In the first of three articles about the use of alternative therapies in the workplace, Victoria Morrison looks at the health benefits of yoga for the working population.
Yoga developed in India about 5,000 years ago. It is a form of exercise with so many variations and adaptations that everyone can join a class or practise in their home and find a style that works for them.
According to Ross and Thomas (2010), yoga is designed to bring balance and health to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of an individual. The two main benefits for the working population are on the mind and on the body.
Mira Mehta (1994) says: “A powerful antidote to the stresses of modern-day life, yoga is a practical philosophy that aims to unite the body, mind and spirit for health and fulfilment. A fit and supple body can be developed through the practice of postures [that] work on all the bodily systems, toning the muscles, stimulating the circulation and improving overall health. The benefits are not just physical: as the postures are mastered and techniques introduced for relaxation and breath control, you will find that yoga has the power to calm the mind, increase your concentration and give the ability to cope with tension.”
How yoga can help
Physically, there is so much that yoga can help with. It is widely accepted that we live in a fast-paced society, however, it is common for many people to be sitting down for most of the day. For example, in the car or on the bus or train on the way to and from work; then at a desk; then at home in front of the computer or in front of the television. This inactivity, coupled with wearing shoes with high heels, is likely to be a common cause of tight hamstrings, which often leads to other musculoskeletal problems.
Working at a computer for long periods is also known to cause tension in the shoulders and neck. Both office-based and manual workers can find themselves hunched and aching from bending over their work station if no ergonomic risk assessment has been undertaken. Other workers endure prolonged periods of standing, sometimes in one place.
Then there are the seemingly fitter manual workers, such as those in the building trade, who are constantly carrying heavy loads – often on uneven and unstable surfaces or up ladders with constant bending and straining. They may have back, neck and shoulder aches and pains. In 2009/10, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) noted that an estimated 94,000 Britons suffered from a lower-limb disorder caused, or made worse, by their work.
You will find that yoga has the power to calm the mind, increase your concentration and give the ability to cope with tension.”
Mentally, there is much that yoga can do to prevent these aches and pains and promote a better feeling of wellbeing.
Early starts, traffic jams, working through lunch, late finishing, shifts, constant change, fear of redundancy, deadlines and increased workloads all create stress. Many of the working population spend what could be free time, such as travel time and lunch breaks, on the telephone or on their tablets or laptops.
There is no time in the day to relax. Social lives are conducted via computers and telephone screens, and increasingly less through real conversations or face-to-face contact. In the West, we do not breathe “properly” and use a smaller percentage of our lung capacity than is ideal. Shallow breathing has physical and mental health implications, made worse by stress.
HSE statistics show that there were 428,000 reported cases of work-related stress in 2011/12, while “The Times of India” noted in a recent article that: “Moderate to severe stress impacts almost half of all workers while they are on the job… 66% of employers revealed that they find it difficult to focus on tasks because of stress … employees also said that stress was responsible for errors and/or missed deadlines, trouble getting along with co-workers/superiors, missed days and lateness.” This corresponds with HSE research published over the last decade.
While all yoga focuses on the mind and the body, some practices have a heavier focus on one area. Different types of yoga focus on different types of wellbeing, and some are more appropriate for the working population than others. In the US there are more than 30 types of yoga, but in the UK there are usually only four main types.
This yoga type uses pre-determined sets of poses that are always the same and always performed in the same order.
It is quite physical and can be seen to balance both the ancient Indian practice of yoga with the modern Western need for physical exercise. There is constant movement from one posture to another and students move smoothly between the poses, breathing consciously as they do so. There are six levels so that students can build up in difficulty.
This is a strict form of yoga that pays attention to the detail in postures and focuses on body alignment. Poses are held for longer periods of time and there is rarely any flow between the poses. Props, such as blankets, blocks and straps, are used to aid good alignment.
Practised in a hot room, some classes use a set series of 26 moves, but some do not. It encourages sweating as a form of cleansing and is said to loosen tight muscles.
This is less of an actual style and more of a class description. Hatha yoga can encompass any style or type of yoga. It is usually relatively gentle and a good introduction if you are new to yoga. It will often balance several different types of yoga and usually reflects the teacher’s preferred style.
Ross and Thomas (2010) explore the various health benefits in their comparison study and conclude that yoga may be as effective as, or better than, other forms of exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcomes. Even the NHS advises that there is evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains (including low back pain), depression and stress. It also says that some research suggests that yoga can reduce pain and mobility problems in people with osteoarthritis of the knee.
On a simple level, yoga stretches and strengthens various body parts depending on the posture performed. The “warrior” postures, for example, are physically very challenging. The benefits on the body – as listed in Kappmeier and Ambrosini (2006) – are that it:
- strengthens the lower extremities, particularly the thighs;
- stabilises the hips and knees;
- builds strength and endurance;
- improves flexibility and stamina in the spine;
- opens and strengthens the musculature of the hips;
- tones the lower extremities;
- continues to work on the subtle alignments of the upper body and opening and strengthening of the shoulder joints;
- builds muscular endurance;
- tones the abdominal muscles;
- promotes awareness of proper hip alignment; and
- improves balance.
Other postures are thought to aid specific ailments. Some are particularly good at aiding gynaecological issues such as a prolapsed uterus, infertility or pre-menstrual tension.
Almost all of the postures work to tone the back and abdominal areas, which will help to reduce back problems.”
All yoga has some focus on toning of the pelvic floor. Geeta S Iyengar, daughter to BKS Iyengar – a leading authority on yoga – specialises in aligning yoga practice with the menstrual cycle and, along with some of her colleagues, has written articles on the subject of women’s yoga, and yoga and motherhood.
There has been a recent upsurge in pregnancy and postnatal yoga classes, some of which allow the mother to bring the baby along with her. These classes are especially important to the modern working woman as there is an emphasis on relaxation, meditation and breathing to help dissipate stress and tension.
Additionally, a whole host of yoga postures are good for digestion. This is important for modern working people as digestive disorders can be caused by stress or poor diet, which can be a result of busy working lifestyles.
The Yogatutor website says: “Several asanas and …pranayamas [breathing exercises] … are of great benefit to digestion and metabolic health. Digestion can be acutely affected by stress and tension within the abdominal region. So too, tension and stiffness in the lumbar area (lower back) can lead to constipation and impaired digestive function. Therefore, Hatha yoga practices can provide great benefit to digestive health.
“Almost all of the postures work to tone the back and abdominal areas, which will help to reduce back problems. In a balanced class, as teachers, we aim to work the spine in every direction.”
Geoffrey Podger, chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive, says: “Back pain will affect as many as four out of five people in Britain and results in 4.5 million days off from work every year.”
With an ageing population and workforce, yoga can be really beneficial. Two common ailments in older workers are back pain and lack of balance, but these are also not uncommon in younger workers who are in their late teens or 20s, on whom poor posture and a lack of physical exercise are taking their toll. This is exacerbated by the fact that this has probably been the case all their lives. Yoga’s focus on core strength can help prevent backache from occurring and ease the symptoms if it does.
Moving onto the non-physical benefits, Swami Satyananda Saraswati introduces yoga by saying: “It works on all aspects of the person: physical, vital, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual” (2009).
While explaining the relevance of yoga for today, he states: “According to medical scientists, yoga is successful because [of] the balance created in the nervous and endocrine systems, which directly influence all the other systems and organs of the body.”
During the physical postures, students are often encouraged to move with their breathing, which creates longer, deeper breaths. While focusing in this way, it helps to calm any chatter in the mind. In many classes, specific breathing exercises are included and some include meditation, which helps with focus, concentration and de-stressing. Almost all classes end with some form of relaxation. This is hugely beneficial to everyone. It is surprising how many people find this the most difficult part of the class because they find switching off challenging.
Alongside all the evidence of yoga being able to aid or cure us of physical, medical and emotional problems, what else might persuade someone into a class? Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be fit or flexible. Unlike tough cardiovascular workouts offered by gyms and dance classes, there is less focus on working the heart and lungs in yoga. If you are after a cardiovascular workout, however, when postures are practised in quick succession, your heart rate will definitely increase.
You do not need any level of flexibility to practise yoga. The idea is that it will increase your flexibility. Generally speaking, those “yogis” who can perform the most contortionist of poses could not before they started practising beginner’s yoga, and everyone must start somewhere. Flexibility comes with time and practice (and genetics).
The nature of yoga – moving slowly and consciously in and out of poses – means there is a lower chance of injury. Participants are encouraged to work within their own personal comfort levels, holding stretches for the right amount of time for them personally, and never to the extent of experiencing discomfort or pain. If someone has previously had an injury or is worried about developing one, then yoga is a good option.
It is surprising how many people find relaxation the most difficult part of the class because they find switching off challenging.”
The benefit of yoga over other conventional exercise is that the postures focus on every single part of the body. There is usually some focus on the mind and breathing, even if it is not obvious, although some classes do focus solely on this. Almost all classes include beneficial (and much needed) relaxation techniques and exercises.
Many forms of modern exercise consist of the very stresses and strains that we are trying to eliminate. Participants listen to loud music and move at a fast pace.
While working our muscles, many modern classes do not stretch them, and worse still they can simply make them tighter and shorter. It is also so often competitive, with participants wanting to go faster, further or heavier.
Classes are squeezed into lunch breaks or before work, leaving even less time to be calm and quiet. Sessions are also getting shorter, often lasting between 30 and 45 minutes, compared with the traditional hour lunch break.
This means less time for stretching at the end. Yoga, on the other hand, has longer class times – they are usually for a minimum of an hour but can often last up to two hours.
One of my own participants distinguished between the two types of class by telling me: “I can look forward to yoga rather than dread it like when I’m due to go to the gym or for a run.”
Looking forward to a class that works your body and your mind makes yoga perfect for the working population.
Victoria Morrison Bsc is a health and fitness professional and qualified yoga instructor.
Ross A, Thomas S (2010). “The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies”. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine; vol.16, no.1; pp. 3-12.
Mehta M (1994). How to Use Yoga. London; Annes Publishing Ltd.
Kappmeier KL, Ambrosini DM (2006). Instructing Hatha Yoga. Champaign USA; Human Kinetics.
Iyengar GS (1983). Yoga: A Gem for Women. Mumbai India; Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd.
Saraswati SS (2009). Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. New Delhi India; Thomas Press (India) Ltd.