To start with, can you tell us where your passion for yoga began?
When I was a student in Edinburgh about 20 years ago, a friend made me join the student yoga society. I had never heard about yoga, but from the first session it made me feel great: not only relaxed and stretched but also happier and content. I am not naturally bendy or acrobatic, but that didn’t matter, the feel-good effect was undeniable.
Perhaps it is because I was never super flexible and have had to pay special attention to my back that I am now a yoga therapist specialised in yoga for back pain. Yoga for the workplace is my other passion: helping people feel good in their body so they can keep doing what they love.
How do you think yoga could benefit people in the workplace?
There are different kinds of workplaces of course, and people who are on their feet all day long would benefit from a different kind of yoga to those who have a sedentary job. For people who sit at a desk and on a computer all day it is important to keep the neck, shoulders and back mobile and pain-free, and to move the body so there is improved blood circulation and oxygen intake. This promotes increased energy, concentration and alertness.
Another huge need when you have a demanding job is stress-relief and the ability to take a step back to see the bigger picture. Yoga requires you to focus on every movement and the coordination of the movements with your breathing. This has a calming effect on the mind; having been distracted from worries and stresses for a while, one usually feels much calmer and content after a yoga session. For employees, this decrease in stress usually means more motivation and productivity.
Stress-related diseases and back pain are the primary causes for absenteeism and cost a company enormously. Yoga can be so beneficial for stress relief, back health and general well-being that it is surprising that not all companies actively encourage it as a cost-effective means to boost their productivity.
One problem can be that people sometimes find yoga intimidating. There are indeed some yoga styles that would not suit the workplace because they are too acrobatic, too strong or too spiritual. It is important for yoga in the workplace to be practical, adapted and inclusive so that everyone can benefit.
Which yoga poses would you recommend for those who work at a desk?
I always advise a company to offer two different levels of yoga classes: one of which would be specifically for beginners and/or people with back issues. After all, back problems often accompany desk-bound jobs, even among young people. If I had my way I would also organise one-to-one yoga sessions for employees who need individual attention or a different timing.
For beginners and people with back pain, it is beneficial to do simple leg stretches, upper and lower back stretches, shoulder and neck movements. It is also important to stretch tight muscles such as hip flexors and glutes. Gentle, dynamic exercises are good too.
The same counts for more sporty employees without back issues but they can also enjoy dynamic standing sequences such as the sun salute. This sequence stretches the back of the body (hamstrings and back muscles) and also includes backbends for the spine to counter the effects of sitting hunched and with a forward neck. A well-trained yoga teacher will know how to teach the poses in a safe way and how to adapt the yoga poses if necessary.
What advice would you give to someone looking to improve their health/wellness at work in general?
Firstly, there are things you can do at work. It is a good idea to prevent the body from tightening up by taking a ‘movement break’ every hour. Just a few minutes to walk around is already helpful. It is so important to prevent back pain, so avoid slouching and use all the advice you get about how to adopt a good posture at your desk, how to adjust your chair and computer height accordingly.
If you start an exercise regime, half an hour a few times a week is better than one long session once a week. Don’t choose anything extreme or stressful but go for “feel-good movements” such as your favourite sports, walking, … and yoga of course.
Does your company encourage movement breaks? Let us know in the comments below!