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How to Relax - Lessons in Recovering from Burn Out

a women is kneeling, bent forwards in child's pose

A few weeks ago I was really ill.

I spent several days barely able to move and over a week not leaving the house or being able to do much of anything for very long without needing a rest. It's been a while since that first illness but for a few weeks I still pretty much constantly felt under the weather, seemingly going from one ill to the next. My immune system was obviously low. Thankfully I am coming through and am starting to feel much stronger and healthier.

In amongst all the illness I had a lot of time to think and what I realised is that I had hit burn out. I have been so busy for so long, I'm a mum to two young girls, I'm self employed and have numerous other responsibilities too. Let alone trying to fit in things just for me.

I've come to see that it's been a while since I really practiced what I teach. And this hit hard. A big part of me feels like that because of what I do for a living I should be a shining example of wellbeing and health all the time. But the truth is I'm human and it's easy to forget to fill up your own cup. In reality I have had my fair share of struggles over the years and honestly I think that's part of what makes me good at what I do. Life goes in cycles and it seems it's time for me to cycle back round to looking after myself.

I have really taken stock of how I spend my time, where the stresses are and what changes I can make to help me genuinely relax and recuperate. There are a few things that I have put into place over the last couple of weeks that I feel are really helping me come back to balance.

Cutting Back on Responsibilities Where I Can

I like to help people and I am happy being busy. I'm the kind of person who will fill every minute of the day without thinking (and then wish I hadn't). I have realised over time that I am prone to measuring my value and self worth by how much I can do and this isn’t healthy. It’s something I have been working on for years and I am much better than I used to be but hold habits die hard and sometimes I over work myself.

So over the last few weeks I have been taking stock and looking at where I can reduce my responsibilities and free up some spare time to just be. Of course the reality is that as a working mum I still have a lot of things that I have to do so where I haven’t been able to physically free up space I have been relaxing my need to achieve and trying to care a bit less about things that don’t really matter. If the washing isn’t folded or washing up is left until tomorrow it just doesn’t really matter. If I don’t meet all the deadlines I set for myself with work and my business grows slower than I first hoped, it’s not the end of the world. What really matters is living a life that feels good and so much of achieving that is about having the right perspective on things.

This time last year I wrote about Samyam (pacing) and I have been reminding myself of this practice a lot. We can’t do everything so sometimes we just need to let go.

Quiet moments for me (and Cacao)

a women holding a cup of cacao up to her face and smiling

I have been doing my best to take at least 5-10 minutes a day to sit quietly with and by myself. This is separate from any yoga practice or meditation that I might do and instead is just a boundaried time that is about allowing myself to be quiet and relax. This is a pretty alien concept for me and something that I found quiet hard to do at first. Sometimes, I feel I need to justify how I spend each moment of my time and if there’s lots of jobs to be done I can, at times find, it hard to relax and just be. For many of us there is a feeling that we will stop/relax/do something for ourselves when the to do list is all ticked off. I don’t know about you but my to do list only ever gets longer, I can’t remember the last time all my jobs were done.

So now I take a bit of downtime each day anyway, as long as I am at a point where I can walk away from all the doing for a little while without causing some major issue (which it rarely would in reality) I take time to sit and be quiet. And I am so much more productive for it. I come back to my tasks feeling refreshed and like I want to do them, I have more energy to give.

One of my favourite things to do during this quiet time is drink some cacao. I make a delicious hot chocolate from pure ceremonial grade cacao (which is super nutritious too) and enjoy it in while setting an intention to rest, be present or whatever feels right on the day. This process has become a wonderful ritual that helps to let my sub-conscious know to it's time to relax. Ritual can be hugely beneficial in triggering deeper parts of ourselves and forming stronger habits.

Eating Well

One of my teachers, Swami Atma Gyanam, once said to me that the food we eat is what makes our body. This statement felt so simple and yet so profound. I think we often over look the fact that food really is the physical fuel for our bodies and it is the material that makes us.

Personally I really notice that I feel different when I eat good quality, fresh food than if I eat a lot of processed or sugary foods. Generally I think I eat fairly well but recently I have been taking extra care over my diet and most importantly for me, I have been (mostly) cutting out sugar. Chocolate is my cryptonite and I will often eat well all day to then consume a too much chocolate in the evenings. I was definitely raised to use food as an emotional crutch and it’s an easy habit for me to fall back into to eat when I feel stressed or low. I’m certainly not a saint when it comes to food but I am really enjoying being more mindful over what and how I eat and making eating a ritual of self care.

Sleeping Well

For me this one is huge. I love sleep but I just never seem to be able to get enough. As most parents out there will know it’s just not easy when you have young kids and a busy life. But sleep is so important for our health and wellbeing. I recently read that women may need up to 9 or 10 hours sleep for optimal health. Honestly I’m lucky to get 7. I find by the time I’ve got my kids to bed and have done whatever house stuff or work admin needs doing it’s already late and then I’d quite like to have some time to relax, do something for me and spend some time with my partner. It can easily get to being pretty late before I make it to bed. But I massively notice the difference in my tiredness levels during the day if I go to sleep much after 10pm, so I have been making a really big effort to stick to this. It doesn’t always happen, because as I said before I am only human, but most of the time is better than hardly ever.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that I am more prone to waking in the night and not being able to sleep deeply. Part of this is because my kids still like to wake me up from time to time, and also since becoming a mum I think I always sleep with “one ear open,” listening out for them needing me. But I think stress and a busy mind plays a big part in the quality of my sleep too. There are numerous ways that my yoga practice is helping me sleep better, including relaxation practices before bed such as yoga nidra, and physical (asana) practice to get my body relaxed for sleep. I feel like I could write a lot on that topic though so I will save that for another post.

Noticing Physical Tension and Utilising Breathwork

a close up of a woman with eyes closed, meditating, her hand resting on her heart

I have been making a habit lately of checking in regularly throughout the day to notice how I feel physically. Noticing where I am relaxed and where I am tense in my body. It can be quite surprising when you start checking in with yourself and realise just how much tension you’re carrying around.

Once I have found where the tension is in me, I use my breath to help me consciously relax and start to let it go. When we breathe out we stimulate the “rest and digest” part of our autonomic nervous system.

Basically this means that our exhales trigger a relaxation response. We can make use of this by consciously relaxing our bodies as we breathe out, this relaxation response then helps to depend that softening and release in our physical bodies. I often say to students to imagine breathing into areas of tension, feel that area expand as you breathe in and then begin to let it soften as you breathe out. We can deepen this practice by letting our exhales be longer than our inhales to stay for longer in that relaxation response.

This is a wonderfully accessible practice as it can be done almost anywhere any time. While driving, walking, washing up, whatever. Take a few moments to notice how you feel in your physical body and then connect to your breath to start to ease tension and sink into relaxing.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is something that I personally find is really beneficial for my mental health. I always feel better at times when I regularly meditate. This might not always be for long periods of time but regular, consistent practice makes a huge difference to my wellbeing. I like a simple practice, often focusing my awareness on the flow of my breath or on the sounds around me (simply listening without labelling). I also really love a meditation practice called Antar Mouna, this means inner silence. This is turning your awareness to the silence within, that which is beyond all things. I will do my best to record some meditation practices in the near future to share so you can give it a try.

Something I have found beneficial lately is to regularly bring some moving meditation and mindfulness into my day. This means being more focused in the present moment, focusing my awareness on the task in front of me, what I can experience through my senses and also on how I feel in that moment. It means doing my best to not be pulled into the story in my head and instead living in the present. I find this helps me to feel more relaxed and less rushed. I am also less like to be pulled around by my mind and fall into a stress spiral. We will be doing some walking meditation on my upcoming retreat day if you would like to give it a go, all the details for that are here.

This has ended up being quite a long one so thank you if you’ve read this far. I hope you find some of these tips useful and that they helping you in preventing or recovering from burn out. If you can implement any one of these things I am sure you would see some benefit. I think one of my biggest takeaways from the last few weeks is that it’s not about big grand gestures but that a healthy and happy life is made up of lots of small moments. When we can bring in several small and manageable habits it can be the catalyst for huge transformation in our lives. These are the building blocks and our foundations.

I hope you have a wonderfully restful day.

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