Does Yoga Belong in the Workplace?

A woman in standing on a rooftop, on a yoga mat, in a yoga position. One leg is raised, the foot is pressed in to her knee. Her hands are clasped behind her back.

writer icon Emma Lindgren     ISB   |   Culture     🕐 17. Oct. 2018

Over the last few years, yoga has become something of a staple in workplaces in the West. In it becoming a semi-regular feature in office and workplace culture, its benefits are at times up for debate. However, considering the overall popularity of yoga in the West, this scepticism may appear misplaced.

For many, stress has become an unwanted part of one's working life. There are several popular approaches to tackling this. Recent trends show that yoga has found its place as one of them.

At the recently launched Backelite/Capgemini Design & Discovery Studio offices in Malmo, Katie Lindström is in the beginning stages of trying to implement yoga into her workplace. She explains some benefits of yoga against stress.

“In yoga, I tend to find myself observing, not only my body but how I actually feel in the present moment. I think that is something we in this current day easily forget because there are so many distractions in our everyday life. When I learned that I could control my body’s reaction to stress by breath-control it changed everything for me.”

Spirituality or commercialisation

A lot can be said about yoga practices in the West. It is hailed by some as a deep spiritual practice, a cure to every physical and mental ailment imaginable. To critics however, it is the commercialisation of non-western traditional practices for profit.

The spiritual aspects of yoga have been 'put through the mill' throughout its history. Moreover, its historical origins are rooted in structures and dynamics very different from those of your typical Scandinavian workplace.

One issue that surfaces when it comes to yoga in the workplace is avoiding the risk of misuse and misinterpretation of certain cultural elements. One approach to this is to exclude these specific aspects from workplace yoga altogether. This could be helpful when considering sacred aspects of yoga in particular. By simply omitting sacred aspects to yoga from the workplace practice, there is less risk of cultural appropriation, or of accidentally offending anyone who practices it spiritually.

Benefits of yoga

As a whole, introduction of yoga into the workplace can be a positive thing. Studies repeatedly show that yoga is beneficial in combatting stress and that it serves as an effective part of stress management strategies. In approaching stress as manifestations in the body such as tension and pain, Lindström finds there are benefits to focusing on breathing. 

"In the offices, we have focused on hatha yoga asanas, a slower-paced yoga where we have had time to focus on the areas where my colleagues have experienced pain. For example in [the] lower back, back or neck"
, she says.

Lindström is also critical of the current status of ergonomics at work . "There is a lot of back pain in my office. We sit by desks in static positions all day bent forward and not opening up backwards, which creates back pain. Wherever there is tension it creates pain over time, and with that comes stress.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some feel that yoga could act as a way for employers to shift the blame of stress back onto employees. Instead they should examine the root causes of stress, and there should perhaps also be a focus on such matters as being overworked, company dynamics and workplace environment.

More than purely physical
As the practice of yoga is not only about physical exercise however, there needs to be some acknowledgement of its spiritual aspects. Especially when it is brought into the workplace. Yoga inevitably touches upon both matters of culture and religion in its physical practice. The chanting and prayer at the beginning of a lesson is a good example of this.

This begs to question if the spiritual aspect is afforded necessary consideration when yoga is introduced into more neutral spaces such as workplaces?

Scandinavian businesses are known for having management structures without hierarchical structures in place. Structures that instead are built outwards in branches, much like a tree, rather than up or down the corporate ladder.

Issues with Sanskrit 

Yoga practice and meditation both originate from the use of Sanskrit, and this becomes clear in relation to chanting. Sanskrit is a language which has historically excluded people of certain social classes and castes from using it.

This ought to be taken into consideration in contexts such as workplace practice. The introduction of Sanskrit, without any consideration to its historical usage, automatically stands the risk of unintentionally appropriating a culture and its history.

With all this in mind, where yoga has very defined hierarchal structures as part of its application, perhaps chanting and Sanskrit prayer are best left at the proverbial office doors.

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