Wellbeing in focus: yoga classes – bending the rules

Providers of ‘corporate yoga’ classes claim to improve work-life balance and staff health levels, but could they offer productivity benefits too? Sally O’Reilly investigates.

After the excess of the Christmas season, no doubt the numbers of people signing up for yoga classes will shoot up. But could ‘corporate’ yoga also help to improve staff morale and raise productivity?

Yoga is more than the exercise regime used by the likes of Madonna and Spice Girl Gerry Halliwell to get in shape for concert tours.

Once the preserve of mystics and hippies, it is now well established as an effective way to boost energy and combat stress. A combination of exercise and meditation rooted in the Hindu religion, it has been practised in Eastern cultures for about 5,000 years.

Seeking harmony

More than 100 schools of yoga exist and most use breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures that stretch and exercise different muscle groups. The word ‘yoga’ means ‘to bring together or merge’ – as in joining the mind and body into a single harmonious unit.

But can it improve workplace performance? If a healthier workforce is a more productive one, then the answer must be yes.

According to US body the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, yoga can reduce chronic pain such as lower back pain, arthritis and headaches, reduce blood pressure, improve heart and breathing rates, and alleviate insomnia.

Independent researchers have also found that it improves a range of conditions, including the nerve condition carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.

In response to growing demand from employers, yoga providers are now offering ‘corporate yoga’ sessions, enabling organisations to buy in yoga lessons for staff, either on-site or as part of a team-building exercise.

Providers such as Ibiza Yoga offer breaks and team-building weekends which aim to help staff improve stress management techniques and tackle work-life balance problems more effectively.

“If you are doing yoga correctly, you can feel amazing stress relief even after the very first session,” says managing director Daniel Harte. “You don’t have to wait for weeks to experience the results.”

Change attitudes

Instead of taking staff on a traditional ‘jolly’, which may well involve drinking and other unhealthy behaviour, paying for them to go away on a yoga weekend can help employees to re-think their working style and overall attitude to health.

Ibiza Yoga has clients from a range of sectors – including recruitment, advertising and investment banking – that are prepared to pay for staff to spend a week in a villa, pagoda or teepee to study yoga and bond with colleagues. It’s not cheap, though: one villa sleeps eight people and costs from £4,000 for a week.

However, Harte points out that firms could easily spend as much on more conventional perks for staff. “That is extremely reasonable for most corporate companies, which would spend that same amount on a one-night event that doesn’t have the same long-term positive impact on the wellbeing of their staff.”

Yoga teacher Subhodh Gupta runs his own company which trains celebrities in yoga practice as well as offering corporate yoga sessions. He agrees that demand from employers is on the increase. “The scope of yoga in the corporate sector is increasing day by day as levels of stress, back and neck pain are going up,” he says.

But Gupta sounds a word of warning. “When conducting corporate yoga sessions, trainers need to be very careful – otherwise they may end up adding more injury rather than helping. The flexibility levels of people working in the corporate sector are very different from those of people who regularly go to yoga classes in a health club.”

Health checks

There are also a number of yoga postures which can benefit one person, but may not be suitable for others. “For this reason, it is strongly advisable that the yoga teachers do proper health diagnostic checks of all participants, and check the blood pressure of all participants before starting the class,” Gupta says.

Harte agrees that it is important to use a reputable company with experienced staff. “At Ibiza Yoga, the teacher will go through each individual’s physical health and work around any injuries,” he says.

“The teacher will know which movements and postures you should avoid, and which ones you should be practising. Most people who come with any injuries feel that the yoga actually helped to relieve the pain, or reduced the injury altogether.

“Again, with high blood pressure, there will be some movements that will be encouraged, and they may not be able to do some of the postures – but the teacher will advise accordingly.”

Ultimately, the benefits outweigh any risks, says Harte. “Corporate yoga can actually improve working relationships, boost morale, and generally increase an organisation’s ability to keep a productive and motivated workforce.

“The fact that it is now available in most western countries is testament to the popularity of the practice.”

Wellbeing news in brief

Unbalanced workforce

Almost one in four UK employees never take a break during work, and 7% do not even take holidays, according to research from insurer Legal & General. The survey of more than 2,000 people found that more than one in five were unhappy with their work-life balance, while a fifth felt they were working too many extra hours.

Most important meal of day

Many office staff skip breakfast before coming to work, a survey by caterer BaxterStorey has found. Nearly one-fifth of 1,015 workers polled never had breakfast during the working week, while a further 17% had it between just one and three times a week. Meanwhile, 8% of employees polled regularly skipped lunch.

In the dark about cancer

Cancer charity Macmillan reports that cancer patients and their managers are too often in the dark when it comes to returning to work or dealing with people affected by cancer in the workplace. Although four in five people expected to go back to work should they be affected by cancer, three in four would not know where to get help to do so, the charity concludes.

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