Somatic Yoga For Avoiding Burnout

Burnout can happen when we’re overwhelmed by work pressures, during relationship fractures, or when we’re going through life transitions. But it’s not just dependent on external circumstances; burnout happens when we’ve spent too much time in survival mode, we’ve spent all our energetic reserves, and our system is well overdue rest and recovery.

When we’re well regulated, our mind-body system recognises the need for rest before we get to this point, and will allow us to naturally fall into rhythms or exertion and rest. The issue comes when we’ve got our foot stuck on the metaphorical accelerator, and we don’t know how to slow down. We might ‘regulate’ ourselves with habits that put us in energetic debt, like drinking alcohol, smoking, over-socialising, or over-exercising.

Being in survival mode is an internal mechanism, and if we’ve been exposed to stressful circumstances in the past, sometimes our nervous system becomes wired for survival, even if our current circumstances pose no threat. This is why some people can remove all the ‘stressors’ from their life, and still feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis.

Of course we want to have a healthy stress response, which will help us address genuine threats when they arise in our environment — but this is not the state we want to live in.

It can take intentional nervous system training to rewire these patterns, allowing us to self-regulate in times of stress. At the most basic level, we need to teach our systems how to move from this stressed state (sympathetic dominance) into a relaxed state (parasympathetic dominance).

Step 1 is awareness

Learning how to regulate your nervous system requires an understanding of the physical and physiological signs of stress. If being in survival mode has been your default for long enough, you may not even notice — it’s just your normal functioning! Becoming aware of your body and breath is a powerful way to start noticing your state of being, which is the first step in being able to shift gears. This is where Somatic Yoga comes in.

Somatic Yoga is a gentle form of movement and meditation that focuses on embodiment. It encourages the unravelling of tension not through extreme stretches, but through letting go of holding patterns, and establishing an efficient relationship between our body, gravity and the ground. One of the main intentions of this form of movement is to find the most easeful way to move, without ‘efforting’ or unnecessarily tensing.

Somatic Yoga is based on strengthening the mind-body connection by sensitising the subtle sensations in our body. In order to sense the inner workings of our body, the subconscious muscular holding, the short or suspended breath, our pounding heart, and the flighty movements that tell us we’re in survival mode, our brain needs to pick up this data from our body.

Somatic Yoga teaches you to guide your awareness to things like the force of gravity upon you, the movement of breath deep inside your gut, and the movement of your bones as you articulate them. In order to pick up this subtle information, you need to become internally quiet, present and soft. As opposed to seated mindfulness meditation, Somatic Yoga offers embodied cueing and movement to give your nervous system more stimuli to focus on, thereby taking attention away from racing or anxious thoughts, and disciplining your mind to stay in the here and now, receptive to this subtle information.

Step 2 is intervention

When we start this practice, the information we may pick up from our bodies can be that we are tense, or fidgety, or that are breath is uneven or unsatisfying. It may become clear that we cannot feel certain parts of our body. This might be uncomfortable to notice at first, and this can lead some stressed people to believe “this slow, gentle style isn’t for me!”

Indeed, slowing a fast-paced system down can feel not only frustrating but even unsafe. Survival mode perpetuates the story that there is threat to attend to, so asking your system to be slow and relaxed can feel (unconsciously) like further threat to survival. In these cases, it may be appropriate to start with more ‘discharging’ practices — faster paced movements, shaking or resistance training that helps to release pressure from the system. However, in order to programme ease and calm into your mind and body, after discharging this excess energy, coming back to the slow, subtle practices will give you the opportunity to programme safety and ease into your system.

Somatic Yoga offers the freedom to listen to your body and self-regulate however feels intuitive. This may be an invitation to shake or clench and release certain parts of your body, to intentionally look around the space, or to take a few big breaths followed by sighs, when you notice that your system isn’t ready to simply slow down and relax.

 Step 3 is repetition

This reprogramming will take many repetitions as you learn to notice, discharge, then redirect your attention to the subtle sensations in your body. Some days may feel easier than others. But by fostering the patience to be with this process, you’ll start to accumulate at least fleeting moments of ease, gradually teaching your system the felt sense of safety. Over time, this practice of Somatic Yoga can help allow you to deeply rest, and ultimately bring your default mode from high stress to relaxed alertness — the pinnacle of day-to-day high performance.

Need more help?

For those who find it too uncomfortable to slow down, even with the discharging cues, or who need more assistance in bringing this practice from the yoga mat into daily life, Somatic Coaching takes this process to the next level.

Somatic Coaching builds on the physiological awareness and interventions with mindfulness and processing of the other layers of our experience that come into play: emotions and thought patterns. Because our mind-body system is a continuum, our physiological reactions may elicit stressful thought processes, or habitually stressful thoughts will elicit a physiological stress response. Sometimes, unprocessed emotions are the spark in the machine that keeps this stress cycle in motion.

While cognitive-behavioural approaches help with mindset shifts and building new habits, Somatic Coaching is an integrative approach that views each of these layers as part of our integrative system of thoughts, behaviours, emotions, feelings, and physiological responses, which all feed into each other.

Such a multilayered approach is a path of mastery, discovering all the mechanisms that keep you stuck in this gear of survival mode, and looking for entry points that are accessible for intervention. For instance, those who don’t yet feel safe to slow down and drop into their bodies may begin with the entry point of becoming more aware of thought patterns, and then developing an awareness of the associated embodied feelings. Others may not be open to exploring their thought processes, but may do well exploring the embodied processing of previously unfelt emotions, and then feel more space to unpack the mental narratives.

Ultimately, somatics can be implemented at a variety of levels to help avoid burnout. You may simply start to notice what’s happening in your body whenever you remember to drop in, encouraging conscious breaths and relaxing tension in your body; you may join a Somatic Yoga class to practice specific techniques for self-regulation and self-awareness; or you may dive deeper into Somatic Coaching or psychotherapy to discover how to optimise your mind-body wiring to access your greatest potential for fulfilment and wellbeing.

By Eleanor Forder, Somatic Coaching & Yoga Teacher
Founder of Flux&Flow Coaching  


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