Why so many yogis have problems with their adrenals and what to do about it.
Healthy, relaxed, peaceful, flexible, a layer of core strength and a generous dollop of surrender. These are some of the qualities that may come to mind when we think of yoga. Advertisements for yoga studios and clothing depict happy, beautiful, young, vibrant people doing superhuman poses. All of this suggests that yoga offers the ability to tap into the legendary fountain of wellness and vitality. Yoga has become a lifestyle for millions, a balanced form of exercise for all ages, and a sanctuary from the hurried and frazzled modern-day rat race.
So why is it that despite the regular practice of this ancient healing art, so many contemporary yogis are faced with adrenal fatigue?
Well, first of all—take a look at the reality of our modern lifestyle. Stress is everywhere. On a scale of 1-10, a normal stress level in today’s world is a 12.
The adrenals are an integral part of our body’s stress response system. They are a pair of endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidneys. The adrenals are responsible for initiating the fight or flight mechanism that protects us from danger. This mechanism does not distinguish between various types of predators and threats we face in modern life, so it is triggered dozens to hundreds of times a day by the perceived dangers we face including (but not limited to) deadlines, debt, and traffic. As a result, we live much of our lives in varying degrees of activation of the fight or flight response. This chronic stress creates real, measurable physiological changes that, over time, can be detrimental.
We become depleted by the never-ending demands of our modern lives. And the effects of long-term presence of these fight or flight hormones can lead to unwanted consequences such as abdominal weight gain, reproductive hormone imbalances, poor digestive function, anxiety, depression, and blood sugar imbalances. This happens because of a redistribution of resources. When we are in danger, the body is not worried about nourishing, repairing, rebuilding, digesting, reproducing, or balancing; it is only focused on diverting energy to the systems we need to fight or run away. Short term, the fight or flight mechanism can save our lives, and often does. But long term, chronic exposure to stress or perceived danger leads to breakdown of the major body systems we need to maintain health.
The second major reason we are seeing a virtual epidemic of adrenal fatigue is that, in addition to the stress we are aware of, we are affected by a variety of stressors that are entirely invisible to us.
Although yoga can offer ease in helping manage daily stressors, our practice may not be enough to balance the cumulative effects of hidden inflammation, infections, toxins, and hormonal dysregulation. In these situations, you may need more than yoga; advice from a qualified healthcare practitioner may be beneficial.
When we consider why yoga alone may not be enough for us to counteract adrenal fatigue and combat these hidden stressors, there are several additional factors that relate to how we practice. We might find them surprising. After all, aren’t we yogis supposed to know better than to allow ourselves to get burnt out? Doesn’t yoga train us to remain relaxed in the face of stress and breathe deeply when anxiety threatens to derail our heart’s noble plans? What is happening on and/or off the mat that is keeping us from managing all this stress?
Here are some of the top reasons I’ve observed to help explain why yoga alone may not be enough to prevent adrenal fatigue today—and why our relationship to our practice may be the most important factor when it comes to strengthening our resilience and preventing burnout.
Yoga can become just one more thing on our to-do list.
We all know this one. After a late night followed by an early morning that involves a skipped breakfast and double latte, then a long day of checking items off a stacked list of to-dos, we opt to put off dinner and charge in 5-10 minutes late to our yoga class and then practically collapse onto the mat. Rather than staying there, we push ourselves to get up and muscle through a flow sequence, which temporarily eases tension, but all too often leaves us doubly exhausted and over-extended. Sometimes the best way to practice yoga is to say no to class. Sometimes 10-15 minutes of deep restorative poses at home after a nourishing meal and bath may be much more supportive to your tired adrenals.
This happens when we don’t give ourselves a break because we are so blindly committed to the transformation that yoga or another spiritual system has to offer. We think if we just do one more class, sing one more mantra, stay for one more kirtan, or hold the pose for one minute longer, we will be closer to enlightenment. Sometimes it is the competitive edge within us that wants to be able to say we did seven 7:00 am classes this week. We push ourselves and become so attached to the form that we lose sight of the heart and soul of the practice—which is all about nourishing the Divine within us, moving with the seasons, and listening to our inner guidance. Often, we hop from class to retreat to training to festival without taking the time to integrate what we have learned. Consider whether you would benefit more from one more class or simply a moment to digest. A night off may be the best thing for your body and spirit.
Yoga practice can become a kind of pseudo-spiritual aerobics.
With all due respect to the many schools, lineages, and techniques taught around the world, this point has been brought home to me by many a burned-out yogi. Some styles may be just the right practice for some people some of the time, but they are not right for all the people all of the time. Some classes may contribute to the hurry-up-and-do-your-yoga-and-say-namaste attitude rather than being an antidote to our stressful day. A good measure of whether a workout is too much is how you feel after. If you find yourself exhausted not long after class, or in the following 24-48 hours after being on the mat, that particular practice may not be a good match for your adrenals at this time. Try balancing more vigorous classes with restful, restorative postures at least two or three days a week.
Yoga can become an outward social experience rather than an inward practice.
Although the benefits of community found in class or in the studio are many and undeniable, the aspects of yoga practice that are most beneficial for the overworked adrenals are those that allow us to turn inward. After a busy day at the office or with family or clients, our stillness, silence, and inner inventory can offer the greatest service to our weary and wired neuro-endocrine systems. We are often nourished by community but just as often it requires a great deal of energy to navigate the social environment of the studio. Consider balancing your in-studio practice with a renewing and restorative home practice, where the emphasis is on creating a space for self-awareness, self-care, and stillness.
We tend to value the yang aspects of yoga over the yin.
In a world where the masculine energetic pattern is so frequently the dominant paradigm, all yoga can appear to be yin. But within the world of yoga, it is the yang aspects—including asana, alignment, flow, and chant—which tend to receive the most attention. If you examine most studio schedules and compare the number of yang classes to the yin and restorative…it is frequently about 10 to 1.
This is also reflected in our tendency to focus more on the physical aspect of yoga than the spiritual or psychological. For example, a class ratio of 55 minutes of asana to five minutes of savasana. The answer is not necessarily to change all the classes, but to shift your attention within each class and ensure your focus is on the inner environment as much as the external and physical. Take an extended savasana if you arrive tired or block out time after class to remain in the stillness you have cultivated. Rest between poses and pace yourself when needed, rather than struggling to keep up with a flow that seems faster than your body wants. Most importantly, go to the restorative class at least once a week. Teachers—slow down and deepen your breath.
Yoga can become an excuse to indulge.
This is a sneaky variation on “I just went to the gym so now I can have a large milkshake and fries with my dinner.” A regular yoga practice is essential for many of us to survive in the modern world, and we can become almost obsessive at times about making it to our class because we know what happens if we don’t. While this can be a powerful self-preservation instinct, sometimes it is a sign that the other stressful things we are doing in life require more than a few yoga classes each week to balance them out.
Sometimes we use yoga to justify not making the changes in our lives that we know we need to make. If you are eating an unhealthy diet and then going to yoga class to make yourself feel better about it, the answer is not more yoga. If you are staying up too late at night, and then need a yoga class to fend off the irritability that you feel rising by noon the next day, the answer is not more yoga. If you go to an early morning class so you don’t feel guilty about going straight across the street afterward to order a triple mocha, you might be better off sleeping in and having a good breakfast.
At its heart, the essence of yoga is profoundly in service to psychology and what the masters call our inner work. Because of yoga’s ability to tune us back in to our selves, our bodies, and the state of our minds and hearts, I frequently recommend yoga to people who have all of the signs and symptoms or a diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. Just as often, however, I have had to counsel people to back off temporarily and re-evaluate their relationship to their yoga practice.
We are faced with so many stresses, visible and invisible, that at times yoga alone may not be enough. A common mistake I see among yogis is that they believe because they are practicing yoga, they are immune to health problems or imbalances. Many yogis also tend to lean away from the standard medical establishment. As a consequence, they might wait too long to seek medical advice. Taking an adrenal supplement from the health food store is great, and often recommended, but it is no substitute for taking the time for a trained healthcare professional to review your case.
As an answer to our prayers, like a hero arriving on the scene in the moment of greatest need, functional medicine has risen in response to the crisis of modern health care. Functional medicine is the meeting place of Eastern and Western medicines, and incorporates new advances in laboratory diagnostics to prescribe lifestyle, supplement and nutrition programs for conditions, including adrenal fatigue, that are often difficult to diagnose.
In order to truly reap the benefits of a yoga practice, we need a strong physical foundation. If you recognize yourself in this discussion, consider making some of the subtle changes suggested and also consider consulting with a trained functional medicine practitioner to see if you are a good candidate for adrenal or other functional diagnostic testing.
Dr. Eric Baumgartner, LAc practices functional medicine and acupuncture, and is the creator of the Essential Medicina product line. Learn more at: essentialmedicina.com.