Why You Should Step Away From Work and Onto a Yoga Mat

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: Stress, injury, and illness keep us out of work, or make it difficult for us to concentrate on the task at hand.
The Science: Practicing yoga has been shown to help manage physical and psychological symptoms.
The Solution: Integrate yoga into your day with these helpful resources to boost your health and happiness!

I have five minutes before my conference call with some colleagues who live across the country. I try to take advantage of this free time, so I take a seat at my slightly cluttered desk. As I open my email inbox, I notice a slight stiffness in my wrists. My neck feels sore, and a sharp pain shoots down my back. I step away from my desk, and step onto my yoga mat.

A variety of ailments keeps us out of work. Tis the season for nasty colds and stomach bugs. Physical conditions (such as arthritis, diabetes, and chronic pain) and psychological symptoms (such as depression, anxiety, and substance use) are leading causes of workplace absenteeism. Also troublesome, illness and injury contribute to presenteeism — the tendency for people to show up for work in spite of sickness or pain. Absenteeism and presenteeism contribute to wage loss and job dissatisfaction, and are estimated to cost the United States around $227 billion annually.

According to Sharon Salzberg, New York Times bestselling author of Real Happiness and Real Happiness at Work,

No job is stress free. No working life comes without challenges, conflicts, pressures, setbacks, or moments of sheer exhaustion. Happiness at work depends on our ability to cope with the obstacles that come our way and to bounce back, learn from mistakes, make amends when necessary…

In response, many mindfulness institutes offer training programs and work retreats for organizations. Some organizations have instituted workplace programs to help employees manage stress and pain. Several Fortune 500 companies, including Nike, HBO, Forbes, and Apple, offer free on-site yoga classes to employees.

So what is all the hype about yoga?

Yoga, which derives from the Sanskrit word yuj (to yoke), refers to a practice involving intentional postures/poses, breathing, concentration, and mindfulness. The goal of yoga is to unite mind, body, and spirit, resulting in a state of self-awareness, tranquility, ease, and equanimity. Yoga originated as a spiritual practice in India over 2,000 years ago. Today, it is estimated that 15 million adults in the U.S. have practiced yoga.

Regular practitioners of yoga are familiar with the tremendous benefits that it provides. Yoga has helped people manage a variety of chronic health conditions including migraines, back pain, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Bringing yoga out of the studio and into the workplace

A team from the U.S., UK, and Sweden recently conducted a randomized control study of a workplace yoga intervention. Employees at a British government organization completed a baseline questionnaire about several health concerns (including arthritis, asthma, depression, and heart conditions). Half of these employees were randomly assigned to the “yoga group,” who were invited to attend a weekly yoga class (during lunchtime) for 8 weeks. The other half – the control group – was not given any instructions. After 8 weeks, both groups completed an additional questionnaire about a number of health-related measures. Compared to the control group, employees in the yoga group reported higher levels of serenity, self-assurance, and attentiveness, as well as lower levels of hostility and sadness. Additionally, employees in the yoga group reported significantly less back pain and perceived stress following the intervention.

A growing body of research on yoga interventions in the workplace (1, 2, 3) has demonstrated similar benefits.

Nicole Teufel, founder of The Yoga Republic in Ann Arbor, Michigan, puts it like this:

Yoga gets people out of their heads and into their bodies, allowing their mental energy to refresh, ultimately making them more productive. Yoga also helps to counter the negative effects that our jobs can have on our bodies. Yoga eases bodily discomfort, giving employees more clarity in their work. Just a few down dogs during a long day of sitting actually does wonders! And if these aren’t reasons enough already, taking a little break for yoga makes us more peaceful, open, cooperative, and thoughtful. Who couldn’t use a little more of that within a work community?!

Incorporating yoga into your own life

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by your workload or restless at your workstation, step away from your job and step onto a yoga mat. Whether you have five minutes or one hour, you can adapt your practice to take some time to hit the “reset” button. Not only will you feel more engaged with your work, but you will also feel a larger sense of clarity, ease, and tranquility.

Here are some resources to help you get started:

  • Yoga with Adriene: website of Austin-based instructor Adriene Mishler containing dozens of free videos ranging in length and skill level
  • The Art of Living: describes a few yoga poses that can be performed effectively and appropriately at your desk
  • Yoga Journal: offers a 15-part Office Yoga series
  • Gaiam: video tutorial for desk yoga (stress-relieving back stretches done in a chair)
  • Google: to find a yoga studio near you
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Verónica Caridad Rabelo
Verónica Caridad Rabelo is a PhD Candidate in Psychology (Personality & Social Contexts) and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Overall, her research interests include social identity and mistreatment in the workplace. Her current projects investigate gender identity and leadership emergence; sexual assault in the U.S. military; workplace harassment on the basis of gender and sexual orientation; and mindfulness and compassion among stigmatized employees. Verónica is a proud alumna of Williams College, where her passion for social justice and feminist psychology first sparked. In her spare time, Verónica enjoys doing puzzles, practicing yoga, and spending time in the sun.
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