How to... Maintain Energy Levels

energy yoga Jul 20, 2021

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.

The 4pm slump

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.

Blood sugar lows

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.

Coming out of the blood sugar drop top tips:

  • Fuel up before to limit the steep declines – breakfast and lunch are not to be missed or you may feel the downward spiral too late to limit it with blood-sugar supporting snacks like nuts. Working through lunch is a false economy if it leaves you with depleted resources and poor focus by 4pm.
  • To keep going without turning to the quick-fixes that keep us trapped in sugar craving spirals, choose some canny snacks that provide that sweetness and also drip-feed not sudden spike energy. Dried mango and fresh pineapple are my favourite when the knee-jerk cravings have really set in. Having a protein-based (but also a little sweet) snack bar handy, can help refuel resources without turning to something with a higher sugar and lower nutrient content.

Coming out of the energy slump top tips:

  • Enlist an energy buddy – find a friend who has the similar issue and a good sense of humour. Laughing raises feel-good beta-endorphins to right low brain chemistry. Chuckling at your body's idiosyncrasies with your buddy isn't just bonding in the face of adversity, it can actually break that craving cycle.
  • Get out – not just running away from yet another birthday cake, but getting into some natural light to naturally raise serotonin levels, reduce stress levels and bring energy back up gently through walking and remove yourself from habits that can use up lots of energy resisting them.
  • Recognise that you need to rest; if you are constantly propping yourself up with caffeine, sugar or other stimulants, this may be a sign that what you truly need is recovery time. We have high expectations about what we can and ‘should’ be doing and little validity is given to simply being in our culture.

Supplementing what stress steals from us:

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.

Raising energy through yoga

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.

Exercises to increase energy without over-stimulation:

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.

  • Gently tapping the body using either palms of loose fists. This can be done to any area of the body except the belly, chest head and face - more sensitive areas that should be touched in a lighter manner. This can be done standing, sitting or even lying down. This action should be done gently and with care in if possible in a rhythmic way with the intention of ‘coming home’ to the body.
  • Gently tapping the head and face with the fingertips either in a rhythmic manner (all fingers at once) or drumming the fingers over the skull.
  • Gently tapping the chest area.
  • Circling flat palms around the belly area in the clockwise direction at a medium pace.
  • Gently squeezing and releasing the arms and legs.
  • Raising the arms above the shoulder with an open heart and feeling the arms lifted from the side ribs and belly, rather than lifting up the shoulders.

 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 sequence

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. 

  1. Start standing, feet hip-width apart and parallel, with soft knees and letting the arms drop. Feel your breath naturally rising you up through the in-breath and softening you back down to your feet on the out-breath. Inhale deeply and then on an exhalation, lift the arms forward to shoulder height and you drop the bottom down to a squat position, retaining the same uplift through the spine and positioning of the head on top of the neck as standing. Inhale to lift back up to standing. Continue those, lead by the rhythm of your breath, supporting your lower back with belly engagement as described in the salutation.
  2. From the standing position, focus your eyes on one spot in front of you and then lift up one leg, bent at the knee, circling it at the hip, out and up from the centre. Either circle keeping the foot fully off the ground and balancing or touch the toes to the ground each time the knee comes downwards for stabilisation. Keep lifting up the inner standing leg and spine, keeping the jaw and eyes soft. Repeat on the other side.
  3. Stand feet apart and turned out 90 degrees from one another in a wide horse stance. Bend the knees, lengthening the inner thighs so that the knees stay facing the direction of the toes to keep them balanced inner and outer, and protected. Only come down as far as your knees feel comfortable and lift your insteps to stabilise them. Inhale here to lift the arms out and round to above your head as you bring the legs to straight and then exhale to bend again and bring your hands together at the heart. Continue this movement, following the same back and belly support as the first squat when you come down.
  4. Still keeping your knees towards your toes, move from side to side here to create motion in the hips, lifting up the toes as each leg comes to straight, even coming further down (as far as hands to floor) if you have the range of motion.
  5. Come back to standing and settle your breath. Then take one leg up into your chest, hold that shin with the opposite arm and twist in towards it, either taking the back hand on to the back of the pelvis or reaching the arm behind you if the shoulder can open out away from the ribcage. Feel the standing foot on the ground to lift up fully and then change to the other side.
  6. Decompress the spine with a forward bend, with knees bent if there is pull on your lower back. Feet hip-width apart allows most space across the back of the pelvis and the room to lift up through the inner legs. Roll up to standing slowly and stand for a few moments to let the practice settle in to your body and mind.

Standing meditation

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.

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