Originally Appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine June 2014 – Cover Feature
Your boss is eyeing you suspiciously. You’ve had a few stern words with a colleague. Stressed, crumpled, and panting in a supposedly ergonomic chair, your physical posture gives off a corporate Quasimodo-like charm. A few hours later you escape to the yoga studio, breathe deeply, chant in Sanskrit, and open your body in an intense backbend. You rationalize these opposing behaviors as a sort of cosmic balancing out. But couldn’t the peaceful, open self you so authentically express on the mat come and help you answer a few emails?
With modern working life existing in mostly electronic abstraction, hard-working yogis can easily experience an intellectual and spiritual disconnect with the grounded, physical practice of yoga asana. The hour or so a few times a week (or more if you’re lucky or disciplined) provides necessary and helpful stress reduction and physical relief, but often remains a separate entity from work life.
Everyone has a different relationship to work: good or bad, fulfilling or simply bill-paying (especially bills of expensive urban yoga centers). However, if we adopt an attitude of work being work and life beginning later, we deny ourselves the transformative ability to use this time more powerfully. Ultimately, finding meaning and purpose in your job may have little to do with the actual work of your work but rather in how you do what you do.
Just as we do asana with discipline not to be asana rock stars but to improve the experience of our lives, we should approach work to see how it tests and challenges us into the deep and profound exertions of spiritual growth. Now even more than family life, due to the ever-increasing hours of modern careers, work affords us this possibility and responsibility.
I know tackling an expense report or corporate prospectus may not sound enlightening, but that’s sort of the point. Life’s paths of learning are not lotus-lined or easily understood – they are real and must be accepted in whatever form they come. Beyond the sometimes mundane office tasks and politics is a diverse and complicated web of moral dilemmas, interpersonal relationships, and potential life lessons. Like any good yogic practice, being present in our working life can teach us to create a healthy relationship with stress and suffering and cultivate a strong core of strength, kindness, and compassion regardless of circumstances.
You can begin this journey by using the techniques you practice on the mat to bring new awareness to your desk.
Simple, right? But this is usually the first thing to go, especially with computer shoulders creeping forward with each successive click of the mouse. Pick your favourite simple pranayama technique and practice it daily at your desk. Use that as a primer to keep a healthy breath throughout your day. If you’re not breathing, you’re not thinking, and if you’re not thinking, you won’t be working well, and if you want to add any happiness on top of that – well, forget about it. Good news is: if you make sure you’re breathing throughout the day with the accompanying bodily posture to allow it, most unnecessary mental and physical stress will dissolve in relationship to the strength of your practice. If you struggle physically to sustain healthy seated or standing posture, learn to stretch and move troublesome areas throughout the day. If you can’t figure out what to do, ask your yoga teacher for a few poses that you can easily do at your desk, or take a look at the innumerable blog posts or books on the subject. It’s usually pretty simple.
Once breath and physical posture are supporting you, you have the ability to create space in the mind. Beginning with small work events and stresses, learn to pause as long as you can and listen to the dialogue of your thoughts. Sort through what’s rational and irrational. Become the mind’s witness rather than its slave and learn to choose your subsequent actions with more clarity. This will not only improve the precision of your work, but will also teach you to act from wisdom rather than volatile emotion. Soon these challenges can become bigger. Remembering how calmly you focus and breathe in a complicated asana, can you stay similarly calm and choose your response wisely when your subordinate has a major screw-up? Can you wait to respond until Monday when a bothersome but non-urgent work email comes in on Saturday? Listen and learn from each mistake and success. What do they reveal about your character? How do you want to improve for the better?
The above techniques develop the mental acuity and awareness to be mindful at work. Because you’re listening you might start hearing some questions shouted loudly, like the old standby: “am I spiritually fulfilled by this?” If you’re focused on task and external actions, for most the answer will be a resounding “no.” We all canâ’t build wells in rural villages after all. But with your new clarity of mind, connect to the deeper truth of work being built on a foundation of human relationships. Someone somewhere has typed that email and you can feel the connection with them. Someone somewhere is benefiting from what you do and you can feel that too. If only harm is coming from what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it. Yoga first helps us create a relationship with our bodies and ourselves, then with our spirit, and ultimately with the spirit and goodness in others. Work is no exception. The emotional standoffishness of many workplaces makes this a difficult but not impossible proposition. This isn’t about bowing while whispering “namaste” to your boss, but living in its meaning by acknowledging the humanity of those around you and letting your human actions be a reflection of a deep compassionate heart. Be in your life. All of it. Bring yourself to work and see what happens.