We humans have an interesting relationship with energy. We can expect so much of our resources, often underplaying the recovery time we really need and viewing ‘good energy’ simply as the ability to keep going, no matter what... which is akin to expecting your smartphone to keep working without recharging the battery.
In reality, energy that we can rely on and that remains generally stable throughout the day only occurs when we factor downtime and breaks into our daily lives - when we truly connect in to when we are doing too much and need to back off. This can apply to any aspect of our lives; work, play, exercise and anything else.
Energy is finite and shared around the body; when it is needed for digestion or immunity for instance, our want to move around becomes reduced - energy available to our muscle is needed elsewhere and we go into recovery mode.
The truth is energy needs to ebb and flow. We need to allow natural down-times to be able to pick up again and not fall prey to sudden drops when we don’t pay attention to our natural regulation processes.
A common time to see our resources come to the end of the line is mid-afternoon, when many people turn to a quick pick-me-up in the form of sugar or caffeine to simply keep going. It's a tough time, that 3-6pm window where blood sugar levels, energy resources and often, simple enthusiasm for the day is waning. When clients describe that dreaded energy slump time to me, they are often amazed by my soothsaying abilities to pinpoint its looming at 4pm. But this is pure biochemistry talking; cortisol levels naturally dip at this time and this stress hormone plays a large part in our energy, mood and motivation levels. Anticipating this time and pre-empting with some nutritional support and a break to allow yourself to naturally pick-up can prevent a vicious cycle of sugar and stimulants further stealing energy.
With lowering cortisol, comes dropping blood sugar levels. Sugar (as glucose) is used up for energy by every single cell, every second we are alive and we can all feel the difference between good sustained levels when we feel clarity, easy energy and a healthy relationship with the food around us. If you have been rollercoastering up the peaks and down the troughs, stress, caffeine and sugar may have resulted in difficulties finding sustained balance, where those mid-afternoon hours can present a particular challenge to level and motivating energy.
This is a catch-22 for all of us; flagging brain energy sends a 'fuel-up quick' signal to send us towards the substances that will raise sugar most quickly. We can feel jangly, moody, unable to cope and ravenous in the face of this survival mechanism, so resisting the vending machine may be beyond our rational control.
Stress uses up the nutrients we need to produce energy, such as B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C. A varied diet based on whole foods and with protein sources that also provide B vitamins, is a good start, but if you have chronic stress or a busy life, a multivitamin supplement is a good baseline. Vitamin C is needed in larger amounts than can fit in a multi-supplement, so as well as eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, you can also supplement 1000mg a day.
The awareness that we foster within yoga is to notice our energy at all times and respond accordingly; not just to push our way through or work forcefully, but to lift levels when it has become stuck, static and sedentary. It is a big part of the practice that this is approached without over working or tiring the physical body or agitating the mind. In yoga terminology, This stuck state would be described as tamasic energy - that of heaviness, darkness, slow moving, inertia, doubt, ignorance etc. This is a very important energy (as are all these gunas); without it we would not be able to sleep or slow down in life, but for someone with chronic stress, adrenal fatigue, burnout or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, this energy can become dominant in the physical body, so finding ways to shift it gently into a more balanced place without over-stimulation is key.
Try these exercises for raising energy at any time. If you have any anxiety or agitation, go slowly and rest in between to breathe and gauge how you feel.
While doing any of these options a person might say to him/herself "My body is alive and full of energy" or "My body is pulsating with life-force/vitality" etc.
Standing poses are often appropriate for those with stress as they provide a firm, physical rooting, grounding and earthing through the feet; creating energy that does not steal from the mind-body. If practiced with awareness and space to cool and come back to the breath between, they can create a ‘good’ stress (eustress) that challenges without tiring. Holding them and practicing finding balance via the breath can help create the resilience and adaptation that can stop us lurching from ‘highs to lows’ or fluctuating between a continual see-saw of anxiety and slumps. Becoming aware of when we might overwork and when we might underwork (and within the same pose and in life) can help us find sattva – equanimity, grace under pressure and the middle way.
To ensure postures don’t register with our nervous system as just another stressful event, focus on noticing when sensations or strength intensifies, breath in towards it – rather than constricting around it – and exhale fully to release and create softness wherever possible. For instance, we don’t need to clench the jaw to hold a strong pose and if we relax the shoulders, the arms can be held up from the belly rather than via tension in the shoulders, neck and chest.
The practice below takes elements of yoga, t’ai chi and chi gong to create energy and strength without agitation. You can add in any other standing movements that you know or simply feel intuitive to explore. Listening to your body and responding without trying to ‘fix a problem’, means you can increase awareness of how you sit up in a chair and when you need to move your shoulders, hips and spine when working long hours.
Start in tadasana (mountain pose, simply standing) before and between each posture or movement to feel the effects of energy creation, and come back to your breath in your body and feeling up from your feet on the ground. Smooth transitions between poses and space to feel ‘right effort’ at any given time is crucial.
End either with a full savasana to let energy settle or a standing meditation – knees soft, jaw relaxed – to simply feel how the inhalation naturally lifts you up from the ground and the exhalation softens your outer body. This helps us connect with how best to move through life with awareness of how we use and need to preserve energy.