‘Employee Wellbeing’ has become a bit of a buzz-phrase in recent years. There is an expectation that companies acknowledge the importance of Employee Wellbeing and demonstrate what measures they take to look after their team. As Edo’s People & Wellbeing Lead this area of the business is a key focus of mine and one which interests me on a personal level, as well as a professional one.
Over the last few years I have attended many local events and meetups on employee wellbeing and mental health. It seems to be a common theme through these events that you’ll always get one speaker who confidently opens their presentation by acknowledging something along the lines of: “employee wellbeing is more than a lunchtime yoga class”. This always causes an unavoidable, undesirable reaction from me - I sit up a little straighter as the feeling of nails down a blackboard runs through my spine and my face gets hot and flustered. These comments cause me to shift from feeling like an imposter to being able to lean in and feel like I have a place and voice in the room. This is because I am a yoga teacher and have been teaching since 2012 - far longer than I’ve been at Edo and focussing on employee wellbeing in a business context.
When I joined Edo at the beginning of 2017, one of the first things I introduced was offering a free lunchtime yoga class. I wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of yoga and what it can offer a busy agency with a team who spend much time sat at desks, who have responsibilities and pressures outside of work and who are also keen to keep improving what has always been a positive, supportive company culture.
One of the key pieces of research on mental wellbeing that has been widely shared and promoted is the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, researched and produced by the New Economics Foundation. The 5 Ways to Wellbeing that were identified to “improve everyone’s mental capital and mental wellbeing through life” are:I can confidently say that any well prepared yoga class led by an experienced yoga teacher will tick each of these boxes. In the context of a lunchtime yoga class in the workplace, I have observed that the following benefits which can be challenging to regularly offer through any other regular office-based activity:
The time before and after the class allows people who work in different areas of projects to connect and chat, more often than not about things other than work. People show up as equals, regardless of position in the company. Over time they learn that yoga is a non-competitive practice and those 45 minutes are there for them to just be themselves.
A yoga class also provides the perfect opportunity for people to connect with their self - their body, breathing, emotions, thoughts and energy level through moments of stillness and silence. By closing each practice with 5 minutes in Savasana, you are able to lie in stillness and silence; to let your whole self just be.
The physical intensity of yoga is a scale - it can be incredible restful and still, but it can also generate heat and sweat. The lunchtime classes are an opportunity for people to move their bodies in ways in which sitting or standing at a desk doesn’t offer. We roll around the floor, stand on one leg, lift our arms over our heads and move our spine in all directions. These movements, and many more, encourage a healthy flow of blood around the body and provide relief to tight muscles and sore backs. Yoga postures encourage people to get out of their (often) tired, overworked mind and into their (often) neglected body.
Yoga can be a form of moving meditation. Although toned muscles, increased stamina and a lower resting heart rate may be products of a regular yoga practice, the common theme that should be found in every yoga class is an invitation to practice being present, otherwise known as ‘noticing’. There are many other activities that may ‘accidentally’ require you to pay attention and notice what you are doing in each moment (running, cycling, knitting, drawing to name a few), but when practising yoga there is an intentional invitation to fully notice to your whole self.
Much of our working day can be filled with planning and re-prioritising which focus on the future and often events outside of our self, whereas a yoga practice and class requires you to be more present and be aware of what you are experiencing right now. You might be asked to focus on the precise placement of your right big toe or pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing to help you practice taking notice. So crucially, by taking notice in a yoga class we are also practising the increasingly rare, but highly valuable, art of listening.
Yoga postures and practices can be challenging. They require an open mind and a willingness to learn. Like anything else in life, with time and focus you can refine what you do by getting more interested and informed in the detail. There is no final destination in yoga, but you might acknowledge small, personal milestones which will occur spontaneously. It’s the perfect practice to teach you how to be a student as there are endless ways to learn about yoga - starting with a 45 minute lunchtime class may just be the beginning. It could lead to taking classes and courses outside of work hours or studying ancient yogic texts, modern psychology, anatomy principles or philosophy.
This one may seem less obvious, but bear with me. By giving yourself the time out of a busy working day or week to take part in a lunchtime yoga class, you are also giving the people close to you something special. By practicing all of the above you will most probably be better company to be around! If you regularly take time to connect with others on an equal playing field, move your body to ease aches and pains, practice paying attention and have an open, enquiring mind then your colleagues, friends and family will benefit too. This isn’t to say yoga will stop you from getting angry or frustrated, but it gives you the tools to be self-aware and to self-regulate when you are experiencing overwhelming situations or feelings.
So that is my response to those people who appear to misunderstand what yoga has the potential to be and offer in the context of the workplace. Before knocking it as a feature of an Employee Wellbeing programme, I would ask you to attend a yoga class with an experienced teacher yourself, or hear from those people who regularly attend Edo’s lunchtime yoga class:
"Yoga classes at work have been a small haven, allowing me to let go of the daily stress and, as a result, to make me approach my workload with more calm and efficiency."
“It's great for focus and energy. Exercising in the middle of day helps me feel both emotionally, and physically, better. Which has a hugely positive effect on my work and work/life balance.”