Tracy Forsyth is an Executive Coach, Creator of ‘Yoga in the Boardroom’ workshop and Wellbeing Columnist for TBI Vision. In addition, she is Creative Mentor for the Channel 4 Growth Fund advising production companies on growth strategy and the Women in Film & TV Mentoring Scheme Producer for mid-career women. She is a professionally certified Co-Active Executive Coach working with high potential talent in leadership positions and a qualified 200hr Yoga Teacher.
She spoke to This Can Happen about the benefits of yoga in the workplace.
When you see the word yoga, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it people in leggings striking poses on a mat? Beaches in Goa and vegetarian food? Chanting, incense and beaded bracelets?
Well, yes, yoga can include all those things, but it is so much more.
In terms of mental and physical well-being, yoga also has a place right in the heart of corporate life. The good news is that there are so many beneficial ways you can bring yoga off the mat or beach and right into your everyday working culture. All without having to wear leggings.
When the ancient sage Pantajali pulled together all the learnings and thoughts about the philosophy and meaning of a yogic way of life in the Yoga Sutras, he outlined an eight-limbed, step-by-step path for steadying and calming the mind. ‘Yogas citta vrittis nirodha’ he wrote, meaning: ‘Yoga is the cessation of the mindstuff’. In other words, yoga is a practice that helps you de-stress and find peace when the world is whirring around you.
The very first step on that Eight Limb path (even before you get to practicing any kind of poses) is to observe the Yamas: a set of 5 ethical principles which guide you in how you relate to and treat other people. Here’s how they relate to our wellbeing at work:
The first and most important of the Yamas is Ahimsa, traditionally interpreted to mean non-violence or non-harming. It’s why many yogis are pacifists and lead a vegetarian life.
So how is this relevant in our working lives? Well, Ahimsa is also interpreted to mean kindness. With regards others, you can see how treating colleagues with kindness, not getting angry, not being short-tempered or abrupt and being respectful is generally a good idea.
But Ahimsa also means kindness to oneself and this is so important to our wellbeing. We are often our own worst enemies, beating ourselves up when we make a mistake, putting ourselves down, obsessing over the one thing that went wrong instead of celebrating all the things that went right.
To practice Ahimsa at work, accept compliments and praise graciously. Let it sink in and allow yourself to deserve it. Forgive yourself if you make a mistake or say the wrong thing. Concentrate on what there is to celebrate about your achievements rather than looking for the negatives. Try saying something kind to yourself every day.
The second Yama is Satya, translated as Truthfulness. Everyone knows it feels good to get things off your chest, say what you mean, be open and honest about what you think but it’s not always easy in a work environment. Office politics and the view of your boss might make you hesitant or fearful. Many of us know that feeling of being in a meeting or conference where you can’t quite get the courage to speak out or speak up because you are going against the grain.
But bottling things up can damage our wellbeing. If you think about it, when we are upset, we often get a lump in our throat – a physical manifestation of the pain of not being able to express emotions. Continually supressing the truths we believe in is like building a dam with uncomfortable pressure behind it.
What may be helpful is to practice Satya with Ahimsa so speak your truth but remember to be kind. This means not being so truthful that it could hurt but using diplomacy to soften the blow. And remember the old saying ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’. Honour your truth and find a way to express it.
The third Yama, Asteya, is translated as non-stealing. In a work context this is not really about pilfering from the stationery cupboard or claiming false expenses although it’s definitely not yogic do to either of those things!
Asteya can mean anything from not taking credit for someone else’s work or being generous in praise of colleagues (not stealing their thunder). Shining a light on someone else’s work can seem counter-intuitive if you are worried about your own advancement in a company but it’s also a great leadership quality to be seen to enable, encourage and celebrate other’s achievements.
Asteya can also mean not being obsessive about presenteeism and stealing your own or your colleagues’ time for the sake of seeming keen. Obviously, there are times when everyone has to pull together and work into the early hours but there’s a difference between that and being fastidious about desk-attendance for the sake of it.
Ask yourself, in what way do I take from others and myself rather than give. Simply by not-taking you will increase wellbeing.
Brahmacharya (Celibacy or, in modern times, the right use of energy)
The fourth Yama, Brahmacharya, has traditionally meant Celibacy and it was a guide for yogis to conserve their sexual energy and redirect it towards the yogic path. Nowadays, it’s interpreted as ‘using energy in the right way’.
In the modern working world, we use so much energy worrying and fretting about work, what may happen and what ifs. Or we spend energy on trying to live up to an ideal image of the perfect employee or trying to be like someone else. Energy is spent on matters that are counter to our mental and physical wellbeing, for example working through lunchtime eating a sandwich whilst answering emails instead of heading outside for a walk; being glued to our smartphones when we are at home instead of being with loved ones; dialling in from holiday to that all important conference call. All seemingly commendable but not terribly conducive to overall wellbeing.
In order to practice Brahmacharya, we need to put our health and wellbeing first and foremost, listen to and cherish our needs, give ourselves the best chance of success in terms of our minds and physical selves.
The final Yama, Aparigraha, is interpreted as non-greed or non-attachment. Many yogis interpret it as only to have what you actually need. That is, don’t have loads of possessions and consume excessively.
Aparigraha is also about wanting something or that isn’t ours. In the Biblical sense, it is coveting something or someone else. Which leads to no good thing!
In a work sense, Aparigraha is useful if you feel jealous of someone else or another team or compare yourself to others and find yourself lacking. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others if someone else is praised, gets a promotion, gets an amazing new job and find ourselves wanting.
In this age of social media, seeing visions of other people’s best lives can provoke feelings of envy and dissatisfaction with our own lives.
But remember, for every person you look at and envy and for every success someone else has that you don’t have, there are doubtless people looking at you thinking the same thing. Aparigraha is about appreciating the things you do have rather than letting the green-eyed monster out, it’s about being grateful for the bounties and blessings you do have and realising they are more than enough.
Find something you are grateful for every single day.