Sleepiness, tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion – no matter how strongly we feel it, it’s not pleasant. It weighs us down, makes everything feel more difficult and stops us from engaging fully in life. The reasons for fatigue are many and it can feel like a mystery to solve. How can I feel more rested, more awake, more energised?
Having suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME) this is a question I asked myself a lot over the years. I experimented, finding things that helped and things that didn’t. Some things I kept doing, other things I tried for a while and have never gone back to. What has stuck with me over the years is my yoga practice.
I almost didn’t try it in the first place. I was warned off yoga by a physiotherapist who felt that holding static postures would not be helpful to someone with CFS. But she was reducing yoga to one aspect of it. She didn’t know that it is designed to be holistic, balanced and adapted to the individual, and there’s a lot more to it than holding static postures.
I ignored the advice, started to practise it and found great benefit. It wasn’t a magic cure but it was like being given a set of keys – which is ultimately far more valuable.
Over the years I have found so many reasons why yoga helps with fatigue, but here are just 5 to inspire you onto your mat and into more energy.
Through too much time sitting at desks or behind the wheel of a car, slumped on a sofa or hurrying through the city streets, we have made bad posture our habitual state. Our major organs are restricted, our breath and digestion affected, our muscles tense. Nothing can work as effectively and the result is that we feel tired and slump some more. It’s a vicious circle that yoga can help break.
Yoga works to bring us back to our natural posture, with a straight spine, an open chest and toned core muscles to support us with ease. With good posture the inner organs work efficiently, the outer muscles work minimally to maintain the position and we have suddenly just made our whole body system a lot more efficient – not to mention the psychological effects of good posture.
Our modern lives have created a big problem for the breath. As Donna Fahri puts it in The Breathing Book, ‘tight belts, tight bodies and tight schedules are literally taking our breath away’.
Many of us have become habitual chest breathers, with our breath being too shallow and too fast. This restricted breath robs us of vital energy, making us feel stressed and tired, and has been shown to contribute to chronic pain conditions, high blood pressure, headaches and worse.
Thankfully our breath is an unconscious process that we can take conscious control of. An integral part of any yoga practice is the breath, including having an awareness of the quality of the breath, learning how to release restrictions on the breath and marrying the breath with the movement.
It allows us to get back in touch with our full, natural breathing, with our abdomen descending and our ribs expanding. It is a calming, life-giving breath that signals to the nervous system that all is well and gives the body the nutrients it needs to function well – not to mention the calming effect on the mind.
It’s rare to find a tool we can use to affect our inner organs and glands that doesn’t involve taking pills, but yoga can be just that. For example, there are many poses that help to stimulate digestion. This is seen most obviously in the twisting postures, which stimulate the stomach, colon and other inner organs.
As well as detailing the effect on organs and glands, scientific research has begun to show how yoga can benefit the functioning of nerves. For example, a 2011 study showed that the flexing poses of yoga help to stimulate the vagus nerve. Amongst other things, this nerve regulates the heartbeat and controls the immune system, playing a major role in fighting inflammation. The study showed that, through stimulation of the vagus nerve, yoga improved the condition of participants suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
This is just one example from many, but it goes to show that yoga can improve the way our body functions. A better functioning body is a more efficient body, with more energy being a happy side effect.
This is perhaps the most obvious one, but the effects of proper relaxation shouldn’t be underestimated. Often we find it hard to relax, actually being unable to let go of tension we are holding.
Yoga helps to relieve the tension we hold in the stress hotspots of the shoulders and the hips. More than this it teaches us the body awareness we need to recognise and release such patterns of tension and habitual responses to stress.
As well as working on the physical level, it also allows us to work on the mind too. Yoga encourages mental calm and focus. Through a slow, steady breath, the mind is slowed and through focusing on the postures, especially on the challenging poses such as balancing, we bring the mind to a quiet focus, rather than firing in all different directions.
A quieter mind and less tension in the body – it’s a positive spiral that allows us to move towards true relaxation, better sleep and more energy.
In the book Recovery from CFS: 50 Personal Stories about half of the stories include diet and nutrition as a major factor in recovery. If we don’t put the right fuel in our tank, we simply cannot expect our bodies to function properly.
Although yoga doesn’t focus so much on diet (you might want to explore yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, for that), it does facilitate and encourage a healthier and more harmonious relationship to food, which is the precursor for any successful diet.
With the increased body awareness and self-care that yoga brings, it becomes easier to eat well – you naturally start to make healthier choices, rather than feeling like you are putting yourself on a diet. Again we find another positive spiral of practising yoga, eating well and feeling more energetic – each playing its part to help us feel happier, healthier and more energetic.
There’s so much to say when it comes to yoga and fatigue but hopefully this short selection of ideas has helped you to consider some extra ways that yoga might help you.
The real power of yoga comes in it being truly holistic – it operates on many different levels and parts of the body and mind. The effects are cumulative and the body is gently encouraged back into harmony and health – which is, after all, its natural state.
I hope you feel inspired to get to your local yoga class (or just to get on your mat at home) and to notice all the positive spirals that yoga can create in your life.
Beat Fatigue with Yoga – Fiona Agombar
The author suffered from a severe form of ME that led to three months in hospital and using a wheelchair. Her book is a well-rounded look at how yoga can help both ME and more everyday fatigue, including many postures, breathing exercises and meditations.
The Breathing Book – Donna Farhi
Although not directly about fatigue, this is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to reap the benefits of full and natural breathing.
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards – William J Broad
This includes a lot of scientific evidence, including the 2011 study into rheumatoid arthritis, and a lot of debunking of myths. For anyone with both an interest in yoga and science, it’s a fascinating read.