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Yoga in the Workplace
It’s almost 8:00 pm on a Sunday evening and I am just arriving to teach a yoga class. I pull extra mats, a few blocks and a couple straps out of my car. As I open the door of the yoga space, I’m hit with the smell of fresh-baked bread and sliced salami.
Tonight I am teaching yoga to the employees of a local sandwich shop.
Unusual, yes. But yoga in the workplace is gaining popularity in the most unlikely of places.
Corporate wellness programs are on the rise. The Institute For Healthcare Consumerism says that companies with wellness programs report a 26% reduction in healthcare costs, a 30% reduction in workers compensation and disability claims and a 28% reduction in sick days.
Yet it’s not just large corporations offering yoga to their employees as a wellness incentive. Small businesses and factories are also seeing the benefits of yoga and beginning to incorporate yoga classes into their facilities.
Although larger corporations such as HBO and Apple are able to offer regularly scheduled yoga classes in dedicated spaces, smaller businesses or non-corporate jobs need to be a little more creative in how they offer their yoga classes to employees.
Years ago I taught yoga in the fifth-grade hallway of a local elementary school for any teacher willing to stay after school an extra hour. I’ll soon be giving a yoga demo in the break room at the factory that makes your favorite ice cream.
Yoga in the workplace has proven effective, yet the type of work environment will determine what type of practice is most beneficial for its employees.
All jobs have mental stress. The physical stress manifests differently in the body depending on the type of work done.
Mostly Standing Jobs
My hair stylist friends all share the same complaints. They experience lots of lower back pain, knee and hip pain, and tension in the upper back and wrist discomfort from repetitive motion.
Anyone with a job where they stand most of the time first needs to understand proper body mechanics. A slightly wider than hips-width stance and softly bent knees will help alleviate much of the pressure on the lower back. Remind these employees to be aware of not standing with what I call the “baby hip”—one knee bent with all the weight shifted to the opposite leg so that the hip is pushed out.
Since those with standing jobs— such as styling hair or working a factory line—are also often hunched over, their upper backs and necks tend to become rounded and tight. I encouraged the sandwich shop workers to take just a moment between customers to do a simple chest expansion such as interlacing fingers together behind their back. Cat/Cow is another effective and quick pose that can be done throughout the workday to keep tension from building in the back.
The repetitive motion of factory workers and hairstylists often leads to wrist pain or carpel tunnel syndrome. A simple wrist stretch is to bring the hands into prayer or Anjali Mudra. Bring the back of the right hand to the left hand and gently push with the left hand. Switch so the back of the left hand is now facing the right palm and gently push. I also recommend those with wrist pain stop periodically throughout their day and spend a minute clenching and releasing their fists to release tension.
If forward folds are possible, Padahastasana or gorilla pose, is an excellent wrist stretch combined with a great release for the hamstrings and lower back as well.
My personal hairstylist has also been one of my yoga students for a few years now. She has gotten into the habit of using the back of the chair to bring herself into Half Downward-Facing Dog between clients for a quick total body stretch. She uses the chair to help support herself in Standing Pigeon to relieve tightness in her hips.
Mostly Seated Work
Whether at a computer or in a car all day, those with sedentary jobs may also experience discomfort in their hips and upper back.
Sitting at a computer all day leads to rounding of the shoulders. Stopping periodically and bringing the arms into Gomukhasana, Cow Face Pose, opens the chest and the shoulders, as well as presents an opportunity to stop work and expand the lungs with some deep breathing exercises.
Simple pranayama exercises will also help clear the brain and alleviate the afternoon fog that often happens in sedentary jobs. Although it may look a little silly, alternate nostril breathing is an excellent way to relieve a headache and clear the sinuses.
To begin, use the thumb of your right hand to close your right nostril. Inhale through the left. Use the ring finger of your right hand to close the left nostril. Exhale through the right. Inhale through the right, then again close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this pattern for about five complete rounds, more if possible.
I’ve also used alternate nostril breath while on long car drives to keep me from getting sleepy.
You can move your left ear toward your left shoulder for a gentle, but effective, neck stretch. As you release your neck, allow the left arm to hang heavy. Be sure to lift the chin slightly to allow a deeper stretch along the right side of your neck. After returning to neutral, switch to the other side.
Eyestrain is another common complaint among computer users or people driving long distances. Schedule a few breaks throughout the day to stretch and rest your eyes. Keeping the head straight, look up, down, right and left while holding each eye position for two seconds. Again, keeping the head still, alternate tightly blinking and opening the eyes wide.
To soothe tired eyes, rub your hands together creating some heat. Close your eyes and place the palms of your hands over your eyelids. With your eyes closed imagine looking in to the darkness. Sometimes when I do this I see flashes of light even with my eyes closed. The flashing light sensation is just electrical stimulation in the brain. It will soon calm down and the lights will go away.
Getting up from your cubicle as often as possible or scheduling driving stops throughout the day to go for a short walk will also be beneficial to alleviate muscle strain. It doesn’t have to be a long walk; just a short route through the office or at a highway rest area is enough to get the joints moving. A short walk is also a nice mental break for the brain.
Heavy-Lifting Type Jobs
Heavy manual labor type jobs, such as delivery drivers, stockers or even nursing care assistants, must be conscious of protecting their backs throughout the workday. Reinforcing the importance of bending at the knees and lifting with your legs—not your back—is crucial.
When teaching yoga to someone who does a lot of heavy lifting, I’ll spend extra time flowing through Uttanasana and Utkatasana. Forward folds reinforce keeping the back flat while bending forward, and Chair Pose is a great strengthener for both the glutes and the thighs.
Tension in the upper back can be released with seated twists or frequent breaks to pop in to Garudasana arms. Lower back relief can be found with the strengthening of Salabhasana, Locust Pose, or the restorative Balasana, Child’s Pose.
Of course Downward Facing Dog is excellent for everyone no matter what their occupation. If full Adho Mukha Svanasana isn’t possible, place your hands against a desk or the wall for a half Down Dog to reinvigorate the entire body.
Employees of any occupation don’t need to wait on their employer to offer official wellness programs. Incorporating just a few simple yoga poses into the workday will give workers more energy, more enthusiasm and a healthier more positive outlook on their career and their day.
Jennifer Williams-Fields E-RYT, is passionate about writing, yoga, traveling, public speaking and being a fabulous single momma to six super kids. Doing it all at one time, however, is her great struggle. She has been teaching yoga since 2005 and writing since she first picked up a crayon. Although her life is a sort of organized chaos, she loves every minute of the craziness and is grateful for all she’s learned along the way. She is the author of "Creating a Joyful Life: The Lessons I Learned from Yoga and My Mom" now available on Amazon. She co-wrote "Transform Your Life From F'd up To Fabulous" and is featured in other yoga collaboratives. She also is a regular writer for Elephant Journal Magazine, YourTango and YogaUOnline. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @yogalifeway, Instagram @JNELF6.