Yogi Assignment: Recovering from Burn Out

You might think that I wake up each day bubbling with energy. And, truthfully, some days I do indeed wake up with a heart full of joy. But there are other days, weeks, and even months where I struggle to find motivation. Sometimes those periods of low-energy are the result of burn-out, and sometimes they are the result of needing time and space to heal from difficult times, which is also a kind of burn out from life. There have even been times when I lost the desire to practice. Well, I’m in a bit of a low period now.

A question I get often is what to do when you feel burned out or unmotivated with practice or life. I remember when I was first starting out as a yoga teacher, about nineteen years ago. All I wanted still do was live, breathe, eat and sleep yoga. I leaped at every single opportunity that was presented to me. I taught yoga in gyms, spas, parks, private homes, offices, on beaches and even occasionally in yoga studios. At some point I was teaching over 20 classes a week while driving all around the sprawling city of Miami to get to my classes. My schedule left me with no days off and I worked seven days a week. Most classes were not full and I was so happy when there were more than five people in class. Since I was a new teacher, most places gave me off-hour time slots and community classes. I earned barely enough money to meet my goal of buying an airplane ticket to India and funding six months of study in Mysore. At some point, I felt exhaustion take over, so much so that I just couldn’t imagine doing the whole Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series. And then, I remembered that I didn’t have to!

As I stood on my mat, alone, about to start practice in my parents’ garage while my Father watched his favorite daytime TT show, the Price is Right, in his living room, I decided that I would just do a shorter practice. My teachers in India always said that the Sun Salutations and the last three Closing Postures constitute a complete practice. I took that to heart. Most days for almost a month, this was my practice. Sometimes I added in the Standing Poses, but mostly not. With the extra free time I popped in and asked my Dad if he wanted to go for a walk. Now, years later, I’m so grateful that I did.

Not only did I learn a valuable lesson about the practice, but I got to spend precious time with father who recently passed away. We talked about everything and we brought Miss Emma, their adorable white Labrador who was just a puppy then. One time we had to carry her because she got too tired to walk! Sadly, she’s gone now too. Today, I would trade any practice for just one more walk with my father and sweet little Emma.

This week’s Yogi Assignment is Recovering from Burn Out.

The first tool that I work with when feeling burned out is gentleness. While we may often feel like we have to push through and force it, when you’re burnt out that just doesn’t work. If there is nothing in the reservoir you can scrape the bottom forever without yielding any results. The key to beginning the process of restoration is gentleness, softness, and kindness. There’s an element of forgiveness in gentleness too. It’s sort of like you have to forgive yourself for pushing so hard for so long. Depending on whether all the effort actually lead to something positive or not, it may easier or harder to work with forgiveness. For example, if you worked really hard for a long time and succeeded you may find it easier to be gentle with yourself in a period of burn out. But if you feel like you gave all your heart and soul to something for a long period of time and the result was failure or tragedy, it can be challenging to forgive yourself and the circumstances of your world. But, do it anyway. The decision to be kind and gentle with yourself is not dependent on success or failure. Like love, the soft flow of forgiveness comes from a vast and inexhaustible reservoir in the spirit called grace.

The second tool that I use when feeling burnt out is time off. Whether a vacation or an engaging trip to delve into study, planning a trip away from current circumstances does a lot to help burn out. When you stare at the same situation day in and day out and it feels like a pile of rubble, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed. Planning a getaway gives you space and perspective. Sometimes that’s all you need to return with a fresh set of eyes and begin again. Personally, I go to India to study with my teachers and join Vipassana meditation retreats as a way to recharge spiritually. In fact, I’m signed up for a three-day refresher course in Vipassana next weekend. My time as a student is what has made me the teacher that I am today.

The last step in facing burn out is wisdom. Not to over-spiritualize everything, but I really do believe there is a lesson in every experience. When I’ve been burned out before there has often been a reason for it. I seek the help of therapists, healers, pastors and mentors and dig deeply into my own heart and soul for the lesson. Once the “lesson” of the burn out period becomes apparent, I have often been filled with a new enthusiasm for life. But, it takes time and can’t be rushed. I’m still working on integrating all the lessons of this tumultuous year. I’ve faced death in a close and personal way—my father, my father-in-law, my cat, and my parents’ dog all passed away in a short span of a few months. I suffered from a second degree partial thickness burn on my thigh that both left a big scar and hurt much more than I ever imagined possible. I lost friendships, faced astounding betrayals, and fought disappointing legal battles. The cumulative impact of all that was more than I can even write about. I have been pulled and stretched in more places and in more ways than I ever thought I could handle. I’ve learned lessons, deep spiritual lessons, that have made me a stronger person. I have seen through my mistakes and acknowledged my successes. I’m not yet totally on the other side of all this, but I’m starting to see the light at the end of what has felt like a long tunnel of trials. People, many of them, who started the journey with me are gone. New souls have appeared with a new-found depth and I am so grateful for these people, true friends like you reading this now. I am changed, I think and pray for the better.

I spent this passed weekend in NYC. I love the city and it always feels a bit like home ever since I was a graduate student at New York University. On the way to the airport my driver spoke at length about all the problems with being a driver in a ride-hailing service. He had a lot of good points, some framed around worker’s rights and others around economic injustice. When I asked him if he was going to quit, he said no. But when I asked him what his dream job would be, then his eyes lit up. He replied that he wanted to work in security, as a guard or as a supervisor. I was at the airport then and I wished him luck in finding his dream job.

I’m sharing this with you because I really identified with his story. Over the last year I’ve spent time speaking out about all the things I think have gone awry in the world of business, social media and yoga. But, I haven’t devoted nearly as much time to creating the world of my dreams. After I take a bit of time to recharge my own batteries, you can bet on one thing for sure—I will be working with all my heart and all my soul to build a world founded on the timeless tradition of yogic values.

Yoga is my life. Yoga is a humble path dedicated to truth, a torch of social justice, a inclusive and diverse community, a revolution, a sacred space of healing, a path to belonging. Yoga is a heart-opening, world-changing tool that you can practice right now. Yoga is a door that leads to the Divine, the love of God, grace made manifest in the quiet space between inhalation and exhalation. Yoga is all this and more.

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