The modern world, with its constant barrage of information, is highly stimulatory and often overwhelming. It's easy to become desensitized to how much the continual watching, reading, scrolling and listening steals your energy.
It's vital, therefore, to make time to rest and recover. Accessing restorative states and movements where you are able to breathe deeply and actually regain energy can bring benefits for both body and mind.
Your body's energy states
Within the nervous system—the complex system of nerves from the brain to the outer body that coordinates all body activity and sensory information—there are counterbalanced active and resting states.
The sympathetic nervous system is involved in more excitatory, active and energy-creating states. It engages the stress response known as "fight-or-flight," which involves an immediate release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol along with a redirection of blood flow from the skin to the muscles, brain and heart—ready for you to take quick, decisive, full-body action to protect yourself or others from perceived threats.
Many people go into this state when exercising, which can help to create strength, quick reactions, speed and a toned body. But if it's the only type of exercise you do, it can wear tissues down, lead to tight muscles and fascia and even lead to injury.
Being on constant alert may also cause burnout and fatigue, as well as related issues such as addictive tendencies and mood swings.
The opposite state, that of rest, is activated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). All systems slow down, and reactions that occur to keep up heightened responses—such as tense shoulders, a clenched jaw and fast breathing—have the chance to release and soften.
In long-term chronic stress or trauma, this letting go, or even just being able to feel where in the body you are tense, can be difficult, so many people end up held in body patterns that use up energy.
This is also true of the immune system. Inflammation is a protective part of the stress response and uses up energy at much higher rates than when we are resting and in a relaxed state.
Energy-draining inflammation is common in those with chronic fatigue; they may have a racing mind and be hypervigilant but appear and feel physically drained. This mind-body fracture can be extremely difficult to live with, causing its own stress and exhaustion.
Boosting energy through mindful movement
The exercises on the following pages are designed to be practiced slowly and mindfully to release tension and help you conserve energy and use it more efficiently.
This type of practice, with its roots in yoga and qigong, has been shown in many studies to promote the self-soothing mechanisms of the calming PNS.1 This is partly through focusing on your breathing but also the fostering of embodied awareness—a relationship with your inner world that helps you to relax in the moment rather than be constantly on high alert.
It is not uncommon for people to ricochet between high and low energy and mood states. Finding the "middle way" (to borrow Buddhist terminology) is the route to finding sustainable and adaptable energy levels.
If you can learn to recognize when your resources are depleted and need replenishing, you can adapt your exercise to be supportive and restorative.
Exercises for energy
Simple joint movements
Performing these simple motions before other exercise routines, after work or before bed can release tension held in joints that can interfere with restoration processes and energy conservation.
They can be done in various positions (such as lying down, sitting on a chair or cross-legged) to feel the different relationship with gravity.
Slow down to feel the sensory experience without getting into the story of your body—why it might feel this way, labeling it 'bad' or bringing a diagnosis to the experience—and only move within your comfortable range of motion.
- Open and close your hands to open out across all of the finger joints
- Make fists and rotate into your wrist joints, one direction and then the other
- Hold your arms comfortably out to the side with palms up, then draw your hands in toward your shoulders and back again, through the elbow joints
- With your ankles still, wiggle and move your toes, opening them out as best you can and moving up to the top and bottom of your foot
- Move your ankles in full circles, one way and then the other
- Point and flex your toes with your feet in the same pattern as each other and then alternating for added focus. Squeeze your toes together as you point, spread them out as you flex.
- From lying down with legs bent or sitting on a chair, draw one knee at a time into the chest and lift the foot up and down for movement through the knee joint, focusing on feeling the movement equally through the inside and outside of the knees to support their natural range of movement.
- From lying down with legs bent or sitting on a chair, lift each leg, one at a time, and rotate the knee to move the head of the thigh bone deep into the hip socket.
- Move your jaw around and scrunch into your face to release tension and habits of expression there—note if pain has led to holding a frown or clenched teeth, and even exaggerate these to direct muscles to let go where they've been locked in contraction.
Standing poses can provide a firm, physical rooting, grounding and earthing through the feet and creating energy that does not steal from the mind or body. In this sequence, you come down to the earth in stages toward restorative, meditative positions, helping to transition from the more active to the more receptive.
Focus on noticing when sensations or strength intensifies and breathe in toward it rather than constricting around it. Exhale fully to release and relax wherever possible. For instance, you don't need to clench your jaw to hold a strong pose, and if you relax the shoulders, the arms can be held up from the belly rather than via tension in the shoulders, neck and chest.
Take your time between postures, standing with feet hip-width apart and with soft knees, focusing on your inner state and breath.
1) Start from standing, feet hip-width apart and parallel, with soft knees and letting the arms drop. On an exhalation, lift the arms forward to shoulder height and drop the bottom down to squat, retaining the same uplift through the spine. Inhale to lift back up to standing. Continue those movements, led by the rhythm of your breath.
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 center. Continue lifting up the inner standing leg and spine, keeping the jaw and eyes soft. Repeat on the other side.
3) Stand with feet apart and turned out 90° from each another in a wide horse stance. Bend the knees to a comfortable height. Inhale to lift the arms out and around to above your head as you straighten the legs, and then exhale to bend again and bring your hands together at the heart. Continue this movement, letting the shoulders soften as you lift the arms.
4) Turn one foot in about 45°, keeping the other parallel to its own thigh. Keep your hands on your hips to breath fully with strong work in the legs as you bend the front knee, only lifting the arms up if you can keep the shoulders soft and the breath long and full. Softly move to the other side.
5) From hip-width apart, step one foot back into a high lunge and let the torso drop in line with the back leg, neck lengthened up from the shoulders. Open the arms out from the shoulders to open the chest and breathe fully before moving to the other side.
6) Come back to the side of the first lunge and bring the opposite hand from the front knee down to the ground (or blocks or a chair seat) to twist toward the front leg from the belly. Only lift the top arm if it feels free in the shoulder, or bring that hand down to the top hip. You can bring the back knee down if you need.
7) After the other side of the last pose, come down via downward-facing dog, with knees bent and heels lifted to open the chest and shoulders.
8) Come down through (or as an alternative to downward dog) to knees bent, walking the hands forward so elbows come to the ground with hips above the knees. You can bring blocks under your head if you need, so you can find the position where you can fully drop in to resting the heart in this supported inversion.
9) Ease yourself back into full rest in child's pose or fully onto your front body if this doesn't suit your knees or hips.
10) Sitting in a "z-legs" position, twist away from the bent legs to twist and drop down onto your elbows or as low as feels natural, allowing your head to fully rest. Breathe into your belly to feel the twist unlocking tension there. Move to the other side gently.
11) Come to a fully resting position, with as much lift as your legs need to feel fully open in your lower back. Spend at least 3 minutes there (10 minutes if possible) to truly allow the space created in movement to permeate your body's tissues—feeling how deep rest restores energy reserves.
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The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Yoga, Fascia and Anatomy by Joanne Avison
Cranial Intelligence by Ged Sumner and Steven Haines