Yoga, which derives its name from the word, “yoke”—to bring together—does just that, brings together the mind, body and spirit. But whether you use yoga for spiritual transformation or stress management or physical wellbeing, the benefits are numerous.
Yoga’s positive effects on the body are fairly well recognized and accepted these days- increased strength and flexibility and reduction in muscular tension. Further, practice can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and encourages a good night’s sleep, all of which lend themselves to a good day at work.
Generally exercise can help relieve stress by helping to keep the body “fit” and releasing endorphins, the natural hormones that make you feel better, e.g. “runner’s high.” Yoga practice works with the muscles in a less aggressive way than many forms of exercise, and counters the tensing with stretches, which is of great benefit for the overall relief to muscles tense from the not so nature physical positions or repetitive movements we meet in the workplace, not to mention the stresses associated with just getting to work (driving, commuting on crowded public transportation, etc.). During the work week, there is the stress of sitting still, the stress of a big meeting with the department head, and the stress of shifting from work to home during the week and on weekends. Stress is stored all over the body, but individuals may be aware that physical stress reaction seems to focus in a particular area, (e.g. neck, shoulders, hips). Over time the continued tensing without relief to these specific areas will cause pain there and elsewhere, in areas that seem to be unrelated. What do my legs have to do with my upper back? The practice of a specific series of postures (asanas) can reduce the tension in a problem area and help relieve stress all over the body, counter and perhaps even eventually correct some of the effects of stress on the physical body, and often leads to a better overall outlook.
One of the wonderful things about yoga is that it can be practiced anywhere, and if the objective of all yoga techniques is tranquility (James Hewitt, p 13), then the work place, specifically your own desk chair, is an excellent place to practice. Although home practice is encouraged, even without this, you can learn to make use of yogic postures, breathing, and relaxation techniques in the workplace. All are beneficial in managing the stress of work, but are also applicable elsewhere in life. Applying yogic techniques at work can assist us in a variety of ways. A few of them are:
(1) The practice of yoga postures helps one become aware of different parts of the body, and where stress is stored.
(2) Practice can help relieve symptomatic physical reactions to stress.
(3) Practice can be helpful in building resistance to stress.
(4) Practice can release the holding of tension after the stressor is gone.
(5) Practice provides a tool kit to help us transition from work to home.
Yoga practice can bring an awareness of the body, its tight places, its loose places, and with this can come some discernment and even clarity regarding what are the causes of stress for us. Our job can be our yoga studio, the desk chair our mat; work is where many of us meet up with the same type of stressful situations found throughout life -– too much to do, too little time; responsibilities avoided; appointments missed; physical and personal boundary issues. Even positive occasions are stressful, waiting for the promotion and then getting it. Stressful!
Signs of stress are many and are often ignored. Labeled as habits, such signs can be viewed as something too difficult to change or not important enough to bother about. With increase in stress level, already familiar nervous physical habits (e.g. nail biting, fidgeting, doodling) that appear innocuous will likely increase. Mental habits can also kick in, such as obsessive thinking. Other signs of stress can be talking constantly or inappropriately about the issue at hand, and hand-in-hand with the mental stress is the emotional aspect. Feelings such as anger, anxiety, irritability, and even a “who cares” attitude (when in fact you should care), can be over the top. Bringing yoga training to work via useful physical practice, yogic breathing techniques, and yogic relaxation sequences can help us more quickly identify gross physical symptoms that identify stress such as a headache or low back pain (for which we may take medication). From there we may start to connect physical stress reactions (e.g. headache) to particular occurrences or type of situation, like the weekly meeting or annual review, or interaction with a particular workmate. With continuing practice which brings more awareness of the bodily sensations, the more subtle beginnings of physical stress reaction may come to light. Perhaps we notice slight tension in the neck or stomach muscles as we walk toward the conference room, or even when we head for the car on a Monday morning.
How do we begin to break the cycle of stress at work? One place to start is your personal physical space, taking stock to see where changes can be made to produce a more relaxed environment, which may include ergonomic changes such a lowering the keyboard or rearranging your desk.
And what about starting a yoga practice? A yoga class once a week is good, but the stress of work is taking place 5 days a week, several hours a day, so taking our practice to the desk is key.
Begin with a breathing practice. Sit upright in a stable chair, shrug the shoulders up and back, placing hands on thighs, palms down, or rest hands in lap right palm resting in left. Close the eyes if you can or gaze downward with a soft focus, away from the desk and computer screen. Breathing through the nose, take 3-5 breaths, consciously lengthening the inhale and exhale slightly, relaxing the abdomen while continuing to sit upright with chest open. And Ta Da ! Yoga practice. This type of focused breathing helps relax the body and clear the mind. Set aside a few minutes a 2-3 times a day for this practice.
What kind of exercises can be done at work, at a desk? Shoulder rolls and shrugs, neck rolls and turns, ear to shoulder stretches, shoulder blade squeezes, eagle arms, hands and finger manipulations, flexing the wrists, cat and cow, seated twist, breathing exercises, leg stretches, feet exercises, knee squeezes, arm reaches: while sitting position on a stationary chair, one can practice many yogic postures and stretches. If you have the room to stand by the chair, multiple other standing postures and warm up stretches that do not require a lot of room can be added to the list. Mountain, palm tree series, standing twists, hip circles, a standing twist are some examples.
Here are 3 short series that can be practiced at your desk, alone or in combination. Start with a 2-3 rounds of deep breathing. End with a quiet moment of natural breathing. Maintain an upright posture while practicing. The chair must be kept stationary.
Wrists and Hands.
1. Hold right arm out. Face palm forward fingers pointing to ceiling. Use left palm, pressing back gently on right hand. Hold for two breaths. Alternate arm/hand position.
2. Place arms at your side, flex hands pressing down with heal of hand. Hold for two breaths. Relax hands. Flex hands again, this time raising arms (if possible) to no higher than shoulder height, stopping where the stretch has increased on the underside of the arm. Hold for two breaths. Bring arms back to sides, relax hands.
3. Make tight fists, squeeze, then open the hands, stretching fingers and skin on palms. Repeat 2 or 3 times. Shake hands in air vigorously.
Neck and Shoulders
1. With an inhale turn head to right, exhale front, inhale turn head to left, exhale face front. Repeat.
2. With inhale, keeping face forward drop right ear toward right shoulder. With exhale, lift head up, with inhale, drop left ear to left shoulder. Inhale head up. Repeat.
3. With inhale, tuck chin slightly dropping chin toward chest (keep torso upright as back of neck stretches). Inhale, exhale, inhale and with exhale lift chin. Repeat.
4. Alternate shoulder rolls 4-5 times, to the back and then front.
Legs and feet:
1. Sitting upright, stretch right leg forward, heal to floor. Lift foot to perform ankle rotations, both directions. Repeat other side.
2. Flex and point each foot several times.
3. Sitting upright, stretch both feet forward, heels on floor, activity flexing feet by pressing forward with heel and toes toward face. Hold for 3 breaths. Relax and repeat.
If simple exercises such as these are practiced regularly, we will become more familiar with those things that create stress for us, relief from stress will be more readily available, and we will be better able to keep work-related stress from affecting the other areas of our life.
Mary Palermo is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in Boston, Massachusetts.