Rajas, Tamas + Burnout

A few years ago, I had a little bit of a burnout. I was teaching about 15 classes a week, mentoring a new teacher, and creating the course content and then running my first health coaching pilot. All of these commitments would be tricky for anyone, but as an introvert, it was far too much going out for me without enough going in. I say “little bit” of a burnout it was not a full-blown breakdown. As a person with very good self care habits, I knew when enough was enough. All I really needed to reset was to take a month off from teaching and relax and reassess how I was organizing my work and time. A trip to the Greek islands for a few weeks– my go-to spot to come back home to myself (which is why I chose to go back there to teach my first ever yoga AND Ayurvedic health coaching retreat in June). The sunshine, good food, Greek hospitality and lots of alone time were all I really needed to get back to my work and life back home joyfully a month later. I pared down my teaching schedule and made sure I had at least 1 full day off per week from teaching, no exceptions. A slight bump in the road and yet another thing to add to the lessons learned book.

Burnout is a hot topic where I live in Germany and my home country in the US. When I did some internet research, I saw that this is a phenomenon in western, developed countries generally. I was shocked by just how much of a problem it is and how many people suffer from burnout. But first off, what the heck is it?  

Well, that’s kinda hard to say. The term used to be applied to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions – like doctors and nurses – who would find themselves exhausted, listless, and unable to cope with their duties to serve others. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions, but can affect anyone from engineers to chefs to yoga teachers to stay-at-home parents who experience. According to Psychology Today, burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. There are a range of symptoms and severity of symptoms from insomnia to forgetfulness to chronic fatigue, weakened immunity and frequent sickness, and even dizziness, chest pain, fainting and digestive problems. Stressed out patients with any of the above symptoms may present at doctors office and not get “diagnosed” with burnout or only get diagnosed when the symptoms advanced and multiply and they are unable to cope with the duties of work or life.

While no one is immune to the possibility of getting a burnout, risk factors are perfectionism, high performance, high ambition and difficulty saying no. A recent US Gallup study found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. German health insurance companies claim that up to nine million people are affected in Germany. Yikes, for a country of only 82 million, that’s pretty damn high. It’s a big problem in both countries. Period.

When in the throes of full-fledged burnout, you can’t function effectively on a personal or professional level. It doesn't happen overnight. You don't wake up one morning and all of a sudden "have burnout." Rather it is a slow breakdown of the container of our immunity, strength and health (ojas in Ayurveda), all of which can be prevented in the first place.

According to Ayurveda, the  doshas, or subtle mental qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas can help us understand what happens energetically with burnout. They are the 3 main qualities present in our universe and because we are beings of the universe, they are also present in us. Sattva is the natural state of the mind. It is like the beginning of a new day at sun rise – where potential energy is present. Sattva is peace, harmony, purity and clarity. The other two qualities are rajas and tamas. Rajas and tamas are necessary energies - they help to get us up and moving, and they slow us down and allow us to rest - but they tend to get imbalanced.

Rajas is kinetic energy - it is the quality of movement, distraction, turbulence or activity that gets our day going. It is after sunrise, when we make our coffee, get ready for work and start to plan and make lists for our day. Rajas is about creation and manifestation and is the doing quality of our personalities.. Tamas is inertia.  It is slow, heavy, dull and dense. This is like the time of the day when the sun goes down, and ideally our energies would also go down and we would start to wind down, SLOOOOOW down, unplug and turn off, surrending to tamas.

Rajas is a common thing to get really out of balance in this day and age.. Like the sun is always hot and burning. It is all doing and not enough resting or quiet time. Like we are busy, busy, busy and when we stay in that energy for a long time, it will generally result in a state of tamas – where we get burnt out. Tamas is the depressed, slow, procrastinating energy of not being able to get anything done. Oftentimes that burnout – that tamasic state – comes from long term pedal to the metal where you just run out of gas. This is where diet, lifestyle and daily rhythms (called dinacharya) becomes really important – getting up and going to bed with the sun, hydrating, eating plants and prana-filled food, scheduling in time for quiet, meditation and reflection -- all the things I talk about in my newsletters (and teach in my course).   Through both we can cultivate more sattvic energy so we can optimize how we feel every day and get out of tamas.

When you look back at your life , can you see when you had too much rajas, when you were really overdoing it? Do you see when tamas took over?? When you just couldn’t go anymore? This is the kind of tamas I am talking about here. This state of serious depletion common to burnout, adrenal fatigue or autoimmune disorders like Hashimotos’ thyroid, or MS. I work with lots of students with all of these depletion disorders to bring in regular, nourishing routines, to rebuild and restore ojas gradually but surely over time. I teach my next 10 Align to Thrive 3 times a year, with the next happening April 15. Ping me to schedule a free session where we can look at your health history and goals for this next stage of your life.. :)

Kari Zabel