How to build a winning workplace yoga program

March 26, 2019 Jennifer Chesak

Yoga has a litany of scientifically proven benefits, including reduced pain, stress, and anxiety and improved quality of life, fitness, flexibility, and strength. With all the benefits of yoga for office workers, yoga can be a crucial component of your workplace wellness program.

But yoga can be a loaded word. It brings to mind images of lithe participants in upside-down poses or instructors rattling off tongue-twister terms in Sanskrit. To the newcomer, yoga can be a bit intimidating. If you’re considering building a corporate yoga practice as part of your wellness program, use these strategies to make sure the offering is accessible, fun, and adaptable to your employees’ lives outside the workplace and yoga studio.

Offering a variety of class times, locations, and types of yoga will draw more employees in.

1. Consider the environment.

As with any wellness program, don’t ignore the fact that it’s happening in the workplace, says Chris Sherry, senior director of account management at EXOS. “There may be people who are just hesitant because their co-worker might be on the mat next to them.”

For helping employees get over any apprehension, incorporate awareness, inclusion, and variety into your marketing efforts, says Tiffany Grimm, solutions manager for the performance innovation team at EXOS. When it comes to awareness, Grimm says, “Remove the ‘woo-woo’ definition of yoga and speak to its practical application.”

For inclusion, she suggests using images that your employees can relate to, featuring people who represent their demographic and physical features whenever possible. Then make sure your marketing efforts eliminate the stereotypes of yoga by describing a variety of classes that are practical for a workplace setting. For example, some sessions should be short, and employees should be able to do those classes in work wear.

2. Remove prerequisites.

To help employees become more comfortable with yoga in the workplace, emphasize that they don’t need any special skills. Athleticism, strength, flexibility, and meditation experience aren’t required for workplace yoga. “Those are the side benefits that you may receive along the way if you’re willing to give it a try,” Sherry says.

Convey that yoga is for everyone by creating info sessions or using a demo video that represents the employee base at large and depicts a space like the designated yoga room in the office, Grimm suggests. Information should help debunk the myths surrounding yoga.

Another option is to gamify the initial experience by encouraging department leaders to engage their teams in a competition to get people in the door. The fun helps lessen the intimidation. Once people are participating, instructors can bring more awareness about what yoga really is.

“Most people are intimidated because they think they need to get all spiritual and quiet for yoga, which often feels really forced and inaccessible in the workplace,” Grimm says. “But yoga can be a hilarious time, especially when you’re with your peers and trying new things. And it’s a good break from monotony if taught right.”

Yoga doesn’t need to be for 90 minutes at a certain temperature in a specific style of room. Instead, make it accessible by meeting people where they are in their workday.

3. Educate employees on the benefits of yoga.

Communicate all the layers of advantages like achieving better posture while sitting at a desk, gaining better focus, or using breathing techniques to manage stress. “Yoga is such a complement to any other physical activity that employees are doing,” Sherry says. Fitness enthusiasts and athletes in your work population, for example, might be interested in how yoga can improve their performance.

Grimm recommends bringing in a high-level yoga instructor to help lead an info session on these topics. These instructors will be skilled at making people feel comfortable. “Once you have employees laughing and align with them, then they are more apt to listen and reconsider,” she says of anyone who still has reservations about participating.

Have a variety of classes that employees can do in the office without having to change or take a long break from their work.

4. Make office yoga accessible.

Throw out any notions that your workplace yoga initiatives must mirror a typical boutique studio setting. Yoga doesn’t need to be for 90 minutes at a certain temperature in a specific style of room. Instead, make it accessible by meeting people where they are in their workday.

“You could have the class in a conference room by just bringing in a handful of mats and rolling them out,” Sherry says. Yoga doesn’t even have to be on the mat. Yoga can simply be an instruction on taking deep breaths after sitting in a long meeting, Sherry adds.

Grimm likes mini sessions that cover specific topics like yoga for neck pain or yoga for public speaking. A yoga for focus session, for example, might include slow movements and intrinsic cues to help connect employees to the benefits that expand beyond the session. The thing to remember is that “10 minutes of yoga is better than none,” Grimm adds.

5. Create options.

Part of accessibility is offering yoga at various times of the day and including different styles in the mix. A midday restorative class provides a no-hassle option — one people don’t have to sweat in before returning to their desks. A yoga boot camp targets those who are interested in a bit of cardio in tandem with stress relief.

With so many styles of yoga out there, it may seem overwhelming to figure out what variety to provide. Grimm recommends surveying your employees to find out what they prefer. If the demand is still unclear, here’s an easy rule to follow: “Start with a selection of slow Hatha, Ashtanga, restorative, or Yin, and also a Vinyasa class,” Grimm says. “These will suit all levels.”

Yoga isn't just for super flexible people. Share introduction information and demo videos to make employees feel more comfortable.

Yoga doesn’t have to be serious. Do what you can to add humor and play to any session through music and lighting.

6. Encourage the application of yoga principles in real-life situations.

Yoga has a lot of applications that can be taken off the mat and applied in everyday life, Sherry says. That’s why it’s important for workplace yoga instructors to reiterate mindfulness concepts and how they pertain to the workplace, community, and relationships.

Yoga means union. It’s a connection of mind and body through the breath, which is our life force. “More life force enables one to be more focused, steady, connected, and settled at home in their body with less tension, less anxiety, more confidence, and an openness and willingness to embrace challenges,” Grimm explains.

All of that translates to increased concentration and creativity. “When the mind has free space, it can think and create outside of the box, and you find yourself more aligned with your intentions,” Grimm says.

Physically, yoga helps improve strength for increased comfort in all aspects of our lives. “Yoga encourages natural alignment of the body with mobility and flexibility, allowing one to move freely, without pain, and with reduced stress on the mind and body,” she says.

Yoga naturally improves stress, so promote classes as a chance for co-workers to laugh and relax together.

7. Make it fun.

Do what you can to add humor and play to any session through music, lighting, and even interaction between co-workers, if they’re willing. Yoga doesn’t have to be serious. “People are stressed at work, period,” Sherry says. “Yoga should be the time that they’re able to free themselves up and walk away feeling great.”

8. Find a workplace role model.

Choose a face (or wellness champion) for your yoga initiative, whether it’s a key leader or a high-level manager. “Find somebody who is participating and see if they’re willing to spread the word to the population,” Sherry suggests. “They should be that person who says, ‘Hey guys, this is a great thing to do. Here’s what I’ve experienced.’ That usually goes a long way.”

Learn what a wellness champion is and how to identify them in your workplace.

If a high-level employee is already a fan of yoga, that person could serve as a great info session leader to provide a testimonial as to how the practice has been life-changing. Additionally, this person is a great face for instructors to involve in demonstrations of pose adjustments, modifications, and more. “If upper management is participating, it helps take the intimidation out of it and employees will follow,” says Grimm.

About the Author

Jennifer Chesak

Jennifer Chesak’s health, fitness, and adventure journalism has appeared in Healthline, Prevention, Runner’s World, SheKnows, and Field & Stream online, to name a few. She earned her master's degree in journalism from Northwestern. She’s also a distance runner and avid yogi.

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