How To Manage Your Energy During Yoga Practice

June 18, 2024
How To Manage Your Energy During Yoga Practice

Everything we do takes energy. Even simple tasks, like making a cup of tea, take mental, physical, and emotional energy. Thoughts about making tea take energy, the decision-making process about what kind of tea takes energy, and physically the actions to pick up the kettle, fill it with water, and put it on the stove all take energy. Our yoga practice also takes energy. A student wrote in with a question about how to manage our energy in our yoga practice. They noted that they get tired and run out of energy in practice and they wondered how they might get more energy.

Their question is a good one. It was heading in the physiology direction. But we could take the question of managing energy in a yoga practice in a philosophical direction too. So let’s do both.

However, before we get into this discussion, let’s be more specific about what kind of yoga we’re talking about. Yoga can encompass a whole library of practices and those practices have different effects. Yoga can include physical postures, breathing practices, concentration practices, meditation practices, chanting practices, and other practices. Based on this student’s question, I imagine they were interested in managing their energy in yoga asana, or physical postures and movement practices. So in this article, we’ll focus on how you might manage your energy in your yoga asana practice.

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Physiology

Let’s start with the physiological answer to this student’s question.

Metabolism

First, let’s back up and do a brief review of physiology that you might not have thought about since high school biology class. We process food through a series of stepwise chemical reactions which ultimately result in the creation of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). That process is called metabolism and the rate at which we use the energy we generate from food to do things in and with our body is called our metabolic rate. We use energy in the form of ATP to do actions like contract a muscle, but we also use ATP for processes within our body that keep it functioning on a cellular level. All of those processes require energy (ATP).

The three energy systems

Our yoga practice sits at the intersection of multiple ways that we challenge our systems that produce and use energy. We have two anaerobic systems of energy production and one system of aerobic energy production. Anaerobic means the system provides energy for activity even when we don’t feed it with oxygen. However, these systems produce less energy (ATP). Aerobic means it is supplied with oxygen and therefore efficiently produces more energy (ATP) than the other two systems. Our first anaerobic system, called the immediate energy system (sometimes called the phosphocreatine system), only supplies us with energy for a few seconds before it runs out. It has to rest and replenish before we can use it again. Energy from our second anaerobic system (glycolysis) lasts a little longer, more like a few minutes, before it runs out. Finally, we have an aerobic system of energy production that provides us with most of our energy needs, as long as we have sufficient oxygen and food to fuel it.

Training the energy systems

We can stretch the window of each of these energy systems with training. Elite athletes work very intentionally to train each of these systems. They spend more or less time on each system depending on their sport and how they’ll use energy during the majority of their time. For example, Olympic sprinters need more from the anaerobic systems that can fuel their explosive starts and brief activity. Olympic marathoners need all those systems to be well-trained, but they need an especially well-trained aerobic system to support their activity for multiple hours.

The energy systems in yoga

In yoga, particularly a dynamic breath-based practice like Ashtanga, our activity sits at an interesting intersection. Initially, when we first start learning the practice, it’s all new. We haven’t yet cultivated our breath-control and we haven’t developed the muscular strength for the particular movements either. So all of our energy systems get taxed in those early practices. That’s one reason that good teachers encourage new students to start small and build slowly.

A little bit of manageable challenge to our systems builds more muscle strength and improves our breathing capacity. However, too much fatigue can lead to injury. When we work at the edges of what we’re capable of, we can ultimately become stronger. There is research that shows that yoga practice done consistently over time changes our physiology. It increases our depth of breathing (if we actively work on this during our practice). It also decreases our metabolic rate. But stressing our energy systems too much can overwhelm our body and what we’re able to adapt to.

Start small to manage your energy in yoga

So the short answer, to how we manage our energy in practice, is by doing small, consistent practices initially and avoiding the temptation to do too much too soon. We can also vary the type of yoga practice we choose to do based on how much energy we want to spend. Research shows, unsurprisingly, that different individual postures tax our systems differently. Likewise, different styles of yoga require greater or lesser energy. A dynamic fast-paced vinyasa class will use more energy than a slow-paced class that incorporates lots of props to support body weight. Similarly, there is considerable variability between styles in how much resting is done between postures, which will also change the overall energy use.

What’s fascinating about our body is that we can train our systems of energy use to be more efficient for particular kinds of activities. We can train ourselves to need less oxygen to do certain activities. We can train our body to slow down the process of using the energy we are generating from food so the energy we’ve created lasts longer in certain activities. When we spend many years consistently doing our yoga practice, we’ve trained all of these aspects of our energy systems so that our yoga practice no longer feels “hard.”

Breathing as a guide to level of effort

Our breathing can act as our cue to how much energy we’re using and as the bridge between the physiological and philosophical concepts of managing our energy in yoga practice. The sound and forcefulness of our breath tell us something about how hard we’re working. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that asana is only Yoga asana when there is a balance of effort (sthira) and ease (sukha)—so ultimately the philosophical and the physiological intersect. We can use the physiological cues to guide us in what kind of balance we’re maintaining in our yoga practice.

Philosophy

So what about the more philosophical answer to this student’s question?

Balancing effort in yoga with life

Contemporary yoga practice exists right here, right now. And I don’t know about you, but my “right now” is busy! Our lives are full. We have work obligations, family responsibilities, partners, and friends we want to spend time with, and we might have hobbies or volunteer work we do too! All of that takes energy to engage with. Add to that the almost constant bombardment with news and information, and we’re probably tired before we even start our yoga practice. So where does our yoga practice fit into this and how do we maintain a yoga-life balance?

Reduce unnecessary input

One of the lectures that I have heard Sharath give several variations of is his talk about managing your energy for yoga practice. His perspective is that our yoga practice starts the night before, not the moment we step on the mat in the morning. The less we flood our nervous system with stimulation, the less we need to do to balance it back out again. Some of those stimulating things might also be choices that give a lot to our lives, like parenting, or satisfying, but challenging work. But more than likely, we also have some extraneous input that we could reduce and we would feel all the better for it. So, philosophically, reducing unnecessary stimulation can help us manage our energy in yoga and life. And, physiologically, remember that even thinking uses energy!

Philosophically, my bias is that our yoga practice should support and give energy to our life, not exhaust us or be only another obligation on our to-do list. What that looks like for most of us, is adapting both yoga to life and life to yoga in order to maintain balance. Sometimes, it means doing a shorter or less intense yoga practice to make yoga fit the energy you have to spend on it. And sometimes, it means reducing some unnecessary stimulation from other areas of life, so that we have more energy for yoga. Those are the decisions that long-term yoga practitioners make every day in order to manage their energy in yoga to sustain it over a lifetime of practice.

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Conclusion

Everything we do takes energy, including our yoga practice. To manage your energy in yoga, start with small consistent practices. Use the sound and ease of your breathing to guide your sense of how much effort you’re using. And keep yoga practice in balance with the rest of life’s commitments by adjusting either the amount of yoga practice or the amount of other input from life to avoid getting overwhelmed and overtired.

References

Chaya, M.S., A.V. Kurpad, H.R. Nagendra, and R. Nagarathna. 2006. The effect of long term combined yoga practice on the basal metabolic rate of healthy adults. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 28:6pgs.

Dunn, J. and M.H. Grider. 2024. Physiology, Adenosine Triphosphate. [Updated 2023 Feb 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553175/

Potiaumpai, M., M.C. Massoni Martinsa, R. Rodriguez, K. Mooney, and J.F. Signorile. 2016. Differences in energy expenditure during high-speed versus standard-speed yoga: A randomized sequence crossover trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 29:169–174.

Ray, U.S., A. Pathak, and O.S. Tomer. 2011. Hatha yoga practices: Energy expenditure, respiratory changes and intensity of exercise. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 241294: 12 pgs.

Sánchez López de Nava A. and A. Raja. 2024. Physiology, Metabolism. [Updated 2022 Sep 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546690/

Tyagi, A. and M. Cohen. 2013. Oxygen consumption changes with yoga practices: A systematic review. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 18(4):290-308.