Can yoga really make offices better? An interview with yogi Rachel Johnston

Yoga teacher Rachel Johnston has an unusual approach to the practice she’s taught successfully in the offices of corporations and other organisations. We talked to her about yoga, movement and what needs to happen for the benefits of yoga to be really felt in the office.

What’s different about the way you teach yoga, Rachel?

I started yoga as a particularly active 16-year-old who was very into movement, especially dance. I now bring in inspiration from other movement modalities into my asana teaching because I don’t see a separation between them and the physical aspects of yoga. The variation is enormously valuable.

How did the corporate classes come about?

I started teaching for Stretching The City, an excellent organisation that offers yoga to firms in the City of London, mainly financial organisations and advertising agencies. Highly stressful environments where people work long hours sitting at their desks. Sessions happen at lunch time or immediately after work.

Was it effective?

I ended up using my teaching sessions as a way to introduce people to the concept of making their office environment more movement and mind-body friendly. I want the effects of yoga and movement to be felt in the office all the time, not just for an hour.

Why?

I believe that you are the way you move. So it’s all very well going in and doing an hour’s yoga but that doesn’t change the rest of your day at the office.

I found that while organisations were open to yoga, the actual office environment was often not so great. For instance, the aircon in the offices I went to was so often too hot or cold. Windows were sealed so the air was stale. I was told it was because of the risk of people jumping out the window! The lights in these places are also very bright, presumably to keep people awake.

What was the mix of women and men?

We did tend to get mostly women as much as we tried to keep it mixed. Often it would be the receptionists and secretaries. We were less likely to get people doing the really high-powered jobs. The people most stressed were least likely to do yoga.

Do you believe that yoga makes people change? That you almost don’t have a choice?

I do. It’s the same for any practice combining mind and body.

How do you teach yoga in offices now?

It’s a skills-based practice. We always start with some sort of breathing practice and a gentle warm-up. Then I offer something to help people in everyday working life. I show them everything from how to relax their hamstrings to resting their eyes by looking out the window at the horizon.

We do yoga poses but my focus is on teaching people ways to do adapt these to their own particular body structure. We always do some kneeling and a squat. Our bodies are actually designed for three things – lying down, standing up and squatting. Squatting is vital for a healthy spine, knees and ankles. I want people to still be able to squat when they’re 70.

I also ask people to think about their walking patterns around the office – to walk as much as possible, as well as going outside into the fresh air when they can. It’s about using the context of yoga to help people think about movement.

What about the relaxation at the end of the class? Doesn’t it leave people too relaxed for work?

I think it’s nice to send people back to work calm. But don’t forget we’re talking about an active relaxation. It’s not like waking up groggy from a nap. Relaxation is a great way of imbedding new information in your brain.

Do you come across companies and people who are resistant to yoga?

There are still preconceptions about what yoga is and who can do it. One of the most common things I hear is ‘Oh, I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible’.

I always say ‘You’re in the right place then’.

We also have to remember that people have fears related to their body image and a simple lack of knowledge about what their bodies can actually do. I love it when I help a person overcome their fear and do a headstand, something they may never have done before in their life. It’s a small thing but it often feels like a real achievement to them.

Time is also a factor. Some organisations believe offering yoga is a good thing but they only want people to take 45-minutes for the class rather than a full hour. And it isn’t just companies claiming to be time-poor. In office culture, being seen as busy-busy- busy is a mark of status. I’ve had experiences where the organisation itself thinks yoga at work is a great idea but its people are worried about setting aside the time.

What needs to happen for an office-yoga movement to grow?

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think about movement before yoga is more widely accepted. For the sake of convenience, we’ve got rid of all the natural movement that would have happened throughout our day in the past. Now we have to take exercise rather than simply moving.

Working in offices, especially, takes so much movement out of our days so we need to put it back in. We should be mindful about movement in offices all the time and creating workspaces that really are for human bodies.

One of the organisations I approached had a great idea for how to encourage yoga in their workplace. They suggested training one person from each department to teach yoga. These people would become champions for the practice. Other employees would also be more receptive because they’d see that it’s possible for pretty much anyone to become a yoga teacher. I thought that was excellent.

Why do you think the corporate world isn’t encouraging more yoga and movement awareness? They always talk about people being their biggest asset.

To be honest, I don’t know. As far as I can see, anything that makes people healthier and happier at work means they get more done. They also take less time off work. Perhaps business simply feels it doesn’t really matter, which would obviously be wrong.

Before we finish, if you could tell people to do one thing at work to make themselves feel better what would it be?

Take your shoes off. When your feet are restricted, so is everything else about your body. I like to leave people with tennis balls so they can massage the soles of their feet when they’re working. You should try it.

Thanks Rachel. We definitely will. While we imagine offices filled with smiling, barefoot people moving gracefully as they work.

Find out more about Rachel and her wonderfully different approach to yoga at www.rachel-and-yoga.com.

 www.stretchingthecity.com