Yoga & the workplace

March 11, 2018

Is there a business case for yoga classes in the workplace? I set out to try and find an answer to that very question. I started by phoning a good friend of mine who has been teaching corporate yoga. That's yoga in the workplace.

 

Both of us have experience with teaching yoga in the workplace. But there are a number of challenges to teaching yoga in this context. I'll get to those later.

 

In the meantime, yoga is said to be good for employees because it can:

 

  • reduce stress and tension

  • increase energy

  • help increase strength and overall fitness

  • help reduce neck, shoulder and back pain

  • improve focus and concentration

  • improve posture

  • improve relationships with colleagues

 

But businesses are there to make profits. So what's in it for businesses if they pay for their staff to attend yoga classes? As another friend of mine has pointed out whenever I mention any form of compassion in the workplace:

 

"Michael, businesses are not therapy clinics! They exist to maximize profits. So what if their employees get stressed in the process of making loads of money for their directors and shareholders?" 

 

Is my friend being too cynical, I wonder? I think we can say that there are some benefits of yoga for businesses and employees. Yoga in the workplace can:

 

  • boost productivity

  • reduce health care costs

  • improve staff retention

  • reduce absenteeism

  • make the workplace feel more humane

 

While the above all sound honky dory and obvious, I know there is a problem with this analysis.

 

Why is it that business meetings start getting booked at the same time as yoga classes are supposed to take place? As an employee, you simply can't decline a meeting request because you would like to practise yoga on your firm's premises and your lunch / rest time.

 

Why is it that senior business leaders, who approve the spend on yoga classes for staff,  don't themselves attend those yoga classes?

 

Do colleagues really get on well enough with each to practise yoga together in the company board room?

 

Why is it that the people who really champion yoga in the workplace don't themselves attend?

 

And why do businesses only give these sort of wellness initiatives short periods of time to prove their value before wanting to try something else?

 

My feeling is that businesses, like the rest of us, don't get what yoga is really about.

 

There is a quotation attributed to the American master yoga teacher, Gary Kraftsow, a student of TKV Desikachar's, which tells us something crucial about yoga's true purposes. 

 

Gary explains that:

 

"The way I was taught, yoga is more about managing and transforming our thoughts, emotions, and behavior than about stretching our hamstrings. And the real work of yoga is about mastering our minds, not mastering handstand." [1]

 

When expressed in these words, it's easier to understand that Yoga is about the Mind. And that realisation should then make it easier to see that Yoga is in fact a school of meditation, for meditation is all about the mind. If yoga is really about managing and transforming our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, then yoga is also about skill action.

 

This last point is actually a famous definition of yoga found in the Bhagavad Gītā:

 

"Yoga is skill in action"

 

Yoga's practices lead to people with greater skills, especially clarity of thought and insight.

 

But, I hear you say, isn't that what every business wants: employees who are skilled in action? Yes, it is. So why this focus on stress reduction and better posture while sitting at a desk?

 

While researching this article, I came across many stories of CEOs who practise one form or other of the meditative arts.

 

For instance, I came across Bill George. According to Wikipedia, Bill George started his career in the United States Department of Defense. Then served as a senior executive of Honeywell and Litton Industries. In 1989, he joined the American healthcare giant, Medtronic, as president and chief operating officer. He is a full professor at the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. He has also served as executive-in-residence at the Yale School of Management. Bill George also serves on the boards of directors of Exxon Mobil, Mayo Clinic and Goldman Sachs. He has also sat on the boards of Novartis AG and Target Corporation.

 

According to the Financial Times, who interviewed him in 2012, he started meditating in 1974.

 

Bill George is an advocate for bringing meditative practices into business, and has written articles on the subject for the Harvard Business Review. He told the Financial Times in 2012 that:

 

“The main business case for meditation is that if you’re fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader, you will make better decisions and you will work better with other people. I tend to live a very busy life. This keeps me focused on what’s important.” [2]

 

I also came across international management guru, Laurens Van Den Muyzenberg, while researching this article. He interviewed many business executives in the Asian Tiger economies for the book he co-wrote with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Leader's Way, which was published in 2008. His research tells us what the real business benefits are for fostering meditative practices as a key business skill. Business leaders and managers who practise meditative arts like yoga exhibit:

 

  • increased ability to deal with a crisis

  • better decision making

  • better relationships with people directly reporting to them

  • the need for fewer meetings

  • better execution of decisions

  • more creativity

  • high levels of enthusiasm for the work they do [3].

 

This is really very interesting to me. What it suggests is that yoga teachers should not just be bringing yoga mats into board rooms. Yoga mats and the āsana-s (yoga postures) with which we are so familiar encourage the view that yoga is only a form of excercise. Given the limited amount of time available in the workplace to activities that do not obviously look like work, yoga mats / āsana-s are much more suitable for other situations, usually outside the work place. They are generally good for helping one to reduce stress, and increase the functional efficiency of the body, for example, by reducing back and neck pain. 

 

What Van Den Muyzenberg and George seem indirectly to suggest is that yoga teachers might better address the real concerns of business leaders and managers by bringing zafus with them and teaching the yoga arts of prāṇāyāma (attention to the breath) and dhāraṇā (meditation).

 

The Yoga Sūtra-s and other primary yoga texts, have also something important and useful to say about business ethics, and corporate governance.

 

Imagine how the effectiveness of businesses and the well being of the people businesses employ and deal with might improve, if leaders started and ended their working days with 15 minutes of seated yoga practices? Or, if there was a monthly exploration and discussion of yoga philosophy, psychology and logic?

 

How radical would it be to give an experienced yoga teacher an office for a day or two each week and allow business leaders, managers and employees half an hour of one-to-one time to evolve a tailored yoga programme for true personal development. 

 

Yoga is in the business of personal transformation. Business is about transforming stuff too. One meaning of the word Yoga is, in fact, business, enterprise and work. Some would point out that Yoga was not designed to make employees better servants of industry but rather to set them free or to develop peace, love and connection. This is probably true. But Yoga is very much about reducing suffering. It is possible to think about the goals of Yoga and Business as complementary, at least up to a point.

 

Yoga teachers can't tell a business leader or manager how to do their job. However, what they can do is help people to improve the way their minds work. To remind them that they have the wherewithal to find the necessary wisdom and courage to make difficult decisions. To encourage confidence in the face of difficulties and to understand the role compassion plays in the long-term authenticity, integrity and success of a business.

 

There is some evidence from those who practise meditation / yoga and who are in senior positions in business around the world is strikingly pointing towards meditation as a way to develop the various abilities to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way. Those decisions, often quite tricky with serious consequences, can be made easier when supported by meditative practices such as yoga.

 

Business like yoga, it might be said, can both be seen as Skill in Action, although their ultimate goals are different.

 

 

References:

 

[1] I have tried to find the source for this quotation but can't find it anywhere. But I like it very much and it seems to me to be just the sort of thing Gary Kraftsow might have said.

 

[2] Financial Times article published 2012 - https://www.ft.com/content/d9cb7940-ebea-11e1-985a-00144feab49a

 

[3] The benefits listed come from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Laurens van den Muyzenberg's 2008 book, The Leader's Way, p39f

 

[4] Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

 

 

 

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