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No amount of yoga will spare you from burnout. Unless…

No amount of yoga will spare you from burnout. Unless…

Self-help articles are often misleading in telling us how work-life balance is the answer, finding time to pause is the key, and self-care is the way. Nevertheless if you are resentful at work and disillusioned by your organisation, no amount of yoga, mindfulness or rye bread will spare you from burnout.” – Alessandra Pingi

When I began to practise yoga while living and working in Afghanistan, I had no idea it would lead to a dramatic change in my career path – nothing less, in fact, than a complete reordering of my sense of priority and purpose and the practical structure of my life. But that’s pretty much what happened.

Because here’s the thing: yoga is not just a relaxing way to stretch. Hell, no.

Yoga, if you give it half a chance, will upend what you think you know about yourself, and that, as it turns out, can change everything.

When Alessandra writes that “no amount of yoga will spare you from burnout,” I would agree, and add, “unless you’re willing to act on the insights that will inevitably come to you as a result of that yoga.”

Because if you do yoga, insights will come. And as happened in my case, those insights might just lead you to change your job mid-career, change your relationship and move to another country. Yoga is one relatively straightforward (though not necessarily painless) way to get really clear on what you most need – and want – from your life, the kind of clarity Alessandra suggests is critical if we are to avoid, or recover from, burnout.

“Finding your rhythm and uncovering what really matters to you will help you to avoid physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.”Alessandra Pingi

How does yoga help “find your rhythm and uncover what really matters to you?” Well, it helped me largely because it taught me to pay attention, starting with paying attention to myself.

When I first started practising yoga, I was astounded to realise that my body was providing me with data all day long. At first, I learned to decipher the simplest information about how tired or hungry I was. I started to recognise my own “rhythms,” as Alessandra puts it, and in time, I could detect the early-warning signs that I was getting off balance.

As I continued to regularly get on my yoga mat, I began to notice that my body was sending me messages that could help me distinguish whether I was scared or angry, whether I was simply sad or depressed and despairing. How? Mostly just by getting into the habit of actually paying attention to what I was feeling. Yoga encourages us, for example, to pay attention to our breath – not some abstract idea of “breathing,” but the actual physical sensations that accompany each breath.

As I learned from a video to move through the series of yoga poses, the teacher’s voice constantly reminded me to bring my attention back to my breath, and when my mind started to wander, she called me back by drawing my attention to ever-present sensations of my body. “Feel your feet on the ground,” she would say on the screen, “and pay attention to the places in your body where you feel tight or tense. Notice the sensations in your belly and in your hips.”

There were plenty of times when I would, quite frankly, have preferred not to feel those sensations. My lower back often ached and my stomach was frequently clenched, but I’d developed a decent ability to ignore them both. Yoga asked me to notice, and the rediscovered ability to actually recognise what was going on in my body followed me off the mat and into the office, where it became increasingly difficult to ignore the signs that I was profoundly unhappy in my work.

Eventually, my practice opened more windows into self-awareness. Just as it had helped me recognise and learn to decipher the patterns – and disruptions – in the sensations of my body, yoga began to familiarise me with my mind. As I sat to meditate for ten minutes every morning, I started to recognise the patterns of thoughts and feelings that were driving my decisions every day. Yoga gave me a map to read the unspoken desires that were driving my choices, and the space to ask myself what I really wanted.

There’s no question: yoga is not enough to prevent burnout if we treat it as a balm with which to smooth over the stresses and challenges of humanitarian work. But if we let yoga do its deeper work on us, let it push us to recognise our own rhythms, our needs, our fears, our sense of purpose and – ultimately – let it help us make more informed decisions about where we go and what we do with our days, then yoga can be a powerful tool for safe-guarding our well-being over the long haul in this work.

Featured image is a woman in yoga lotus meditation at seaside. Photo from Awaken Miracles.

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Marianne Elliott is a writer, human rights advocate and yoga teacher. Trained as a lawyer, she helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and East Timor, was Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years in the Gaza Strip before going to Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations. In Afghanistan, Marianne decided stories were her weapon of choice, and yoga was her medicine. She created the '30 Days of Yoga' course, and wrote 'Zen Under Fire'.

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