By Jessica Montoya
How to Get Support for a Yoga Program at Work
A sense of inner peace and centering can be practiced anywhere, if we give ourselves time and permission to do so. While the workplace may not seem a likely place to practice yoga, it is actually very easy to create a sangha, or a yoga group, at work.
Top employers are embracing yoga at work for its significant benefits to employees’ health, productivity, and general wellness at work. Fortune magazine in their annual “Best Companies to Work For” survey, companies are ranked on whether they offer onsite fitness centers, and the top perks of the best companies include onsite mini-workouts that combine yoga, breathing and meditation.
Because yoga is inclusive of all fitness levels, practicing at work also creates a culture of openness, inclusion and respect. Our mental outlook and attitude at work can be significantly lifted by just practicing some simple seated breathing techniques.
I had been practicing and loving yoga for over 15 years, when I decided that yoga was too good to keep to myself; I should teach yoga! I used my vacation time and help of my family in New Mexico last year to complete the 200 training hours requisite for my registration and certification. But as an eager new instructor excited to teach, I had no students! So I decided to start my own introductory yoga program at work and breath by breath begin my own sangha at work.
With the help of HR posting my classes and securing a regular conference room, our yoga sessions brought in about five to fifteen new yogis to each class! Students were instructed to “come as you are” to the first series of “April Awareness” classes. We started off with some simple meditation and breathing techniques practiced in a chair, then some standing stretches with the assist of the chair, and finally closing with a seated yoga nidra (deep yogic rest) or meditation. I also shared various handouts about yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras by Pantaljali, and information about the various energy centers of the body. We are now several months into our practice and will start introducing more of the sun salutations and standing poses as the class advances.
Bringing together a sangha at work gave me new energy and vitality, and having the opportunity to share this sacred space and practice with my colleagues was truly an “employee benefit” for all of us! Here are some feedback from my students about the benefits of yoga at work: “I really enjoyed the class today and our conversation afterward. I feel the benefits as we speak: I am sitting a little straighter and have more energy, which is always a good thing this time of day. Una”
“I just wanted to let you know how much I thoroughly enjoyed the Yoga session today. I have always wanted to try Yoga but have been apprehensive to do so. You made everyone feel comfortable and explained and demonstrated each move with adjustments to suit everyone’s needs…I look forward to the next session. Julie”
Here are some practical steps that worked for me at Sodexo, and resources that could also help you along the way in creating your own program at work:
- Secure support from the HR Department.Many organizations already have wellness programs or have budgets set aside for employee wellness initiatives. If this is the case, ask if your organization would support yoga at work. The requirements are nominal and not very expensive. The Yoga Alliance registers and certifies yoga instructors and can assist you in helping find an instructor to come on-site if your company has budget to cover this cost (www.yogaalliance.org). If there is no budget for a certified instructor, there are other low or no-cost options and free resources available to you as the leader of the sangha detailed below. Whichever path your practice takes, it is important that your organization gives approval and support you in this endeavor.All organization are concerned about liability if someone should become injured or bring some legal claim surrounding the yoga program. These concerns can be addressed with each student filling out and signing a “waiver of liability” form whereby the individual acknowledges that she is undertaking physical activity at her own risk and will not hold the instructor or organization/facility responsible for any harm. Your organization’s legal department can assist you in providing this form; also most yoga studios and gyms can provide you a copy of their form.
- Get a quiet and safe location to practice. You will need a relatively quiet open indoor space and some chairs to practice yoga at work. If the weather is cooperative and you have a shaded area, practicing yoga outdoors is especially delightful. The most important aspects of your space is that it is safe and accessible.At my workplace, I have a conference room standing reservation; however, I must show up early to move the tables and chairs to create an open space for my sangha and for everyone to have room to stretch their arms wide. I arrange the chairs with their backs to the door to avoid distractions, or sometimes in a circle depending on the focus of the practice.
If your yoga practice is more physical incorporating more of the asanas, or yoga poses, each student should be instructed to bring their own yoga mat. A qualified yoga instructor can help those with limited flexibility find suitable modifications and may bring props like a yoga block to help achieve the poses with less strain. Students should be instructed to never move toward pain and to back off a pose if they feel pain or faint. It should be stressed that yoga is not a competition nor should we be trying to “achieve” a pose. Rather, yoga is a personal practice where we honor and respect our bodies and take the time to care for our entire Self.
- Find the practice that works best for the group. A certified yoga instructor can assist the sangha in learning the needs and goals of the group and develop an appropriate yoga program. A good yoga instructor will ask about the groups’ goals—whether the practice will focus more on physical fitness, or perhaps more on relaxation and restorative poses. Chair yoga is always appropriate for an office setting because it’s so accessible—new yogis need not worry about changing their clothes or bringing a yoga mat. Regardless of the type of yoga practice, all variations have a focus on deep breathing and moving with the breath. Often just being able to sit quietly in a room and take long deep breaths is the best way to refresh and recharge at work.If there is no funding available to cover the cost of a certified instructor, many free resources are available to you. There are many great videos suitable for all levels that can guide the sangha. I recommend visiting www.yogajournal.com and www.DoYogaWithMe.com which offer free online streaming of dozens of practices at various levels and length of time. Remember to request from your employer use of a video screen and computer if your practice will be guided in this way. If your practice will focus more on meditation, no video is needed. Many voice guided recordings are available that can be played for the class with an audio player. Members of your sangha may also want to take turns leading the group by bringing in books or meditations to read out loud. Some recommended resources are the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center with free online meditations available (www.marc.ucla.edu). I have also found that my local public libraries also carry many books, DVDs, CDs, and other online resources that can be helpful in finding the appropriate yoga practice.
- Stay with the practice and make it fun! The practice of yoga is exactly that—PRACTICE! The full benefits of yoga are realized when we practice the breathing techniques and poses on a regular basis. Yoga helps us to create new patterns in the brain and in our vital muscular, respiratory, and overall sensory systems. Over time, we incorporate beneficial patterns that become part of our daily life. Patterns like deep breathing to help us be calm when faced with stress, or sitting with better spinal alignment when we work at the computer.Changing the theme of the yoga practice will also make it more interesting and dynamic. For example, the sangha may focus on the different chakras, or energy, centers of the individual like the heart, intuition, or abdomen. My classes have two components—a focus on an area of the body and a quiet meditation. One class may focus on releasing the back with various stretches and conclude with a meditation on gratitude. Another popular class focuses on releasing the neck and shoulders by holding poses for longer periods with long deep breathing. Again, with time and regular practice, your sangha will soon be radiating so much positive energy at work that others will want to also experience it for themselves. This is the joy of yoga, joining with others in the spirit of oneness and openness. The workplace is a perfect place to share this spirit and cultivate a culture of wellness at work.I wish you good fortune in starting a practice at your workplace. Namaste!
Jessica Montoya is a mother of 2 young children and corporate executive at Sodexo, Inc. She teaches yoga once a week at Sodexo’s corporate headquarters in the Washington, DC area. She also teaches at QuadGraphics, Heart and Soul’s publishing partner. A native of New Mexico, she now lives in Alexandria, VA.