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. 

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.