How to Heal our Culture of Burnout| Mark Whitwell

“I have climbed every mountain,” Bono sings. “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” At this point we can acknowledge that maybe there is nothing to find | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

In our tradition, they say that when disorder comes to a limit, when suffering is too widespread, something will happen. In many Yoga schools the beginning of change is suffering. We find ourselves in a situation that we don’t like — TKV Desikachar.

The number one cause of burnout is the cultural conditioning of the mind. Societally, we have been convinced that we are not yet whole within ourselves and have been led to believe that there is some mysterious accomplishment we need to make before we can relax into our full authenticity. Believing there is somewhere to get to and some state completion that is presently absent, we strive and push ourselves beyond our natural limits. We strive through career, sport, politics, art and academics; and when those fail, it becomes the methods of religion, yoga and meditation — the struggle to become enlightened. Pretty soon we are burned out.

The psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, a specialist in burnout, describes the experience: “The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand of anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced […] You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to on regardless.”

“I have climbed every mountain,” Bono sings. “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” This is good news. There is nothing to find!

Yoga begins when we die to the socially implanted struggle to become something that we are not | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

So what can we do if we find ourselves suffering in this dynamic? And perhaps most of us have been here for we have all absorbed burnout culture in one form or another.

At this point, the wisdom tradition of yoga would advise two things:

  1. See the tortured search that has been imposed upon us by culture, and recognise just one time that it is entirely not necessary. Why? Because in truth you are not the one seeking for Reality. You are Reality Itself. The same power that lives the animals and the trees, that moves the waves, the sun and stars and moon, that same power lives you — it is you! You are Mother Nature abiding within Mother Nature. What else could you possibly be? As Mother Nature herself, it is obvious that have a completely robust and intrinsic connection to everything in the cosmos: air, light, water, plants, animals, and the male/female collaboration, whether in same sex or opposite sex intimacy. This is your actual condition. There is nothing we need to become or attain or realise. There is nothing absent from our lives. We are here now. You are authentic, already, by having been granted the grace of a human birth. You do not need to work away on yourself to become someone as if you are not someone within the arbitrary methods of power structure.
  2. For some of us, the simple recognition that we are already in a profound harmony with the cosmos is enough to bring the mind to rest in that context of peace of power. The great realizer Nisargadatta, when his guru told him that he was the power of the cosmos, went right then into a state of permanent peace — “I had no reason not to believe him,” he said. For most of us, however, the seeking momentum of the social mind keeps turning. Damn it! We have switched off the fan at the wall, but it keeps spinning. This is all good. At this point, what we need is a practical means to actively participate in the prior unity of the Cosmos, the instrinsic harmony and wholeness of our embodied lives. We need a way to link the mind to that harmony on a daily basis and to patiently yield the samskara (patterns) of struggle and burnout.

This is where a daily yoga practice comes in.

“There are no steps to be taken” U.G. What does this mean? You are Reality Itself. Any attempt to find it or get to it or realize it only obscures it. You are it! So you can relax | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

What our ancestors discovered in wisdom culture was that the breath is the means to unify mind, body and heart (source). So asana, done with the breath as its central feature and very purpose, reveals to the mind that the whole body is a unity. The mirage of the mind as the separate ruler of the body is over. The mind is arising from the heart as a function of life, that’s all.

Now, what’s powerful here is that the mind gets clear on its connection to the body, but also on the body’s intrinsic relatedness to the Whole — to the fact that, when it comes down to it, the body is a continuity of the cosmos. The body is the cosmos. “The entire universe contributes incessantly to your existence,” Nisargadatta said. “Hence the entire universe is your body.” We can say that Yoga is the non-dual tantra of linking mind to body, breath, heart and universe, of relaxing into the nurturing sweetness that is the unity condition of life on earth.

A real daily yoga practice is therefore very regenerative and healing for any person. We feel into our inherent aliveness, our native wholeness and stillness prior to the imposition of culture. Our bodies relax and fill with energy, receiving what we need on each inhale and releasing what we don’t need on every exhale.

A simple daily practice taught on the stones at the Lakshmi Temple within the grounds of the Mysore Palace where Krishnamacharya first taught yoga | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

I have a student and close friend Maja who describes beautifully her experience of moving from burnout and into the natural state of her life.

I have been in a state of survival mode for several years,” she writes. “As many others, me and my family had come from intense cycles of generational trauma, where feelings like fear, guilt and shame were easily adopted.

I carried those to most areas of my life. The most stubborn one was my attitude to professional work. Being under constant pressure that I need to become something, constantly prove myself and succeed, led me to burnout.

My personal daily yoga practice is helping me to recognize all those parts where my life is not flowing in the direction of my choice. It is helping me to unlearn the patterns that are not serving my nature.

The most beautiful part is that the practice can always be adapted to each individual’s needs. During my early recovery I was not able to do any standing asana. Nevertheless, I did a practice that was tailored to my current state and abilities, every day.

Yoga practice is teaching me that I am not a work in progress. I am complete in my natural state. And all of this is happening at this very moment, not at the end of some puzzling process. From here I can navigate my life in the direction of my own choice.

From here I can work, rest, care and do everything that needs to be done. Without my daily yoga practice I would most likely go back into the old patterns and end up as a workaholic.

I have noticed that recently something is happening in our world. More and people like Maja are deciding to step off of the treadmill of endless struggle for a future happiness that never comes and instead claim their life, in the here-and-now. My teacher U.G. would call them the ‘hope of humanity.’

“Seeking anything implies that you don’t have it. The very action denies your intrinsic reality. The world has been seduced by the idea of enlightenment. Your search negates the truth that is you, as you already are, the present embodiment of life’s wonder — a living, breathing expression of reality itself.” | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

So, from a yogic perspective, what exactly does burnout culture do to our bodies? Burnout culture pushes our systems into a state where strength is accentuated over and above everything else. Burnout culture produces a strength in us that is divorced from a feeling-sensitivity to life, the qualities of receptivity, softness, absorption, acceptance. When you’ve been brought up from early childhood to be strong and to achieve, but haven’t learned receptivity, then by your twenties or thirties, you may find yourself feeling bound and restricted — or nothing at all. Ultimately, strength of this kind destroys itself, degenerating into illness, burnout, and all kinds of outbursts or energy in the form of physical and sexual abuse.

Real strength is able to receive and support life, rather than control or dominate it — and that includes our own bodies. To live in our natural state we need both qualities in equal measure. Indeed, in our natural state we are strength that is receiving.

Travelling with dear friends and yoga teachers to Taveuni Island, Fiji for our annual teacher training. My goal is to have a yoga teacher in every village, every town and every city in the world. Then we will all get home | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Our daily yoga practices replaces the burn-out pattern of strength only with the positive pattern of strength-receiving. Patanjali summarised it beautifully in the instruction that asana is to be practiced with the dual qualities of sthira (strength) and suhkha (receptivity/softness). In every asana both are present and perfectly balanced in a fine-tuned dance. We do not neglect softness for the idea of a heroic struggle to go further. If we do then we risk exploding the pranas out of the body and becoming depleted. This is not to say that we cannot include very demanding asana and go the very edge of our breath capability, it’s simply that there is always softness; always receptivity comprising at least fifty percent of the asana.

Specifically, the fundamental yoga practice of the inhalation develops our ability to receive our experience — developing the female qualities of nurturing, receptivity and softness. The exhalation from the base develops our strength, the male qualities of clear perception and the ability to penetrate the moment. When you do your practice with these aspects merged, they naturally, spontaneously flow out into your engagement with the world. You keep the pranas in the spine as you do your survival and help other people. The mind stays clear in relationship to everything that it is dealing with. You are able to receive what is happening and penetrate the moment. Fundamentally, it is the breath that gives these siddhis (gifts).

It may feel terribly risky to give up our tendency to struggle. I know you think that if you don’t push yourself to achieve you’ll become a hopeless slob! But I promise that when you stop struggling and overreaching in your work, you become much more effective. You become empowered to eat your experience rather than your experience eating you.

Vivian, another friend and student, first came to yoga practice after a painful burn out. She describes how above all it was discovering her own breath that allowed her to relax into life — releasing what she did not need, receiving what she did. She describes how:

What finally made all the difference was finding my breath. Continuous daily practice slowly had a huge impact on my nervous system. It took some years to decode the mind set I was stuck in. But right away the breath eased my thought waves. My mind calmed down. The mental grasping I had become so habituated into gradually turned into a deep feeling of trust. Each time I practiced was tearful as the pain and grief I had stored in my body started to wash away. A regenerating process had begun.

“Your body loves its breath. The inhale loves the exhale, and vice versa. It is a literal love relationship” Mark

Ultimately, we can say that yoga is a positive pattern that replaces a negative pattern. That being said, it is a pattern that aligns our systems to the natural state — to what is no pattern whatsoever. The introduction of strength that is receptive in asana establishes an awareness of our basic condition. Indeed, we are strong yet receptive and soft creatures. This is how life comes. No matter what has gone down in our lives we are in the natural state. The frontal line of every body is exquisitely soft and receptive right down to a cellular level. And the legs, base, and spine carry an invincible strength. A Yogi is a person who simply lets these natural qualities of life express themselves in their daily life. If you are reading this, that is probably you.

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.