How Yoga Helped Me Rethink My Life After Burnout

In 2018 I began experiencing chest pain.   At first, it occurred only during meetings in my boss’s office. I put it down to anxiety and ignored it. In May 2019 though, it suddenly got worse. I was approaching my 55thbirthday, the same age my father was when he died of a heart attack. I decided to see a cardiologist and within a week I found myself in the cath lab being informed that, not only was I suffering from stress-related arterial spasms, causing the chest pain, but also despite my exemplarily healthy lifestyle, I had moderate to severe heart disease. I had held it together that week but when the cardiologist advised me too completely re-evaluate my life, I sobbed as I realised I had likely brought some of this on myself. The clogged arteries I knew were hereditary but the stress was entirely self-inflicted. The heart doc referred me to a GP who specialises in treating stressed-out executives and she diagnosed an occupational burnout, signed me off work, prescribed anti-depressants (which I did not take) and referred me to a clinical psychologist. For a few weeks that summer, the world tilted on its axis. I had never been ill before or spent a night in hospital. I was the strong and capable one who looked after everyone else. My husband was stunned, as were my colleagues and the house filled up with flowers and gifts as a constant stream of deliveries arrived. At first, I felt like a fraud, ridden with guilt at leaving my team to manage during such a busy time of the year but gradually I came to realise that I really wasn’t fit for work.

9 weeks of rest and reflection, with the support of a professional counsellor, helped me to see that the work life I had created for myself was no longer sustainable. I was to some extent broken and could not go back to the life I had been leading, with 11-hour work days and weekends spent presenting at conferences, writing articles and studying for a second Masters. Reluctantly, I decided to take early retirement in June 2020 but I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what that would mean financially and about letting go of everything that I had built professionally. 

Returning to work was hard, I tired easily and the slightest stress brought on chest pain. Despite this, it was hard to give up the extra-curricular work, withdraw from conferences and turn down exciting new consultancy offers that I had worked hard for. At the office, my team were incredibly supportive but my role carries huge responsibility, which brings significant stress on almost a daily basis.  Four weeks following my return, I suffered a panic attack at work. I thought I was having a heart attack, which was very scary for both myself and my colleagues.  It was at this point that I realised I had no choice but to walk away from it all the following summer.  My real concern was how to get through the year without reaching another crisis. At this point I was offered the wonderful opportunity to work from home two days per week. This was a game-changer, a life-saver-maybe literally- which I grabbed with both hands. Finally, I had the chance to restore my balance by removing myself from the crazy, demanding environment that I work in for two days each week and instead spend time in my pyjamas, working undisturbed, avoiding the long commute and letting someone else take the strain. 

So how does yoga come into all of this? Well maybe not how you would think. Yes of course my asana practice supported me, as it has done during all of the bad times over the last 12 years, including the death of my mother in 2010. But it is instead yoga philosophy that is helping me to begin a process of healing and re-evaluating my life. Through the teachings of Patanjali, I have been able to reflect on how and why things went wrong and consider, with optimism, how I might shape the new life that lies ahead of me. 

Through counselling and self-reflection over the last 6 months, I can see how my entire adult life has been influenced by what Patanjali calls the kleshas, the roots of all human suffering, discussed in How Yoga Can Free us from Suffering. The Yoga Sutra sets out how we have a distorted view of reality (avdiyha), where we are not able to see the world for what it really is. We over-identify with the ego (asmita) and  invest heavily in an identify that we create for ourselves, but this is a false-self rather than the true essence of who we really are. The false-self is driven by desire for and attachment to the things that make us feel good (raga) and aversion towards the things that make us feel bad (dvesa). The pursuit of the things we desire and avoidance of the things we dislike becomes the focus for our lives but also the cause of our suffering. 

Patanjali’s view of the human condition is supported by evolutionary psychology, as discussed in Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition.  As a survival mechanism, humans are hardwired to compete with but also to seek the acceptance of others. We, therefore, relentlessly pursue things that will make us feel powerful and admired, rather than small and alone and this leads to a preoccupation with the desire for status and material possessions. The acquisition of status and possessions also activates the brain’s reward system and the release of dopamine, which brings us pleasure. This pleasure is, however, biologically short-lived, leaving us to strive to experience the pleasure feeling over and over again by constantly pursuing the things that make us feel good. 

When I was seventeen and on the threshold of adulthood, I was highly skeptical that a life focused upon the pursuit of a better job to fund the purchase of a better house and a better car, would bring me happiness. Was I naïve or wise beyond my years? As with most adults, over the decades that followed, I became drawn into the trap set for me by my own biology and society’s expectations, pursuing a career and financial success as the main goal in life. Through reflection over recent months, I have come to acknowledge that, the more success I have experienced the more I have pursued. Reaching the top of my profession, has not rendered me satisfied but has caused me to reach further and work harder. The success I experienced in the last four years, in particular, had sent me into overdrive in pursuit of more admiration and status.  This brought me to a point, in the summer of 2019, where I was pushing myself beyond what I could handle, causing everything to come crashing down. 

Rather than lamenting what I have lost, I now see a new opportunity to live a life that is no longer driven by the kleshas. Instead of focusing upon feeding the ego and being driven by desires and aversions, through the pursuit of status and possessions or other short-term pleasures, I have a chance to achieve real peace of mind. According to Patanjali (sutra 1:33), this is gained through the cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain. For me, the Yoga Sutra now provides a road map to a simpler life, a life where, while there will be less money and less applause, there will be more time; time for reflection and time for others. Through this simple-life approach, I can focus upon supporting the wellbeing of those around me and in turn experience equanimity and a new level of personal happiness. 

Why We Should Not Feel Intimidated By Yoga Philosophy

As yogins, it is common to begin our yoga journey on the mat, with asana practice, but many of us reach a point where we want to know more about the meaning and purpose of yoga. For some, but not all, this will come as we approach our first yoga teacher training. While we are eager to further our journey, delving into yoga philosophy can sometimes leave us feeling confused and intimidated. The language may seem inaccessible and the concepts extremely complex. Rather than opening us up to a whole new world, yoga philosophy can leave many of us feeling shut out or just plain stupid.

The truth is that yogins have struggled to unpick and unpack the meaning of the sacred, ancient yoga texts for centuries. We should not, therefore, feel embarrassed or deterred if we, as modern-day yogins struggle to understand the teachings of yoga philosophy. The principles that underpin yoga were, after all, developed more than 5,000 years ago, with the ancient texts that record these ideas dating as far back as 1700 BCE. That’s about 3,000 years before Shakespeare and we all remember how hard that was to understand when we studied it at school. To make things more challenging, these texts were written in Sanskrit, a language that has been effectively dead since the turn of the first millennia CE and is used today only in religious rituals, in literature and by scholars. Furthermore, Sanskrit is an enormously complex language, with a vast vocabulary, that may express a single meaning or object in hundreds of different ways. This renders ancient Hindu and yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutra, open to wide interpretation and the subject of much disagreement and controversy.

To make things even more complex for the 21st Century yogin, the single most important yoga text, the Yoga Sutra, written by sage Patanjali, most likely around 350 CE, is written in something called aphorisms. Aphorisms are brief statements, intended to express wisdom in as few words as possible, so they are easy to remember. The Yoga Sutra contains 196 short aphorisms- sets of phrases which leave out unnecessary words, similar to how a telegram would have been written. It should come as no surprise that leaving out key words and phrases, while allowing the sutras to be easily remembered, also makes them hard to understand. Historically, it was, therefore, common for sutras of this kind to be accompanied or followed by a more detailed commentary, probably written by another author, which contained an explanation of the meaning of the text. This commentary is called a Bhashya. The Bhashya not only explained the sutras, but also discussed issues arising from them, so that a short sutra could generate several pages of Bhashya. The Bhashya itself was, unfortunately, also often complex and hard to understand and, in due course, more authors came forward to write commentaries on the Bhashyas, sometimes over a period of hundreds of years, leaving us with commentaries upon commentaries to navigate in order to establish the meaning of an original sutra. This process leaves the meaning of the original words contained within the sutras open to wide, and often controversial, interpretation.

So the key principles of yoga philosophy are written in a language that very few people understand and are also recorded using a style of writing that renders them easy to misinterpret. After thousands of years of discussion and debate, even the most committed yoga scholars should accept that the meaning and purpose of yoga may be open to individual interpretation.

We must also take into account that yoga was developed as an approach to life and set of practices to be followed by Brahmins, an elite cast of male priests, who often lived an ascetic and renounced lifestyle outside of society. Yoga was not, therefore, originally intended to be practised by the average person, living in the material world. It was only around 500CE, with the development of Tantra, that yoga reached the householder and began to become more mainstream. Is it hardly surprising, therefore, that ancient yoga philosophy can seem inaccessible and intimidating to the modern-day yogin?

Another layer of confusion comes with the many branches and schools of yoga. It is commonly accepted that there are 6 branches or paths of yoga -Raja or Classical Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Must we treat these paths as mutually exclusive or can we practice more than one branch simultaneously? Within the Hatha Yoga tradition there is also a multitude of modern-day schools of yoga, mainly focused upon asana practice, including Viniyoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, Yin, Bikram, Forrest, Jivamukti, Power and Anusara Yoga. Most of these schools have been created and passed down through a guru tradition, based on patriarchal lineage, which can often be dogmatic and, to some extent, divisive. Are we as practitioners and teachers obliged to throw our hats in with one of these traditions? If we wish to mix and match are we failing to respect the purity of the practice as it was conceived? Does this mean we are not real yogins and does it make our practice less valid than that of others?

It is important to remember that each of the traditional yoga paths and modern-day yoga schools first began and grew from differing interpretations of yoga, its purpose and practice. I would argue that there are many ways to be a yogin and to state that there is one right way is at best grossly misleading and at worse may be harmful. Recent scandals engulfing a number of modern schools of yoga are testament to this. The concept of patriarchal lineage, the passing down of “the right way” to practice has led to well-documented abuse. This abuse has, however, opened up a new conversation about how we practice, which has begun to shed doubt on the idea of yoga as a dogma and brought into the spotlight the importance of more flexible approaches to practice that suit the individual practitioner.

So how do we proceed as well-intentioned yogins seeking to understand more about the meaning and purpose of yoga? My advice is to begin a journey of inquiry, seeking to find interpretations of yoga that resonate with us and our own life experiences. Whilst we must remain humble in our inquiry, we should not feel intimidated by the complexities of yoga philosophy nor alienated by the rigidity and seemingly unattainable goals of dogmatic approaches, which are now being openly questioned. We should see yoga as a set of tools for self-improvement available to us all. As practitioners and teachers, the yoga tradition remains powerful only in as far as we can make it relevant to modern-day life and to an individual student’s life experience.  We must respect and seek to understand the philosophical underpinnings of this ancient practice but not be afraid to make it our own.

How Karma Begins with Being Mindful

Karma is a much misused term that can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. It is often thought of as a metaphysical merit and demerit system that determines our fate, either in this life or, for those who believe in reincarnation, in the next life. Karma is actually the Hindu and Buddhist view of causality in which good thoughts, words and actions lead to beneficial effects while bad thoughts, words and actions lead to harmful effects.

We should think of Karma as an energy that we are creating in every moment through our actions. The energy we create, both now and in the future will affect us and also have an impact on others. It has nothing to do with reward or punishment but is more about taking responsibility for our actions and understanding the impact that they will have.

Karma is about doing the right thing in the present moment, just because it is the right thing. In order to do the right thing, we need to be mindful in the present moment so that we are able to reflect on the potential consequences of our thoughts, word and actions and exercise self-control. By doing so we are able to improve the quality of our lives and the lives of others. According to Iyengar, if we treat others well, life will be pleasant and agreeable for ourselves and others and our actions will bring a real social benefit.

As yogins, we are trying to make sense of life, our personal life and the wider world. The concept of karma sheds light not only on how our personal thoughts, words an actions have wide-reaching effects for others but how they shape the nature of our individual personalities. Every action we take has an impact and, over time, these impacts condition our minds to think or act in certain ways. Each action is like dropping a stone into water and creating ripples, so that our thoughts, actions and words have an ongoing impact on the person we become. If we do the right thing in any present moment and experience its effect, we are conditioning the mind to think or act in the right way. Over time, through being mindful of our actions, we may shed negative habitual patterns that have been causing harm to ourselves and others and replace them with more positive patterns.

Creating good karma begins then with being mindful. A mindful presence in the moment allows us to move away from actions that are prompted by habitual negative patterns and replace them with right thoughts, words and actions. We become mindful through the practice of yoga. Yoga cultivates in us the distance and objectivity we need to see our habitual patterns of thinking and the motivations that underpin them. Through yoga we develop a reflective mind, that sees more clearly and helps us to identify the right things to think, say or do in any given moment. The path to good karma begins, therefore, with our yoga practice.

Understanding the Concept of Ego in Yoga

As I outlined in the post Why We Should Not Feel Intimidated By Yoga Philosophy, there are many ways to practice yoga. What these different paths all have in common is a desire to rise above the ordinary human condition and go beyond the predictable habits and patterns of human life. In order to achieve this we must attain knowledge and understanding of our true self, setting out on a journey of self-discovery to know and experience directly who we really are. This process involves shedding the ego, by stripping away the layers of our outer identity to reveal our true, inner self. This process may be harder for some than others.

In yoga, ego is defined as the individual’s sense of who they are – their thoughts, desires and personality, as shaped by the mind. It is sometimes referred to as the “false self,” because it is coloured only by our world view or our perceptions and is not in touch with who we really are. We look at ourselves through a lens or through the lenses of others that distorts who we really are.

The ego can be a positive image of oneself or a negative one. Usually, it includes both positive and negative aspects. The ego contains the individual’s sense of self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem. It has desires – such as wealth, prestige and success. The ego becomes easily dissatisfied, either with the appearance of the body, the possessions we have, the relationship we are in etc. If we identify with only the ego, then when the ego is unhappy, we become unhappy too. The ego is often unhappy as it feeds on the vibrations of fear and insecurity. When we are living though ego, we feel small and alone, and so we seek out ways to make us feel more powerful by becoming preoccupied by job, status, relationships, money, material possessions and sensory experiences.  When we are in our ego mind, we will be dominated by the emotions of envy, jealousy, guilt, anger, resentment, as well as loneliness. The ego mind is needy and does not want to lose anything, so it clings to people, places and situations. 

We may also experience feel-good emotions in our ego state, such as excitement, elation and ecstasy, but these are short-lived and when these feelings disappear, which they inevitably do, we again feel lonely, afraid and insecure. We, therefore, seek out more quick fixes to make us feel good again and experience an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs. 

The ego also worries about what other people think of us and acts from an outside point of view as opposed to being self-directed, and just as it fears judgment, it also judges others, creating separation, loneliness and isolation.

We can easily be tricked by the ego mind, it convinces us that that our judgments of others are realistic, that our greed is a healthy desire and that vanity is an expression of beauty. The ego mind gets overly attached to outcomes and to expectations, and can feel angry or disappointed when things don’t turn out as expected or hoped for. It fills our mind with random inner dialogue, a lot of it negative, and much of it pointless.

Yoga can lead us to a state where we are no longer under the control of the ego and its base desires. It can enable us to rise above the ordinary human condition, above the limitations of our ego and the perceptions that the ego forces upon us. It allows us to see life how it really is, to be at peace with ourselves, with others and with everything around us.

 

 

Why Yoga Philosophy is the Key to Deepening our Practice

Modern day yoga has become very focused upon asana practice but, in the yoga tradition, physical practice is only a small part of yoga. Scriptures and texts on yoga philosophy offer a set of approaches to life and techniques to enable serious practitioners to grow deeply, not only in our practice but also as human beings. 

For serious practitioners, philosophy and the physical practice can be regarded as two sides of the same coin that support and supplement each other.  By only focusing on asana, yoga will become just another form of exercise, however, by concentrating only on philosophy, one would miss the physical benefits of asana practice. Thus, we need to understand how to combine philosophical teachings and physical practice in the right way to support our personal growth. 

Understanding yoga philosophy enables us to place our yoga practice within the context of life as a whole. For those seeking a deeper practice, yoga philosophy provides us with guidelines for living a good life, including standards of ethics and self-conduct, so that we can know what it feels like to live and act in harmony and integrity with our highest values, even when we face difficulty.

As yoga teachers, when we limit our understanding of yoga to asana, we also limit its ability to help our students. By blending asana practice with meditation, pranayama, and intentional self-study, we can support our students in cultivating a deeper and more inclusive relationship with yoga, that can continue to transform all aspects of their lives. 

Finally, as yoga teachers and practitioners it is important to acknowledge the part we play in the proud lineage of yoga, passed down from teacher to student over thousands of years.  Studying yoga philosophy can help us to better understand the history and the traditions of yoga so that we can practice and teach from a deeper place.

Hence, to be an advanced yoga practitioner or a successful yoga teacher, it is necessary to have a deep knowledge and understanding of both yoga philosophy and physical practice. 

How Can Yoga Free Us from Suffering?

Buddha declared, birth is suffering, death is suffering and our very existence is suffering. Since Buddha’s time the world has become a safer place, with less war and conflict, more material wealth, better health and more social freedom. Yet despite this we seem eternally dissatisfied and stressed.

Evolutionary science helps us to understand why, in the modern world, humans are hardwired to be anxious and fearful, are biased to negativity and subject to cravings. -see my post Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition. Everyday life is full of difficulty, loss, and heartbreak, over which we often have no control. Our innate negative bias leads us to dwell on these problems, no matter how small, creating a spiral of negative thinking, which can consume us. The average human has 12,000-60,000 thoughts each day; up to 98% of these thoughts are the same thoughts we had yesterday and as many of 80% of them are negative thoughts. Our naturally anxious mind can spin impending disaster, shame, guilt, fear and regret from the most innocuous of happenings, creating negative scenarios that we play like mini-movies in our minds, over and over again. These responses only serve to increase and compound our suffering further.

Without the support of modern psychology or evolutionary science, our ancient Indian ancestors, already had a good understanding of the mental patterns the all humans experience. They sought to explore and put names to these concepts. Yoga developed as a set of tools to help overcome these mental patterns and ultimately put an end to human suffering. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers us a blueprint to break free from human despair.

According to Patanjali, the five Kleshas are the causes of human suffering. The first Klesha Avidya is the source of all suffering, the parent from which other Kleshas are born. Avidya is sometimes defined as ignorance and refers to an incorrect understanding of the nature of things brought about by our warped perceptions. Life is an accumulation of things, thoughts and experiences that we identify with along our journey. Once we have identified with these things, thoughts and experiences, we can no longer perceive life the way it truly is. Our perception becomes fogged and we are unable to see things clearly; we instead perceive life the way it is necessary to do so (or we perceive it is necessary to do so) for our survival. Unless we can create a space between our own perceptions and the real world, we will never see things as they truly are.

Through the eight limbs of classical yoga, Patanjali sets out tools to enable us to create this space, in the form of physical and mental practices, which will rid us of despair. Yoga can ultimately provide the mental clarity we need to help us to separate out our perceptions of the world from the way they really are. Yoga enables us to see suffering for what it really is, beyond our control and compounded by our negative bias and warped perceptions. Yoga practice creates in us an awareness in each moment, a stillness and an understanding that the lens through which we look at the world is just that, a lens and not reality. Through cultivating this awareness, we create the distance and clarity we need to end our personal suffering.

Yoga as a Cure for the Human Condition

Do you find yourself anxious or fearful much of the time? Do you dwell on bad things that happen, no matter how small, and blow them out of proportion? Do you feel unfulfilled and exhausted by the constant need to strive for goals, whose achievement brings only fleeting happiness? You are not alone. The truth is that almost everyone feels this way. It is part of the human condition, a condition that is hard to escape.

200,000 years ago when humans lived in caves, the most anxious and vigilant had a better chance of survival, being constantly primed to fight or run away. Now in the modern world, each of us is descended from those fearful ancestors and, while we may no longer need to be on constant high-alert in order to survive, we remain hard-wired to be permanently on the lookout for threat. This evolutionary process has left humankind with a negativity bias, where we pay more attention to the bad things that happen, making them seem much more important than they really are, while barely registering positive things. To make things worse, our brains have become adapted to ensure that any pleasure we experience is only fleeting, so that we do not become demotivated to continue the fight for survival.

To summarise, the human brain has evolved to ensure that

  • we are hard wired for fear and anxiety;
  • we have a negative bias;
  • pleasure has a short-lived impact and always leaves us craving more.

The human condition, therefore, is one of suffering. Our subconscious is hard wired for this suffering, a suffering that, while inevitable is not inescapapable. Yoga, in its true sense, provides a means to escape this suffering; a tool to help the diligent practitioner master the subconscious, conquering fear and negativity and driving out cravings.

To be released from fear, anxiety and cravings, the yogin must begin by seeking to understand the true essence of yoga. Yoga is not just a physical practice that happens in yoga classes labelled Vinyasa Flow, Hatha, Iyengar or Yin. It is a spiritual science of self-realisation; a holistic practice, which includes every aspect of life. These aspects include

  • universal ethics (Yama),
  • personal ethics for self-purification (Niyama),
  • body cultivation through practice of postures (Asana),
  • mastering of energy through breathing exercises (Pranayama)
  • control over the senses of perception (Pratyahara)
  • concentration (Dharana) and
  • meditation (Dhyana).

Through yoga we learn to master our body and mind, to cultivate inner stillness and become free of suffering.