Over the past decade, yoga has shot into the mainstream as a holistic workout for minds, bodies, and souls. It sits amidst mindfulness and meditation as just one example of the growing trend of eastern philosophy as western lifestyle. More and more companies have started introducing workplace yoga passes, spaces, and team classes into their health and wellness programs, and everyone from Apple to Nike is capitalising on the benefits that come from building a zen workforce.
The Origins of Yoga
The practice of yoga dates back over 5000 years, to the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation of Northern India. The word yoga essentially means ‘union’, and the practice traditionally is about uniting mind, body, and breath. By stilling the mind, maintaining the physical body, and bringing conscious awareness to movement and breath, the traditional aim of yogis was to achieve liberation from the worldly constraints of the ego, and go beyond the cycle of life and death.
Yoga in the West
Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, explains that the growing interest in both spirituality and fitness during the new cultural era of the 1970s was the perfect environment for the modern day rebranding of yoga in the west.
Several instructors brought yoga to the U.S. from India, but most notable were B.K.S. Iyengar, who famously taught the Queen of Belgium to head stand at the age of 80, and Pattabhi Jois, whose clientele included the likes of Madonna, Sting, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
However it has only been over the past decade that yoga has once again seen a rebranding. No longer just the workout of dedicated new agers, it has become mainstream and far more accessible, illustrative of a broader lifestyle shift embracing health and wellness. With the ever increasing stresses of modern life, for better or for worse yoga has come to be seen as somewhat of a cure all. A large part of the appeal of yoga is it’s long history. Bombarded as we frequently are with the latest exercise fads, something that has stood the test of thousands of years is to be revered. And as time goes on, and research continues to demonstrate it’s health benefits, yoga continues to grow in popularity.
Yoga – Big Business
In practice, modern yoga can mean anything from a workout to meditation, and even a kind of worship for the ‘spiritual but not religious‘. There’s hot yoga and yin yoga and ashtanga vinyasa yoga, all of which stem from the ancient philosophy but diverge from it in varying degrees, and it’s all a part of what is now an $80 billion industry worldwide. In the U.S. alone there are more than 20 million yoga practitioners, who spend over $10.3 billion a year on classes, and over the last five years there has been an 87% percent increase on yoga product spending.
Capitalising on Zen
For companies, the benefits are clear. It’s a relatively cheap and easy way for a business to demonstrate that they are invested in staff wellbeing, in a manner that creates a progressive image. Workplace Yoga can be done with a relatively small amount of space and virtually no equipment, and is a convenient way to ensure that employees are finding time in their busy schedules to create some balance and squeeze in some exercise.
Yoga helps teach mindfulness, which makes it easier to focus on what we are doing in the present moment. During class this means that the mind is given a rest from the stresses of work, and during work time it means greater mental clarity and productivity. And with stress being a leading cause of chronic health problems, anything which can help to combat that makes financial sense. It’s also a good time for staff to bond amongst themselves, and can create a more positive and relaxed team environment – the buzz of a collective endorphin rush is never a bad thing!
Bill Boyle, responsible for HBO’s workplace yoga program, is a firm supporter. He argues that with everybody under more stress and pressure to perform, yoga gives them a chance to take everything in their stride. “The deep breathing and relaxation employees get from workplace yoga help them to be more focused and less anxious. When they go back to work, they’re in a position to make better decisions. You don’t want people making business decisions when they’re stressed.”