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Yoga Me Well Blog Archive

The Big Business of Being Well

Ten years ago, it was the triple bottom line – People, Planet, Profit. Now, the Corporate World is strategising over Wellness. What is it and how to deliver it?

Culture Shock

Working in the media for 20 years, I commonly found workplace cultures that bred low morale and chronic illness. There were simply too few people doing too many jobs under relentless pressure. Staff were treated like oranges to be juiced and tossed because the allure of media endures, though it frazzles many a young enthusiast.

Enter Wellbeing Programs

In recent years, I worked for a bank that offered “high performance mind” sessions to executives. That’s corporate speak for “meditation”. It gave me hope. Now big business is offering movie vouchers and belly dancing to keep staff happy.

The trend toward corporate wellness programs, like the triple-bottom-line before it, is here to stay. Wellness, it seems, now begins at school (Stephanie Alexander’s school gardens project) and at work, rather than home. And corporate wellness providers are everywhere. From entrepreneurial individuals to broad spectrum organisations offering preventative health measures to help us yoga, meditate and work/life balance our way back to sanity.

Improving corporate wellbeing programs

Michael Stone was well before the crest of this wave in 2003 when he founded the Holistic Services Group Australia (HSGA). He is still there in his acknowledgement that tailoring services to individual employee needs is the next challenge for this nascent industry.

HSGA’s service range is extraordinary: clowning, drumming, tarot reading, iridology, office feng shui and healthy cooking (much in demand thanks to Masterchef) beside traditional offerings of health education, corporate wellness events and stress management and relaxation workshops. It has collated several hundred contractors around Australia to service about 500 clients in seven years.

Organisational psychologist Joanne Abbey of Grow Corporate Wellbeing echoes Stone’s view about personalising services. Companies need to deliver what employees truly value. While massage at your desk is great, a supportive environment that cultivates healthy work relationships is better.

“Culture is the main obstacle to improving wellbeing at work. The first step in a change program is to accurately identify what wellbeing means to employees. From there, initiatives can be targeted and results can be quickly measured,” says Abbey, who is researching wellbeing in the private sector. “Wellbeing is more about the quality of connectedness.”

What do staff really want?

So how do companies find out what employees want?

Australian Unity’s Sharon Beaumont, group executive for human resources, runs regular engagement surveys which ask some 1400 staff what’s working. The company recently launched a 50 per cent subsidy on health insurance for staff who sign-up for approved health products 0as part of its wellness offering and extended paid parental leave.

Stone says that self-managed employee assistance programs are also a good way to gauge what’s hot.

“Ideally, these are funded by the company or subsidised. AMP established a slush fund where staff contribute between $5 and $8 a month and they choose what services they want. It’s completely staff managed and driven, with a participation rate of about 82 per cent,” he says.

Moula or massage?

Sometimes, money talks, says Stone when IBM offered a $150 cash rebate to employees who attended the company’s physical activity programs. Participation rates soared from 10,000 to 100,000! But not always.

When Delta Airlines offered staff a $45 cash incentive to take a health risk assessment, the response was underwhelming. But raffling 25 gift certificates for a year’s health insurance had them scurrying to the doctor’s suite.

Why it goes wrong

A study by Monash University for TravelSmart Victoria, “Measuring the Benefits of Corporate Health and Wellbeing Initiatives”, found that corporates were implementing programs because it was the “right thing to do”. But they often failed to monitor and evaluate the value of initiatives.

On this point, Abbey agrees: “It would be very difficult to measure wellbeing because it’s not conceptualised [that is to say]. . . how do you measure something you don’t know how to define?”

The study also found that: “Rigorous scientific studies have failed to prove reduced absenteeism and increased productivity are direct (and measurable) benefits of health initiatives, but the weight of evidence suggest that they do contribute to these goals.”

Implement thoughtfully, improve productivity 

Enter Stone, with a battery of research that shows wellness programs are making quality inroads.

A Harvard Business Review study into workplace wellness found that work/life balance programs were returning between $3 to $5 on average for every dollar invested. Coca Cola attributes savings of $500 per year per employee.

Stone also quotes research from PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute, done in conjunction with the World Economic Forum, which discusses how employee wellness bolsters the bottomline. It says that the economic case for prevention “is overwhelming”.

In the future, employees who refuse to take ownership of their health through preventative measures may well find employers forcing the issue.

Stone says companies in the US are beginning to reject applicants who smoke or have a high health risk, and legislation currently allows it.

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor specialising in holistic wellbeing.

Liv Mitchell

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

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Spring into Yoga: Find a Class

Early Spring, many full moons ago, I was shopping for a class in the yoga Mecca of Prahran. The teacher was Indian so I figured he must be good, coming from Yoga’s heartland. His fair-haired, honey-tanned acolyte wore a kind of loin cloth (probably just daggy shorts), according to my apocryphal memory. But I do recall being rigid with panic as the whimpering girl beyond my buckled body’s sight asked the teacher to release her from a posture, and he refused.

I’ve done hard-bodied yoga with a humourless teacher and gently coo-ing classes with a sweet despairing one, flowing postures with an Earth Mother and cocooned myself in the comforting routine and community of one tradition. If you’ve lapsed over winter and are keen to get your mat rolling with a new class this Spring, here are some shopping tips…

Tradition vs fusion

Let’s divide yoga styles roughly into tradition-based and fusion styles.

Yoga traditions have a spiritual guru or master teacher who develops a style and adheres to a philosophy which is passed down through a lineage. They usually have a hub that nurtures the student/teacher community, providing a like-minded social network and workshops on say, “yoga for back pain” or “stress”, for students as well as teacher graduates. They may even hold full moon meditations and solstice celebrations. Some long standing traditions in Melbourne include Gita International in Abbotsford, Krishnamacharya Healing Yoga Foundation (KHYF) in Middle Park and Yoga in Daily Life in Richmond. While the Iyengar and Ashtanga traditions have loads of teachers here, they have no central hub.

Having said that, many teachers with an entrepreneurial spirit and a rented space create active hives for students.

Fusion classes came about as teachers continued professional development beyond the tradition in which they qualified. Many explore the vast world of yoga styles here and overseas, slowly developing a personal “best of” compilation of teaching influences, styles and philosophies. Many fusion teachers simply advertise themselves as “hatha” yoga, while others have codified their new style and branded it, like Shadow yoga, Anusara and SomaChi.

Format, Pace & Props

Class formats vary hugely but most include some floor work and standing work and transition from one posture to the next (holding each for a minute or so). Breath work and relaxation are generally key elements.

Vinyasa classes meanwhile, offer flowing posture sequences performed in perfect harmony with the breath.

Some styles, like Iyengar, also use props (bolsters, blocks, straps and blankets) to ensure you get the best alignment for your body in each posture. It requires some mucking around between postures, but you might enjoy that micro-break, or find it unutterably tedious and prefer the simplicity of straight mat work.

Consider the pace of the class too. Some styles whip through 25 poses or more in 60 to 90 minutes, which makes working safely difficult for newcomers. It can take years to crack the best alignment for your body in popular classes where teachers are unable to offer sustained individual attention. You may find it more rewarding to consider a smaller class, or one that spends more time in fewer postures, until you build a stable foundation and confidence.

What do I need?

In her search for a terrific teacher, my friend Sal came across plenty with hot bods, outfits to match and the bendy cellular structures of ex-dancers. But, says Sal: “One of my fave teachers of all time was a woman in her 70s who wore spangly old leotards.” Ask yourself, do I want…:

A yoga coach or spiritual mentor?
A class that challenges me, or restores me because I’m a total stress head?
A few private classes to gain confidence and technique?
A studio that offers a variety of classes, ability levels and teachers?
Or a teacher who offers smaller groups and individual attention?
Is personal development and spiritual philosophy important?
A community of yoga buddies with whom to enjoy all things oogie-boogie (spiritual)?

Excuse me, but …?

Ask the teacher:

Are your classes dynamic, or more restorative?
How many postures do you do per class?
What’s the format? (eg: Breath work? Mostly standing postures? Any relaxation?)
Are classes level-specific, or of mixed abilities?
How is your yoga different to others I’ve tried?
Do you offer spiritual philosophy and what are some of your key concepts?
Do you offer individual attention?

What do people say they like about your teaching style?

Search a class

Try these websites for different styles of yoga in Melbourne

Liv Mitchell

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

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Yoga-ing thru the Ups & Downs

If you’ve fallen in love with yoga or are newly exploring it, you’ve probably met at least one teacher or fellow student who radiates that something special you’d like more of. What is it about being bendy that makes you a shinier person?

Your teacher tells you how asanas rejuvenate your innards in multi-fabulous ways, but how exactly does yoga create nicer, calmer, more even people that others like to be around? How does mat practice help you yoga through the ups and downs of life?

Off, On, Off, On, On, On: For too many of us, the autonomic nervous system’s “fight or flight” stress response is jammed to “On”. Each class retrains your body to move quickly between the “On” response during heart-pumping asanas and the parasympathetic nervous system’s “Off” response when you’re instructed to take a micro-rest. Outside class, how quickly can you recalibrate after an argument? Can you employ the same focussed will to quiet a racing mind or heart? Be the duck – let the small stuff trickle off your back and you’ll swim more smoothly through life.

Surprise! You’re in charge: If you take just one breathing technique from class and use it to alter your state of being when you’re anxious, snappy, exhausted, you’re doing the world a big favour. It breaks that reactive cycle of lashing out when you’re not centred and, just as it does in class, it glues the fragmented pieces of you together again.

Adventure inward: Yoga is a multi dimensional practice and an adventurous journey. Your first destination is focus. You can spend years foraging here, working out when a stretch is heading for a strain, learning which postures ignite, or wipe, your energy. You practise catching your mind’s participation (and impact) during class as it meanders from critical thought to useful observation. Focus introduces you to feelings that bubble up on the mat, like restlessness, superiority, boredom, irritation and defeat, and asks you “Why?”.

Outside class, that multi-level directory of awareness begins filtering into your day until you become the expert observer of your own foibles. You’ll notice how many times you barely breathe, you’ll catch your shoulders hanging out with your ears, and any damaging thoughts before they become words or actions. You’ll learn to feel your feelings and deal with them, instead of stuffing them into your cellular structure where they backlog energy, swell and flare into dis-ease.

Theme of the week: Many teachers structure their class around a theme to give you a philosophical anchor and new perspective. It might encourage you to practise acceptance, gratitude or compassion. If it resonates strongly with you in class, consider that your spiritual homework for the week ahead. My favourite? Imagine your thoughts are on loudspeaker…

Roll the mat, nicely: Being asked to fold your blankets a certain way and to stack them neatly shows respect for the next student and respect for the property. Why forget those small acts of service outside class? The shiny person doesn’t mind changing the office toilet roll and hasn’t forgotten the Nod of Gratitude to the driver who lets them though. They put their own dirty clothes in the laundry basket and wash their own coffee cup at work, and maybe someone else’s.

I surrender!: In class we learn to “give in” and “let go” in between postures to allow the body time to assimilate the benefits such as nourishment received (richly oxygenated blood), improved energy flow and toxin/tension release. When we surrender in relaxation, the reward is an exquisite sense of wellbeing and connection with something bigger. Much bigger.

In life, sometimes when we’ve considered all the angles and still feel stumped, the answer comes through surrender, that process of turning it over to a higher power and saying “I’ve sat with this situation long enough, I’m dismissing it from my thoughts and handing it over. I’ll wait for a sign. When I see it, or feel it, I’ll know how to act.”

Life, it’s all practice: At a recent Yoga in Daily Life teacher’s workshop Gita gently reminded us: “It is just practice after all.” As on the mat, so in life. Yogis live by the credo that every moment of every day is an opportunity to grow. We’re practicing to be better people. When things go awry in life, practise new responses until you find what works. If you’ve learned to arrive at the mat with an open heart, and to practice without judgement and to accept where you’re at physically, emotionally and mentally during that hour, just roll that attitude up and take it with you. That way, you’ll keep practising.

Lisa Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor specialising in holistic wellbeing.

Liv Mitchell

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

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