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Yoga Me Well Blog

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

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Liv Mitchell is a senior yoga teacher and freelance writer/editor.

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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

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Liv Mitchell is a senior yoga teacher and freelance writer/editor.

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DIY Health

If you’re honest about it, how often have you handed yourself over to health professionals to ‘fix’ you? Have you been able to ask: “How did I contribute to my ill-health? What warning signs did I ignore? Am I avoiding making changes that could help?”

I blamed work forever for my chronic ill health. It wasn’t until I accepted that I chose every thought, emotion and action that contributed to it that my healing process began.

We have a problem. Australia’s ageing population is catapulting toward us and our healthcare system is unable to sustain it given society’s bandaid approach to healthcare and the rising costs. We need to take charge of our health through preventative measures  self-awareness of contributing factors, supportive nutrition, lifestyle changes  if we’re to turn things around.

The holistic approaches that are integral to complementary and alternative health systems are part of the solution. Thankfully, there are signs of a break-through as clinics offering “Integrative Medicine” (IM) sprout in the suburbs. Alongside GPs, clinic practitioners might include a naturopath, nutritionist, acupuncturist, masseur and osteopath; yet to edge their way in are more alternative practitioners, such as homeopaths, herbalists and kinesiologists.

Professor Kerryn Phelps, president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA) says cancer patients and “thinking consumers” are forcing change.

“. . . Over 80 per cent of cancer patients are using complementary therapies, most often without the knowledge of their doctors, and that consumer-driven push has really encouraged cancer specialists to look at what they’re doing,” she says, citing hospitals such as St Vincent’s in Sydney and Sir Charles Gairdner in Perth as Australia’s early adopters of IM.

Melbourne’s Austin Health is on the starting block, currently fund-raising for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre, which “is likely to include” meditation, relaxation, art and music therapy, massage and aromatherapy.

Says Professor Phelps: “We’re a long way behind the US . . . somewhat behind the UK and a long way behind countries like Germany which have been integrating conventional and herbal medicine for centuries. We’re really just at the beginning of the curve.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Social Trends 2008 report confirms it: just 3.8 per cent of the population (748,000 people) had consulted one of seven selected complementary health therapists in 2004-05. By contrast, the European Information Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (EICCAM) reckons 40 per cent of EU citizens have a clear preference for, and are regular users of CAM, while the 2007 US National Health Survey found 38 per cent of Americans were CAM-friendly.

We’re so much more than our physical bodies; it’s time to adventure deeper into the layers of being that profoundly influence health.

Who’s Who in ‘Voodoo’

Energy practitioners are here to stay and like the yogi pioneers to Western culture before them, news of their life-shaping expertise is destined for your grapevine.

The list of modalities is ever-increasing  Alexander and Bowen technique; craniosacral therapy; reiki; kinesiology; reflexology; thought-field therapy; pranic healing; somato-emotional release therapy  and the number of private educators training practitioners is growing. As in western medicine, there are good and bad operators, so nothing new there.

I’ve had enough treatments to know it’s worth exploring for me, with my responses ranging from energy upheavals that feel worse (lethargy, aches, disorientation) before they feel better (back problems resolved, a weight lifted, clarity, shifts in unhelpful, long-held attitudes and wellbeing).

Our physical bodies are, ultimately, just energy on the sub-atomic level, but we each also have a unique electromagnetic blueprint that influences our health, which has been researched and measured by many including medical intuitive Caroline Myss in her work with Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Dr Norman Shealy, and bioenergy pioneer Dr Valerie Hunt, a scientist and Professor Emeritus of Physiological Science at the University of California, in her work with Nasa.

Energy work is not only for the CAM-initiated, says Jeanette Young, president of the Energetic Healing Association.

“We do find people who have been to a lot of other medical practitioners and haven’t found an answer but have pain in their bodies that the medical system can’t diagnose . . . and that’s because it’s in the energy field . . . when we come to an understanding of the subtle energies via the meridian and chakra systems, we can start to read the story that the body has for us,” says Young.

How do you begin to navigate the ocean of possibilities?

My rule of thumb has always been word-of-mouth. Young agrees, and advises you to go with your gut.

“Obviously there will be a bit of nervousness when doing something new, but the key factor to a positive shift in your energy is a sense of trust and safety in the practitioner. When in doubt, don’t.”

Top 5 Health & Wellbeing Reads

Here you go: five fabulously accessible, enlightened perspectives on self-aware approaches to health and wellbeing:

  1. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Dr Christiane Northrup
  2. The Creation of Health, Caroline Myss and Dr Norman Shealy
  3. Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind Body Medicine, by Deepak Chopra
  4. The Breakthrough Experience, Dr John Demartini
  5. You Can Heal your Life, Louise L. Hay

Liv Mitchell

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Liv Mitchell is a senior yoga teacher and freelance writer/editor.

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