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Yoga for Burnout

Yoga and Burnout

Burnout can be defined as a combination of exhaustion, cynicism (negative thought patterns) and a reduction in effectiveness, efficacy or adequacy (Maslach & Leiter, 2022).

Burnout often occurs in response to chronic stress, or high levels of stress experienced for a prolonged period of time (Maslach & Leiter, 2022).

The prevalence of burnout varies according to occupation, with 70.9% of Australian healthcare workers experiencing moderate to severe burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic (Smallwood et al., 2021). Meanwhile, 52% of school teachers around the world experienced burnout during the same period (Ozamiz-Etxebarria et al., 2023).

Aside from the feelings of fatigue, negative thinking and inefficacy, burnout has also been associated with lower job satisfaction and higher levels of both resting heart rate and early morning cortisol levels – a hormone associated with stress (Borritz et al., 2006; De Vente et al., 2003).

Yoga Practices for Burnout

With such high levels of stress and burnout and modern society’s fast pace, research has turned to what can be done to reduce burnout – including the practice of yoga.

One study by Latino et al. (2021) involved an 8-week yoga intervention for high school teachers and found that practicing one-hour of yoga twice per week significantly reduced burnout. A significant difference was also found for each of the three subscales of burnout measured.

These yoga classes involved 10 minutes of breathing techniques (pranayama) and gentle movements to warm up, 40 minutes of main postures (asana), and five minutes of cooling down and savasana, which is a typical structure to most yoga classes. Throughout these classes, an emphasis was placed on an internal awareness of their bodily sensations and feelings (Latino et al., 2021).

A similar study with nurses by Alexander et al. (2015) also found a significant decrease in the burnout sub-scales of emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation (cynicism) after an 8-week yoga intervention. The emphasis of these classes was directing the students’ awareness to internal sensations as well as stress reduction techniques.

A systematic review by Cocchiara et al. (2019) also found yoga techniques to be beneficial in reducing burnout.

Interoception to Combat Burnout

Despite encouraging findings regarding yoga and burnout, further research is needed in the field (Cocchiara et al., 2019).

If one is experiencing high stress or the symptoms of burnout, it is best to seek professional support. In fact, yoga has been found to complement psychological interventions including cognitive behavioural therapy, also known as CBT (Dike et al., 2021).

When it comes to specific practices that appear to be most beneficial for burnout, the literature is consistent in the implementation of practices that cultivate interoception (Latino et al., 2021; Alexander et al., 2015; Hilcove et al., 2021).

Interoception, or an awareness of one’s internal sensations (Tober, 2021), has itself been associated with lower levels of burnout (Heeter et al., 2021).

Participants in studies by Latino et al. (2021) and Alexander et al. (2015) were encouraged to notice sensations in their body while in different postures, including sensations of their breathing. Participants in the study by Latino et al. (2021) and Hilcove et al. (2021) were led through yoga sequences that were gentle, easeful and restorative in nature. Deep breathing and relaxation was also utilised by Alexander et al. (2015). Both Latino et al. (2022) and Alexander et al. (2015) involved a period of deep relaxation towards the end of class.

This is consistent with Tober (2021), who suggested practices that are restful, including gentle movements for individuals experiencing burnout.

A Shorter Practice to Reduce Burnout

One study in particular by Upadhyay et al. (2022) aimed to develop a shorter (20 minute) protocol for reducing burnout, so that those who didn’t have time for a longer practice could benefit from the practice.

This protocol was developed by reviewing yogic texts and scientific research before presenting their findings to 19 yoga experts (those with both clinical and research experience in yoga) for validation, which included individuals with Bachelors, Masters and PhD degrees in yoga (Upadhyay et al., 2022).

This 20 minute protocol includes practices such as neck, shoulder, waist and ankle movement and rotation, awareness of the breath, alternate nostril breathing, bhramari (humming-bee breath) and chanting Om or Aum (a sacred sound, syllable, mantra, and an invocation in Hinduism; (Upadhyay et al., 2022).

While it must be noted that this study focused on the development of the protocol, and that the specific protocol has not been scientifically tested using an intervention based study, the practices listed are common to other intervention-based studies, including bhramari, alternate nostril breathing and breath awareness (Latino et al., 2021; Alexander et al., 2015; Hilcove et al., 2021).

In summary, the literature shows that yoga may be of benefit for reducing the symptoms of burnout.

Particular practices that can be of benefit include breathing techniques and gentle, restorative postures and movements that cultivate interoception.

Despite this, if one is experiencing high stress or burnout, it is wise to seek professional support in addition to their yoga practice.

Feb 26, 2024

Jake Nicholson

Jake Nicholson (he/him/his) is a Mental Health Aware Yoga graduate and a Yoga Teacher from Melbourne, Australia.

He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Deakin University, Honours in Psychology from Swinburne University of Technology, and is currently studying a Postgraduate degree in Counselling at Swinburne University of Technology.

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