When we talk about energy in a yogic context it’s easy to get lost in a sea of esoteric practices that promise to bring self-realization and nuanced control of our most subtle systems. As yogis, we recognize that our energy, or life force, is how we connect our physical experience to our mental and emotional experience. Having more life force, and getting that life force to flow more naturally, results in more physical energy, more mental clarity, and more emotional flexibility.
Most of us spend every day wishing we had just a little more energy. Our energy level is dependent on many things including sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Research suggests that yoga specifically can produce an invigorating effect on mental and physical energy that improves fitness and reduces fatigue. If you’re in need of a boost, try this yoga sequence for more energy. Practiced daily, anything becomes possible.
Sun Salutations are all about moving the body to the rhythm of the breath. This deep breathing boosts our our consumption and metabolism of oxygen, which regulates our cellular metabolism. This, in turn, has positive effects on our immune system, blood pressure, stress, psychological disorders, and asthma. As you move through the postures try to pace your breath evenly and deeply. Let the movement follow this tempo. The coordination of mind and body in this rhythm has a deep meditative effect.
Hold it. For a long time. Then keep holding it. All this planking strengthens the core and the core is the main source of physical power in the body. When we tap into our physical power, not only does it boost our energy but it also makes us feel powerful. Feeling powerful feeds our energy level directly. Think about it like this: If you’re on a crowded subway and someone bumps into you, you can stay upright with a strong core, regaining balance immediately. Without a strong core you might lose your balance, which not only takes a physical toll, but also can leave you with the emotional feeling of being pushed aside. Running down that mental spiral, even if just for a moment, takes mental and emotional energy that wouldn’t have been used otherwise. Strong core equals more power. More power means more energy.
Get big in Warrior II. Drop your hips deep, lengthen your spine, engage your core, and broaden across the shoulder blades and collarbone. Extend through super long arms. All this bigness has a huge effect on our energy level. In one of the most popular TED Talks of all time, Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, explains that not only does our mood affect our posture, but our posture affects our mood. In the natural world, animals tend to show power with displays of bigness and openness. These “power postures” raise testosterone and lower cortisol, a stress hormone. This hormone ratio has a direct effect on our ability to take risks, think more abstractly, and feel optimistic. Here is a tutorial of how to practice Warrior Pose.
As proved by Cuddy and her team, raising the arms is one of the key elements of a power posture and the high-energy mentality that goes along with it, so much so that even people who have been blind since birth (having never seen it in others) will raise their arms victoriously when they win something. When you practice this posture (you can see a tutorial of how to perform Chair Pose here), make sure you lift your abs in and drop your shoulders down. Only touch your palms together if you can do so while dropping your shoulders away from the ears. All the power generated in the legs and core has a clear connected line all the way to the fingertips. Remember, the better you can feel your energy flowing naturally through your body, the more efficient your whole energetic system will run.
Tree Pose is another powerful body-language pose. Balance poses take both a strong core and deep mental focus. That mental focus decreases activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that responds to stress. The less energy we put into stress, the more we have free for better things. This makes tree pose one of the biggest energy boosters out there.
Inversions are huge energy boosters, and handstand may be the most invigorating of them all. Handstand takes balance, which works the core, and requires mental focus, not to mention the shot of adrenaline that comes from being upside down. Handstand has a smaller center of gravity than most other inversions so these effects are multiplied. Handstand also has the raised victory arms. When practiced consistently, the lessons we learn in a pose end up coming off the mat with us. Learning to keep it all together when everything gets turned upside down is one of those practices, which, when we take it off the mat with us saves time, stress, and energy. Use this breakdown to learn how to safely perform Handstand.
This deep backbend squeezes the adrenal glands, which gives us a nice little espresso-shot of adrenaline. For proper alignment, make sure as you lift up the elbows they don’t splay out wider than the shoulders, and the knees never extend out wider than the hips. This way, even if the pose doesn’t seem as grand, the spine stays safe and you’ll receive the most benefit. Try this sequence to prepare for Full Wheel.
Breath of Fire
This ancient breathing practice includes a series of rapid, short inhales and exhales. The controlled hyperventilation uses core engagement to increase the heart rate. Too much of this breath can begin to mitigate some of the other focused-based exercises, but a little shot can be exhilarating. Raise your arms in a big V with your thumbs up and fingers curled in. To set up the breath technique, stick out your tongue and pant like a dog. Then start the practice by closing your mouth and breathing the same way. I like to do three rounds of 50 breaths, but find a ratio that works for you.
The brain accounts for 2% of our body mass but uses up to 20% of our energy. While distracted thinking doesn’t technically use more energy than focused thinking, when we are distracted we end up having to do the same mental work over and over again. Students often complain to me of feeling exhausted at the end of the day without actually exerting a lot of energy. Meditation helps improve concentration and controls the brain’s stress response so you can proceed through life in a calm and efficient manner. Get started with this beginner’s guide to meditation.