corporate yoga

We Benefit the Most From The Simplest Things

We Benefit the Most From The Simplest Things

Last week's blog post about headstand seems to have ruffled a few feathers. That wasn't my intention, but if we all start thinking a bit more about why we do what we do, that can only be a good thing.

Because, you see, we get the most benefit from the simplest things in yoga.

How not to freak out too much about change.

Recently I had a week where I was so bone tired I could barely get out of bed; there was no way I was going to be able to focus on anything other than work that was absolutely necessary (even that was a struggle).

At the end of that week I got on my yoga mat for my morning yoga session and came into child's pose. Then I started crying. And there I stayed for my entire yoga practice.

Crying. And a little bit embarrassed about it.

Crying in child's pose: a legitimate yoga practice. Really.

Crying in child's pose: a legitimate yoga practice. Really.

I didn't really know why I was crying -- nothing had happened in that week to upset or tire me especially. It took me a little while to work out what was going on: basically my body and my mind were just…done...after several months of significant change in my life.

My work circumstances had changed, I'd started a research degree, and I'd moved house.

I'm very grateful for all of these changes —they've brought amazing things into my life.

Change is not inherently good or bad: usually it's a bit of both. But, big or small, positive or negative, it can be overwhelming, especially if we don't have the space to process how we feel about it.

The same thing can happen, hopefully on a smaller scale, when there's a change of plans in our day (think cancelled meeting or coffee date with a friend). Disappointment, upset, fear, anger, frustration, mild panic even. These are all normal possible emotional reactions to change, along with the more pleasant ones. But they may not be the best way to respond to change—a response being what we actually do with those emotions and the situation.

This is where yoga comes in.

Yoga is essentially a practice of noticing what's going on for us. It's supposed to provide a safe space for us to notice our stuff (sadly, we all have it) and just give it some space to breathe.

It's also about learning skills to deal with that stuff (because letting it all just hang around isn't really all that helpful, is it?) so we can respond to any given situation more *ahem* helpfully.

I've talked before about the fascinating research which found that different types of physical exercise stimulate different parts of the brain.

Anaerobic exercise, which is stretching or strength training (yoga, anyone?) appears to increase activity in the part of the brain that helps us to resolve conflict and to distinguish between confusing sources of stimulation. That conflict could be internal stuff, or it might be because someone has just cancelled a meeting on you for the third time in a row.

Moving the physical body is a pretty amazing mood regulator and will often help with whatever level of weird is going on in the mind.

If, like me, what you notice is that you're feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to stay in child's pose for the entire practice, lie in constructive rest, or do some slow stretching. If you notice that you're more restless you might need to be more active (sun salutes and standing poses, perhaps) to use up some of that excess energy.

But how do you know unless you take a moment or two to notice?

Perhaps the biggest thing for me about learning to observe my mental and emotional states, as well as my physical body, is that I've gradually got better at seeing when I might need to go a little easy on myself (hint: more often than I actually do). 

To practice noticing, try this:

Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. Maybe even come into child's pose. Perhaps put on a piece of tinkly relaxy music that lasts for five or ten minutes.

Start by noticing the sounds you can hear around you.

Then notice where your body touches the floor and how that feels. Go back to noticing the sounds around you. Then come back to your body, notice your breath.

Go back to the sounds.

Come back again to the body, see if you can notice your heart beat. If you can feel or hear it, just observe it for a while. If you can't, that's okay, instead see if you can notice how your chest moves with your breath.

Now, do you notice any emotions or thoughts that come up, in just the same way as you've been watching your physical body—as if you're an outside observer? See if you can just let those things come and go for a while. Let your mind wander. If anything is a bit too much and you feel overwhelmed, that's okay, just come back to noticing your heart beat or your breath.

When your music finishes, bring your focus back to your breath for a few minutes. Wriggle your toes and fingers, take a few deeper than normal breaths. When you do get up, get up slowly.

You can do this sitting at your desk too, just sitting, without anybody noticing. And the more often you do it, the better you get at it. Practise makes... well, not perfect, but better. 

Legs up the wall is another great pose to do this witnessing exercise. Take a load off!

Legs up the wall is another great pose to do this witnessing exercise. Take a load off!

How to avoid Hunchy Desk Pose (and sore shoulders)

Are you hunched over at a desk right now reading this? Yes? Don't worry. I'm hunched over at a desk writing it.

Tell me, are your shoulders sore? Mine sure are.

Sore shoulders is pretty high up on the list of things my students (understandably) complain about most. For the most of us (and I'm definitely included in this), that soreness comes from what I call Hunchy Desk Posture, because so many of us sit at desks and peer at screens of some description for many hours a day, most days of the week.

Look familiar? Suzy came into this pose and immediately said, "Ouch!"

Look familiar? Suzy came into this pose and immediately said, "Ouch!"

If you're used to holding your upper body in this kind of shape, chances are that you also bring this shape into many of the yoga poses you practice. Unfortunately, this puts all sorts if weird pressure on joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles to do things they're really not supposed to. Doing so can, and often does, lead to those sore shoulders and—worse—injury.

So we want to counter Hunchy Desk Posture. The good news is that if you know a little bit about how your shoulders work and which parts of them should be doing what kind of work, then you can begin to correct this stuff yourself (and alleviate tension, tension headaches and that anxious feeling) just sitting at your desk.

What's going wrong in Hunchy Desk Posture

Usually, if you sit or stand like this, it means your upper back and neck are far more rounded than they really should be. Basically, this means three things:

  • The muscles between your shoulder blades and around your armpits lengthen and become weak

  • The muscles on your chest and the front of your neck shorten and also become weak

  • The muscles that run from the top of your shoulder blades, across the top of your shoulders and up your neck to the base of the skull have to do all the work. They don't like this very much. And it usually means they're tense and feel a bit like a rope.

(This is a really great article about how Vulture Posture—another great name for Hunchy Desk Posture— means your heavy-full-of-brains head is wreaking havoc on your spine.)

How to start to fix it yourself

To begin to counter that, you need lengthen the spine at upper back and and neck, well, upwards, rather than forwards.

Countering Hunchy desk posture.jpg

Try this: sit tall, and without letting your head drop forward, pull your chin back towards your throat and make a double chin.

Suzy's comments on this pose: "All of the chins..." Think of that as you do it—it helps!

Suzy's comments on this pose: "All of the chins..." Think of that as you do it—it helps!

Notice how you're suddenly sitting up taller? Hopefully the top of your shoulders have relaxed a little too. Sit here a while, then relax.

You also want to try to strengthen the muscles between your shoulder blades and underneath your armpits.

Try this: sitting, draw the bottom section of your shoulder blades towards one another at your spine. At the same time, let the bones of your upper arms rotate in your shoulder socket so if you bend your elbows your hands stick out to the side (I like to call this Pre-Shrug Pose).

Look at that smile! You too can be this happy about relieving shoulder tension.

Look at that smile! You too can be this happy about relieving shoulder tension.

Now add in the double chin exercise. And, most importantly, breathe slowly. The slow breathe should help to let the body know that it's okay to let go of that tension.

And here's the trick: do this for a minute or so whenever you notice that you're sitting all Hunchy-like.

(And if you're anything like me, that will be embarrassingly often).

Regularly reminding your body in this way starts to change posture habits, which most of us have been practicing again and again for many years.

There are also some yoga poses you might like to practice to lengthen the muscles across the chest, strengthen the muscles between your shoulder blades and under your arm pits, and take the pressure off those poor muscles across the top of your shoulders and up the back of your neck that have been desperately trying to stop your head from falling off.

Play around with the double chin exercise, and the rotation of the arms and drawing together at the base of the shoulder blades in each of these postures. Breathe.

(If you want to print this image, just open it in a new tab and print away, for you to use at home or work.)

How to get (and keep!) people excited about yoga at work

Yoga at work. Obviously we think it's a great idea: it's our specialty. (Also, infographic on yoga for blokes here.)

When we did our survey, a fair number of you wanted to know how to get people excited about yoga at work. It's true: running successful and well-attended yoga classes at work can be a challenge, even if you and your colleagues really do love yoga.

So we thought we'd ask the organisers of a couple of the longest-running and most successful MmYoga classes for their expert tips! 

Alyson has had MmYoga classes running consistently in her workplace for about five years; Rosanne for about four.

How do you go about organising for people to get involved? 

Both Alyson and Rosanne use email to gauge interest and inform people about classes, and Rosanne also uses word of mouth.

“About three weeks prior to the end of term, I send out an email to the group asking for their intentions for next term,” says Alyson. “So I need to know if they want to continue, and if so, how many sessions are they wanting to attend,” she says.

Flexibility with the number of sessions helps, Alyson says. At her workplace, the terms are 20 classes long, but participants are able to attend 5, 10, 15 or all 20 of those sessions, which allows them to work around annual leave. 

“I keep a list of email addresses of anyone who has EVER expressed an interest in anything remotely related to yoga,” says Rosanne. “We also have a social yammer network at work and this has been used occasionally with mixed results,” she says. 

Both Alyson and Rosanne say it helps to occasionally open the invitations to classes out beyond the current list of attendees.

“If it looks like I'm not going to get the numbers, I send out a global email to all people in the building, with a bit of a spiel about the yoga,” Alyson says. “I always get a lot of interest from this,” she says.

Rosanne says she has found it useful to have an ‘open’ class towards the end of a term and invite people who haven’t already enrolled in a term to come along and try.

How do you keep them involved?

Alyson says people are more likely to stay involved if they feel like the space is a safe one and that people from all levels within the organisation can feel comfortable in. 

“We also have a bit of fun, and joke around a bit so everyone feels comfortable,” Alyson says. 

Money also comes into it. Alyson says keeping the numbers up means the cost is more manageable for everyone, and this is something she is clear about when she’s organising the classes — which encourages people to recruit their friends and colleagues to come along too. 

Having one term roll into the next helps to keep the enthusiasm up too, Alyson says. (Building a habit helps keep up the enthusiasm in a home practice too — here are some tips about how to do that.)

What are some of the challenges of organising a yoga class in a workplace?

Alyson says that finding the time to keep things going and keep the lines of communication open can be difficult at times because there is quite a bit of organising and chasing people involved. There are also lull periods where the organiser needs to amp up the advertising to get the numbers. Rosanne says it can be difficult sometimes to find an available space in which to hold the class. 

Tips for meeting the challenges

While every work place is different, Alyson and Rosanne have some good general tips for getting around some of the logistical challenges of organising yoga at work. 

“It really is about making everyone aware of it,” Alyson says. “So talk about it, publicise it, get it talked about in the workplace,” she says. Getting the support of the Workhealth team or Occupational Health and Safety representative is useful too.

Being knowledgeable about the bureaucratic ins-and-outs of the organisation really helps, Rosanne says. 

“And, trite but true — professionalism and being courteous always helps,” Rosanne says. 

Unexpected benefits

The challenges of organising yoga at work are worth it though. Rosanne says she’s had good recognition from her workplace for organising the yoga classes.

“I used to worry about the potential for injury (even minor) of a work colleague during a yoga class that I’ve organised,” Rosanne says. “I feel responsible for their safety (particularly for new participants). On the other hand, I also get a nice warm-fluffy feeling thinking that I’ve contributed in a small way to peoples’ health,” she says. 

Alyson has noticed a huge improvement in workplace culture: people from different teams talk to each other, and people from all levels come along - from junior to senior.

Warm and fluffy, plus a better work environment. Yay!

yoga at work