Can Office Yoga Really Help Improve Employee Mental Health?
Ask 10 people in the street what yoga is and I believe that at least 7 would say it’s about difficult postures that you can only do if you’re fit and flexible. But they are wrong because yoga is actually a form of mindful movement that can be done by anyone, regardless of physical ability. It might have started 5,000 years ago in India but it is proving particularly relevant at this time throughout the world because it has been scientifically proven to be as effective as talking therapy in reducing stress and anxiety. It has also been shown to improve sleep, increase levels of energy, concentration, creativity, even executive decision making. It’s noteworthy that none of these things are related to the body, they are all about ‘improving your brain’, which is why more and more people and organisations are doing yoga in the workplace.
What does yoga for employees look like?
Like any type of staff wellbeing initiative, it’s important to make the sessions as inclusive and accessible as possible. Some yoga classes are done sitting in a chair – a more gentle session where you don’t have to change out of your work clothes or get into a sweat. Others are done in gym clothes on a mat. Classes can be done at any time of day, but more often than not they are done before work starts in the morning, at lunchtime or at the end of the working day.
Chair based sessions are around 20 to 30 minutes long while mat classes usually last 40 to 60 minutes. With an increasing number of people working from home, classes are now done both face to face in the workplace and online using Zoom, Teams or other platforms. Classes can also be recorded so people unable to attend can do the class at a time that suits them.
We design classes for our clients using specific themes that are relevant to the challenges they face. Examples include team building, clarity of communication, attracting new opportunities and problem solving.
Demonstrating a healthy return on investment is important for many clients so we establish key criteria for evaluation, such as productivity, creativity, staff retention, staff recruitment, stress levels, sick days.
Is it really suitable for the unfit and inflexible?
Yoga can be defined as a set of exercises designed to unite body and mind. It is not just about the body, so a class will combine movement and breathing exercises with meditation. In any class, there will be people with different levels of physical ability and the teacher’s style will acknowledge this. That doesn’t mean dumbing the class down to the lowest common denominator, working to the ‘weakest’ person in the group. It’s about explaining that everybody must work within their own physical capacity, it’s a completely personal experience and the only thing that matters is that you do your best, which might be different every week.
Some people are naturally more flexible than others, some people are hypermobile and able to stretch beyond ‘normal’ limits, like a contortionist. But this doesn’t make them any more capable of doing a yoga class than someone who is naturally inflexible, although we might think it looks better. There’s no point in comparing yourself against others in a yoga class because it’s not a competitive sport and nobody is better at yoga than anyone else, despite the images we see in the media.
Yes, there is stretching and bending, but achieving mental flexibility and resilience is the objective.
What is the best kind of workplace yoga?
The most common, almost generic form of yoga, is called Hatha. Other popular forms include vinyasa, Iyengar and ashtanga and it’s worth trying out different types to see what suits. We choose to teach Kundalini yoga, which is a blend of movement, meditation, breathwork and visualisation. The emphasis is on mental strength and agility, not on physical prowess. Kundalini has been proven to improve mood (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-to-ward-off-depression-and-feel-better-2tvlvtms9)
and cognitive function.
In addition, our clients report a range of other workplace yoga benefits including improved energy and vitality, focus, less stress and better sleep.
How does office yoga for stress release actually work?
When we exercise, our bodies produce the happy hormones: serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, which are key to our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness. Stress hormones are also reduced by increased levels of oxygenated blood in the brain.
When we meditate and do breathing exercises, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, causing the heart rate and blood pressure to lower, inducing a sense of calm and reducing stress levels.
According to an article published in 2021 by Harvard Medical School: “When you do yoga, your brain cells develop new connections, and changes occur in brain structure as well as function, resulting in improved cognitive skills, such as learning and memory. Yoga strengthens parts of the brain that play a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language.”
It continues by observing that when comparing the effect of a variety of relaxation techniques on depression and anxiety, yoga and music were the most effective and yoga provided the longest-lasting effect.
Why do corporate yoga now, during a pandemic?
Mental health has been declining considerably and there is much fear about returning to the workplace and traveling on public transport. Yoga is suitable for everyone, is easy to do and scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety. There are even calls for doctors to prescribe yoga on the NHS.