After an extended summer holiday weekend, most of us will be back at the grind, tackling what we didn’t complete earlier and stressing before lunch break just how to manage it all. In a recent Yoga Journal Magazine story, writer Nancy Wilson shares here insight on yoga in the workplace – downward dog at your desk may save you from burnout, and corporations are discovering adding yoga as a resource for employees to balance their lives is saving big business big money. Read on…
Just after sunrise, I am lying on the floor of Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. Next to me are 14 other students from the Market Development department at MTV Networks, here on a two-day corporate team-building retreat. The program includes sports, hikes, a croquet tournament, and this yoga class for “active relaxation.” “Your hands are like cosmic conductor cables,” intones our instructor Sara Harris. “The hands bring energy into the body and they send healing energy out. Focus on your hands and the energy; then listen to your breathing and feel the echo of your heartbeat.” Harris, who has taught classes for NYNEX, IBM, and AT&T, uses business buzzwords like “systems” and “mind screen” to tap into the language of her students.
At the end of class, Harris has us lie on the floor and leads us in relaxation. She tiptoes around the room, placing an acorn at everyone’s side. “In this little acorn there’s a huge oak tree,” she says softly. “Let this acorn be a reminder of how powerful your energy is. All you have to do is channel and focus it.” Harris’s metaphor resonates with everyone in the room. Afterward, I talk to one of the MTV staffers who tells me, “Life at work is full of distractions. Yoga gives me an opportunity to focus, since it’s rare that everything is so serene.”
This attitude may explain why yoga is catching on at corporations. Nike, HBO, Forbes, and Apple all offer on-site yoga classes for their employees. These and scores more Fortune 500 companies consider yoga important enough to offer classes as a regular employee benefit.
“Yoga is very hot—we wouldn’t open a fitness center without it,” says Holly Byrne of Frontline Fitness, a Manhattan-based consulting company that manages corporate fitness centers for Wall Street brokerage houses, law firms, and publishing companies. It is the calming effect of yoga that appeals to many employees, says Byrne, who recognizes that the name of a class can have an impact on its popularity with members. “We’ve found that in Wall Street firms, a class in stress reduction doesn’t fly because people think, ‘I don’t want other people to think I can’t deal with the stress level of my job; and if I can’t, I shouldn’t be working here.’ If you call it yoga or meditation, it’s more positive and people come.”
Now they do, but 15 or 20 years ago they might have run the other way. “Today, yoga is pretty much standard equipment in corporate fitness centers,” says Beryl Bender Birch, author of Power Yoga (Simon and Schuster, 1995). Director of wellness at the New York Road Runners Club for the past 18 years, Birch has taught at Pepsico, General Electric, AT&T, and Chase Manhattan Bank, among other companies. When Birch first began teaching yoga in corporations, she kept it physical, not spiritual. She even avoided using Sanskrit terminology so her students wouldn’t be turned off. “Now it’s totally changing, and I’m doing things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing 10 years ago,” Birch exclaims. “Last week we were chanting in our uptown Road Runners Club class!”
Yoga and the Bottom Line
The current boom in corporate yoga can be traced back 25 years to when companies began adopting wellness programs to lower health care costs, explains Edie Weiner, president of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., a New York-based trend analysis firm. At about that time, the Surgeon General issued a warning saying inactivity was as big a health risk as smoking cigarettes. Many companies jumped at the opportunity to establish fitness programs as part of a wellness initiative and began subsidizing gyms, which offered yoga as a “lite” exercise option.
“Whether or not studies have actually proven that productivity is up and health care costs are down, anecdotally, the evidence that it works is overwhelming,” says Weiner. “Companies understand you have to address employees’ health and well-being. Employees need time to relax, and a lot of people are gravitating towards yoga as a way to manage stress.”
According to researchers from the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, yoga in conjunction with meditation can indeed relieve stress and improve work performance. The Stress Reduction Clinic is the oldest and largest hospital-based mind/body center of its kind in the United States, treating more than 10,000 patients since opening in 1979.
The clinic delivers meditation and yoga-based classes to clients ranging from judges and correctional staff to the Chicago Bulls, and offers a five-day retreat for CEOs in the Arizona desert. A majority of the clinic’s patients report lasting decreases in both physical and psychological symptoms of stress. They also experience an increased ability to relax, greater energy and enthusiasm for life, improved self-esteem, and increased ability to cope more effectively with stressful situations. Recently, the clinic’s parent institute, The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, launched an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program for corporations. Its goal is to teach
participants how to manage stress, enhance clarity and creative thinking, improve communication skills, cultivate leadership and teamwork, and increase overall effectiveness in the workplace. This is just what any human resource department with a conscience would order.
When Bill Moyers interviewed the Stress Reduction Clinic’s founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, for the 1993 PBS series, “Healing and the Mind,” Moyers raised the possibility that a placebo effect may result from a person’s belief that the stress-reduction program will work for them. He asked whether they might feel better even though they’re not sure what’s happening. Kabat-Zinn replied, “Why not? I’ll take transformational change any way it comes.”
This attitude seems more and more common among human resources executives, who previously doubted the power of yoga and other mind-body exercise forms.
At HBO in New York, employee health and fitness director Bill Boyle can’t keep pace with the demand for yoga classes. He recently added a third class to the weekly schedule and would add more if he had room. Boyle attributes the boom in yoga at HBO to rising levels of workplace stress. “Everybody is under more stress now, and has to perform better, and work more hours per day. Yoga gives them a chance to take it all in stride.” Boyle is convinced that the investment HBO is making to subsidize yoga classes for employees is well worth it. “The deep breathing and relaxation employees get from yoga help them to be more focused and less anxious. When they go back to work, they’re in a position to make better decisions. You don’t want people making business decisions when they’re stressed.”
It’s not just large corporations with deep pockets like HBO that are bringing yoga into the workplace. Gelula & Co., a 55-employee Beverly Hills firm that creates subtitles in 28 languages for about 200 films per year, is introducing a 7 a.m. free yoga class for employees. Elio Zarmati, the company’s 53-year-old president, wanted to share yoga with his employees after going to Stewart Richlin’s class at Yoga On Melrose four mornings a week on his way to work. “I go to the office feeling a lot better on days when I go to yoga class, compared with days when I don’t,” says Zarmati.
Zarmati plans to hire Richlin to teach at Gelula. “I feel good doing yoga, and I’d like to give my staff that option. We’re in a high-stress business making deadlines, and I think anything people can do to help them cope is a benefit to them and to the company. I’d like to see more of that in the workplace, and I want to put my money where my mouth is.”
But in Birch’s experience, it’s the employees, those who experience the benefits of yoga directly, who are responsible for the corporate yoga boom. “What I’ve noticed since I started teaching yoga in corporations is that the demand for yoga classes is employee driven,” says Birch. “The management of corporations has been dragged kicking and screaming into the mind-body discipline.”
Christine Owens, a 45-year-old visual effects coordinator at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in San Rafael, California, is responsible for initiating and organizing a lunch-hour yoga class that meets three times a week. While ILM offers aerobics classes at no cost to employees, there is a five-dollar charge for the yoga class, despite high interest and attendance. “It’s a place I can go and check out of work for a while and come back really renewed,” says Owens, an upbeat, energetic woman. “It switches systems in me: I totally lose a sense of myself, and afterwards I feel so much more able to cope.”
Nearly 3,000 miles away in New York City, these feelings are echoed by Doreen Sinski, a 37-year-old working mother. “Yoga has helped me look at things in a totally different way,” says Sinski, who’s been taking yoga classes at HBO for a year. “It has helped me tremendously in my personal life with my relationships; it’s calmed me down and taught me not to let little things bother me. I can clear my mind of things that are not important, and I think I’m a better person for that.” While people can be very demanding at work, she doesn’t let it upset her. Due to her busy schedule, Sinski is convinced that had yoga not been offered in the office at lunch hour, she never would have found it.
Yoga, Corporate Style
Employee demands for more balanced lives have been the focus of yoga teacher Jean Marie Hays’s work for the last four years. Before becoming a yoga instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area, she worked as an occupational health and safety engineer, helping private companies set themselves up as government-approved healthy workplaces. In scrutinizing work environments, she became aware of “a sort of draining of the spirit in the business world.” She noticed an imbalance between people’s business and personal lives.
It took her about 13 years to realize what the missing piece was, and when she did, she left her work and started a company that brings yoga into the workplace. Since 1995, she and her partner, Debra McKnight Higgins, have worked with more than 50 California companies, teaching yoga and stress management. This includes classes in breathing, effective communication, and Kripalu-style yoga.
Higgins and Hays teach Kripalu-style yoga because it’s gentle and internally based—a nice counter to the externally based values of the corporate world. “Since there’s less focus on exact alignment, it’s easier to get out of your head and focus on what’s happening inside your body, on what kind of posture you’re holding inside that might be creating the tension in the first place,” says Hays, whose only class requirement is that students turn off their cell phones.
Students who do yoga at the workplace often move swiftly in and out of a class scheduled between meetings and work commitments. But yoga helps them go back to work with a clearer head. It provides an opportunity to let everything go for one hour during the workday, to find quiet and stillness, focus on breathing, and allow for relaxation. “A freer body gives you a more open mind,” says Theresa McCullough, who teaches at HBO. “How you feel physically is going to affect how you function mentally,” she reasons.
Read more of this remarkable take on yoga in the workplace by writer Nancy Wilson for YOGA JOURNAL. Click here for conclusion…
When I was asked to speak to a fitness instructor and weight loss expert’s audience about Yoga, I was clear that I wasn’t going to pander to that market’s obsessive beliefs about quick weight loss as the path to lasting happiness and fulfillment, simply because I know it isn’t. Instead, I do believe that what we feel and think about ourselves gets expressed in the form that our body takes; shape, size, health, agility, etc.
My approach, more specifically, is that Yoga is a path to sensually inhabiting our body vs objectively using our body. That may result in weight loss, toning and feeling better in our body, however, what makes the practice of Yoga unique and distinctive from other exercise regimens, is precisely that Yoga is about being in our body, instead of behaving inspite of it. What does that mean exactly?
Well, when we use our body/behave in spite of it, the body becomes a tool or instrument that caters to the mind’s agenda. We are functioning within a hierarchical construct where the body is subservient to the mind’s dominance, leading to separation and suffering. On the other hand, when we inhabit our body, we are acknowledging and tapping to into the wisdom of the body on par with that of the mind. This approach to Yoga, an ancient science of body/mind/spirit union and sophistication, validates the value and power of each the body. mind and spirit dimensions of our being for greater harmony inside and out .
So how can you Inhabit your body instead of using your body. Have a gander at the 3 tips below to help you distinguish between inhabiting and using and make an informed choice.
1. Spend more time caring about how your body feels (inhabiting) instead of how it looks (using). Use your inner sensing instead of how you look in the mirror both during your practice and throughout the day to identify how you are on the inside, versus how you look on the outside.
2. Re-pattern your feeling/thinking/sensing processing of life experience. Instead of going from your feelings to your thoughts (using), go from your feelings to your body sensations (inhabiting).
Here’s an example:
Using your body
Feeling: I feel stressed
Thought: Because I’ve got too much work to do
The above pattern keeps you trapped because the thought perpetuates the unpleasant feeling.
Instead try this
Inhabiting your body
Feeling: I feel stressed
Sensation: I sense the stress in my gut
Hang out in the stressed sensation in your gut and watch that sensation dissolve when you inhabit it.
Yoga encourages the experience and dissolving of the unpleasant sensation instead of the chronic avoidance of it that the mind seeks which only perpetuates the suffering.
This new habit of feelings to sensations will not only help dissolve unpleasant feelings and sensations, it will actually also help amplify pleasant feelings and sensations. When you become more self resourced for positive feeling sensations, activities like Yoga, that have feel good appeal, start to show up in your life more naturally.
3. Develop daily rituals of honoring and celebrating your body to support your Yoga practice. A great way to do this is by choosing pleasing yoga tools like the Plank Yoga mat and bags, and choosing sensually pleasant fabrics and lotions on your body.
Here’s a great practice: Instead of just rubbing in body moisturizer (using your body), spend time massaging your body, discovering more of what your body loves (inhabiting your body).
Discovering more ways that help you authentically inhabit your body will encourage more Yoga in your life on and off the mat. Identifying when you’re more in the using/behaving inspite of your body, and choosing instead to inhabit your body, will bring you home to your body as a temple instead of a tool.
Leela Francis is an embodiment expert and the founder of Vividly Woman; A global community of women and women’s circles. She helps women embody, live and dance their power, rocking the world with their passion for life.
To look at me you would never suspect that I live with a spinal cord injury. I contracted paralytic polio when I was 5 years old in one of the last polio epidemics in the United States. Polio was known as “the AIDS of its day”. I was shunned by classmates and grew to despise and disconnect from my body. Over four years ago now, at the age of 53, I was diagnosed with post polio syndrome, a ‘progressive neurological disease’ and I went back into a leg brace, used a cane and at times a wheelchair for mobility. I quit my full time job and went on a mission to heal my life. Through outpatient rehab and harnessing the best of Eastern and Western Medicine and my own inner resources with a deep faith in hope and possibility, I went on to run the 2009 Boston Marathon no longer needing a leg brace or a wheelchair. But something was missing ….
After a recurrence of symptoms and another course of outpatient rehab in October 2009, I was back on the roads running again in June 2010. On Facebook, my friend and neighbor Nicole Burrill aka The Sassy Yogini (www.sassyyogini.com) saw I was posting about my solo strength training work outs and my runs. She asked me if I did yoga. I gave an answer as terse as could be ‘No’. I looked at Nicole and thought, there is no way I’m ‘good’ enough to be in a yoga class with someone who looks like Nicole. If there were a picture next to the definition of yogini in the dictionary, it would be of Nicole. Nicole was unrelenting in her quest to get me to the mat and finally I said that my New Year’s Resolution for 2011 would be to try a yoga class.
Nicole talked with one of her yoga teachers, Pat Donaher (www.patdonaher.com) to ask him what would be a good class to bring me to given the diagnosis of post polio syndrome. He said, “If she can run a marathon, she can do anything.” I went to Pat’s class with Nicole and as she had predicted, I was hooked. I began to connect with my inner child before age 5 when I was a beautiful, flexible ballerina. I felt a sense of playfulness and a freedom in my body as I assumed various poses. I had a workout which I could never have experienced never mind how boring and tedious it is to do squats and lunges and single leg lifts at home. I loved the glow and cleansing that followed after having sweat for 90 minutes (and it wasn’t even a Bikram class) and I loved the energy of the yoga community who warmly embraced me.
I realized that, given my ‘special needs’ it would be prudent for me to supplement my practice with individual lessons. After that first class with Pat, I knew we would work well together. Initially, my goal was to to learn how I could move so that I could ‘fit in’ with the other yoginis. That goal was quickly relinquished and replaced with deepening my mind/body connection and learning how to (as one of my yoga teachers said) “love myself whole.” Through my yoga practice, I am moving away from a polio and post polio survivor who works to overcome my disability, to a woman who embraces my uniqueness, is learning how to love and accept my body wherever it is in the present moment, retraining neuromuscular pathways to give me greater freedom in movement and breath and having a lot of fun along the way. As a girl in a full leg brace and then as a teenager who had to wear special polio shoes, fashion never met function. I love the Plank yoga accessories for the fun and funky style they offer me while the high grade of Plank’s luxe mats provides me with extra support and comfort during my practice. As someone who has a difficult time knowing where my body is in space, I was forever hitting someone with my yoga mat while trying to juggle my bag and mat. With Plank’s Canvas Series, my bag and mat are compact and affords me the added advantage of taking the stress off of my neck and shoulders. The inner transformation I am experiencing on the mat is reflected in the sense of style that Plank offers me.
The benefits of yoga for the general population are well documented. Thanks to the pioneering work of Matthew Sanford, a paraplegic who is a revolutionary yoga teacher, (www.matthewsanford.com and www.mindbodysolutions.org) he is spearheading a movement to incorporate yoga into rehabilitation for those with spinal cord injury and other physical challenges and diseases. On his website, he cites the benefits of yoga for those with physical challenges as:
– Increased strength, balance and flexibility — both mental and physical
– Rhythm, an inward sense of direction and the ability to move through life in a more integrated way
– The capacity to live more fully within the body
– An enhanced ability to manage stress
– A deepened sense of connection with others
– Hope and a renewed sense of freedom
So if you don’t believe that yoga is for you because you are physically challenged, or even just don’t ‘look’ like a yogini, leave that belief at the door with your shoes. Discover the healing world that awaits you on the mat that will carry you to a life of greater joy, freedom, health and wholeness off of the mat.
Our Plank guest author this week, Mary McManus can be found writing and inspiring on her own thoughtful blog New World Greetings and we Plankers are truly pleased to be sharing Mary’s story with you!
Additional resources: Spinal Cord Injury and Yoga: http://www.spinalcordinjury-paralysis.org/dailydose/2011/03/17/you-and-yoga
Yoga: Discovering the Mind/Body Connection http://www.christopherreeve.org/site/c.mtKZKgMWKwG/b.6544377/k.2C6B/Yoga_discovering_the_MindBody_Connection.htm?msource=email&auid=7949850
Here’s a bit about the creator and founder of Plank, Doreen Hing… you can also follow Doreen’s passion, initiative, projects and audacious writing on her own blog, “The Well Heeled Guru” and on her Facebook and Twitter pages.
An exerpt taken from Doreen’s own blog…”The Well-Heeled Guru is seen as the go-to person for getting people into yoga, however, this is not how she prefers to acknowledged. The Well-Heeled Guru’s mission is for people to Get Yoga, to really incorporate its health & mental benefits into every area of life and not solely, in the yoga studio. Originally poo-pooed by the hardcore yoga community, if you shift your perspective now, ask yourself, “Look who’s the Poser now…” but I digress again, who is The Well-Heeled Guru? C’est moi… Doreen Hing, Creative Brit, Mother, Wife, Entrepreneur & a Very Ordinary Rebel…
So you see what we mean? This one has a lot going on. More to come from this intensely driven, wildly energetic and deeply convicted designer + entrepreneur extraordinaire.