing in my lifetime. Suffering occurs with attachment to kāma and krodha (please note: except from the desire for understanding the true self). On the path of yoga we want to be bringing an awareness to these two. I am not suggesting suppression of them, and neither does yoga. That usually doesn't end well- don't think of a pink elephant. You cannot help but think of a pink elephant. I.E. suppression usually intensifies these desires and wrath. No, just observe to begin. Don't try to stop feeling these, but feeling them doesn't mean you have to ACT on them. There is where yoga comes in again- conscious behaviour. These desires which cause us the need for more money than we may actually REALLY need can often again stem from samskāras and vāsanas. We are using purchases as a relief. Yet another addiction?


Some of this fatigue can be attributed to 'compassion fatigue', particularly in the yoga community. May I suggest that there are many compassionate yoga teachers, and that is also a result of trauma. The field of 'Post Traumatic Growth' is steadily growing, with research showing that trauma creates compassion. [4] It makes perfect sense- in order to fully understand pain, you need to have experienced it. These traumas are also what lead many to yoga, consciously or unconsciously, with an inner searching for answers. So it figures that so many teachers have experienced trauma. Yes, compassion fatigue is real, but is here also an element of retraumatisation occurring? Again our samskāras and vāsanas effecting what occurs in our life. I have experienced this myself. This retraumatisation is pointing us towards to what still remains to be healed. Could compassion fatigue actually be a result of not having healed our own past and past lives? I'll leave you to ponder upon that one.


There is another factor potentially at play here too, which Pete Walker calls a Fawn response. [5] He describes this as the 'fourth f' in fight/flight/freeze and fawn. Again this is a response developed in childhood, and to summarise massively (the invitation is always for you to research more widely into these topics), it is an inability to say no. Would we suffer burnout or compassion fatigue if we said no more? Notice how this is pointing towards a reoccurring theme- samskāras and vāsanas?


If we get to the stage of burnout, there really must be an unawareness of our being. I know I am commenting here without having experienced this, so I am VERY open to be corrected in anyway. I imagine that the path to burnout isn't a linear one, but probably an exponential curve that begins to rapidly increase. The more aware of ourselves- or embodied- that we are, the more we can notice the subtle changes in our physiology. For example, noticing heart and breathing rates, observing the state of our nervous system, gut feelings and such like. The majority of us lose this awareness throughout our childhood. Dr. Maté puts it brilliantly by saying 'have you ever seen a 2 day old not responding to their body?' [6] There are a huge number of reasons we lose touch in this way. A big one again is trauma. So as before, working towards healing this can help us hugely. Oh, and guess what helps us too with embodiment? Yup, western yoga āsana practice can help us with this. It doesn't have to be yoga. For me it was Pilates, but it was serving the same purpose- getting back in touch with my body to be able to hear more what it was telling me. And it is CONSTANTLY telling you things. Of course, it's one thing to be aware of what our body is saying, but if we are trapped in our work, due to the above factors, then it still isn't useful- we'll just be watching our decline.


Now this is where yoga really comes in, and in particular the teachings of The Bhagavad Gītā . This is where I raised the point from in the workshop, neglecting all of the above factors at the time. What my Gītā teacher- Kaya Mindlin- describes as actionless action, yogic action or sometimes called karma yoga (which still contains bhakti- devotion- and jñāna- knowledge). This is not spiritual bypassing THIS IS YOGA! In this form of action there is no attachment to the end result, or the 'fruits' of labour. This can be misinterpreted as working for free, and it may end up being that, but it may equally end up being for great reward. Either is the same to the yogi.


There is a single pointed awareness on the task being undertaken. Many of you will have experienced this already. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly defined 'flow state'. In this moment awareness is only on the task in hand, time might be sped up or slowed right down and it may not feel like you were doing the action. My teacher training was with Real Flow Yoga, so there was a focus on this state. As you can see from the picture below there are specifics needed to attain this state naturally. By naturally I mean for the 'normal person.' For one on the path of yoga, this state is to be achieved in all actions; chitta- ekāgratā is making the mind one pointed to harness its capacity. Sometimes you'll hear yoga described as the calming of the fluctuations of the mind or cittavrtti nirodhah as stated in the Yoga Sūtras. We can 'calm the mind' with that single pointed focus.

You can train your mind to become single-pointed, which seems to be the goal of many people's meditation practice. Yet for myself, the more I healed, the more my mind could focus. So we again go back to trauma or samskāras and vāsanas and healing those. The more we heal, the 'easier' meditation becomes in regards to single focus, and therefore transfers to all areas of life. Western thinking is catching up with this idea as Dr. Maté suggests ADHD (which we can look at as an EXTREMELY busy mind) is 'rooted in multigenerational family stress and in disturbed social conditions in a stressed society'. [7]


Another way of describing that is merging with the action. In Kashmir Śaivism, pramātṛ is the subject (the knower, or in this case the doer of the action), pramāna is the means of this (so cognition/senses) and prameya is the object (the known, or the action in this instance). We have been gifted with our cognition and senses in order to merge as one. To merge in this way requires that single pointed awareness. You'll actually often hear sports players talking of this.


The path of yoga is leading to the discovery of our true self; the self of the self, consciousness, realisation of god/divine/Śiva, and various other names that are given, such as enlightenment. In this there is an awareness that 'I' am not the doer of action. The actions are of selfless service- self less- so the action is not for my own sake. You may be fortunate to receive grace, or realisation of this true self, or it is something to work towards with yoga. Making actions 'yogic action' takes us towards the discovery of our true nature. Swami Lakshman Joo says in his commentary on the Gītā:

'Karmaṇyakarma yaḥ paśyat...ātmakarmani, in your own work, whatever you do yourself, you [should] say, "it is done by others." Akarmani, what is not done by yourself, you [should] think that, "it is done by me." He is actually a great soul who thinks like that...He has done everything and he has done nothing...He has done everything because he is God; he has done nothing because he doesn't get any fruit from that karma.' [8]

You may at this stage be wondering what this has to do with burnout. It has everything to do with it. When your actions are yogic I do not believe you can experience burnout. You may well experience tiredness or fatigue but it is very different. You may have noticed in your own life two types of tiredness; one where you feeling drained, and the other where the body and maybe the mind just feel well used. Yogic action will only ever create the latter in my experience. But action will not be as tiring in general as there is actually less use of the brain. When the brain is racing around it is far more draining than you may realise. Why do you think many high-powered folk only every have one outfit they wear? They have realised that tiny decision in the morning takes up vital energy. That's one decision! Then think how many of those you perform in a day. In yogic action the work flows out. Again you may've have already experienced this, where a task ended up being performed without much thought. It is that flow state, or single-pointed focus.


I know this can take a long time (i.e. many lifetimes) to attain, but equally if we have faith and commitment- or śraddha- to discover our true nature and end our suffering, it can be achieved. I can also understand why the Gītā and other texts are so misunderstood. The Bhagavad Gītā is a relatively short text, but take a look at the photo below to see the extent of one commentary on it. This is why it is so necessary to study the texts with a teacher. It is also so important for that teacher to have walked the path or they bring in their own impressions into its translation (such as it being 'spiritual bypassing').

Swami Lakshman Joo's translation of Bhagavad Gita is over 600 pages

If you want to study the Bhagavad Gita I cannot recommend the online course by Kaya Mindlin highly enough. I can safely say it completely and utterly changed my life. You don't have to be a yoga student or teacher. Anyone who wants to gain knowledge and understanding of themselves will benefit hugely. You can find that here:


https://www.yogawithkaya.com/the-nectar-of-action-online-bhagavad-gita-program/


It is important to note I am not suggesting that other forms of self-care aren't necessary, as the time it may take to transform your life will vary person to person. This post is to suggest that perhaps yoga teachers could benefit greatly from really having a self-practice. That is YOGA, not just what has become āsana. I have had to write this because to me yoga is sacred. It is the greatest gift, given to us by the East. People are very welcome to question the texts- in fact, that is an important part of gaining an understanding- each question usually has an answer actually in the texts somewhere. But if you are a YOGA teacher, the texts are yoga! Otherwise you are just a fitness instructor, meditation teacher, relaxation coach or something along those lines.


And this kind of yogi whose organs, mind, and intellect is controlled, and who is bent upon finding final liberation, and whose desire and wrath is already vanished, they are already liberated

Bhagavad Gītā 5.28 


With love and gratitude always for and to my yoga teachers Tammy Mittell, Alex Crow and Kaya Mindlin.


[1] https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/ (last accessed 19.11.19)

[2] https://drgabormate.com/opioids-universal-experience-addiction/ (last accessed 19.11.19)

[3] https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/maternal-stress-alters-behavior-of-generations/ (last accessed 20.11.19

Weaver, I. et al., "Epigenetic Programming by Maternal Behaviour," Nature Neuroscience 7 (2004): 847-54

Franklin, T. et al., "Epigenetic Transmission of the Impact of Early Stress Across Generations," Biolgical Psychiatry 68(5) (2010): 408-15

Gapp et al., "Implication of Sperm RNAs in Transgenerational Inheritance of the Effects of Early Trauma in Mice." Nature Neuroscience 17(5) (2014): 667-9

[4] Morris, B. et al., "Posttraumatic growth after cancer: the importance of health-related benefits and newfound compassion for others." Supportive Care in Cancer 20(4) (2012): 749-56

Stephen, J. (2011) "What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth" Basic Books, UK

[5] http://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm?fbclid=IwAR2tHxI3AVDS6OYCLZaQSEZAAi-NwWsazzhb3G-46xg5Wnudgqs0wHpNQqo (last accessed 20.11.19)

[6] Keynote ACES to Assets 2019 – Dr. Gabor Maté – Trauma as disconnection from the self https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tef5_HK5Zlc (last accessed 20.11.19)

[7] https://drgabormate.com/topic/adhd/ (last accessed 20.11.19)

[8] Lakshman Joo (2013) "Bhagavad Gita: In the Light of Kashmir Shaivism" Lakshmanjoo Publishing, US