Boosting output with yoga

Dividend: Workers at companies that sponsor yoga classes say they are less anxious and more productive.

December 26, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

IRVINE, Calif. - It's 6 p.m. when Susan Hagg emerges from her corporate cubicle at Skyworks Solutions Inc. and heads to a meeting where deep breathing and body twisting are required.

In a room where the semiconductor company normally holds engineering classes, Hagg and a handful of other T-shirt-clad co-workers contort their bodies while listening to soothing music during an after-hours company yoga class. By the end of the 90-minute session, the employees practically float out of class.

At city halls and businesses across Orange County, Calif., yoga is hot. Techies are doing it. Marketing companies are doing it. Bankers are doing it. Even Irvine city workers are doing it.

And most are doing it on the corporate dime, as companies are sponsoring yoga classes to boost productivity, keep down sick days and reduce anxiety among workers.

"There's no question that for me it helps me to relieve stress," said Hagg, senior manager of training and development at Irvine-based Skyworks. "It gets rid of the after-effects of being hunched over the computer all day."

While some large corporations have invested for years in wellness programs such as job-site exercise rooms and health-education classes, health and fitness experts said, yoga is gaining steam in the workplace.

"Twenty-five years ago, this was a pretty hard sell," said national yoga expert Beryl Bender Birch, author of Power Yoga. "But now corporations, both large and small, are realizing the value. If you take a break to do yoga in the middle of the day, it really does increase production."

That's good for yoga instructors such as Stacey Clinesmith of Orange, Calif. In June, Clinesmith founded the Enlightened Employee, which offers businesses custom yoga programs for workers. Her clients include Skyworks and a Washington Mutual Inc. office in Irvine.

During a recent session at Skyworks, Clinesmith led her students - from corporate executives to sales managers - in yoga postures, including the matsyasana, or fish pose, and the viparita karani, or legs-up-the-wall pose.

"Think of it like a waterfall cascading down from the soles of your feet, down your legs, down through your chest and over to your shoulders," Clinesmith said, as her students pressed their legs against a wall, backs flat against the floor.

The posture relieves cramped legs and feet, calms the mind and stretches the back of the neck, where most people carry stress, Clinesmith said.

By the end of the session - with the lights dimmed and calming music filling the room - students are practically lulled to sleep.

Yoga instructors say it is rewarding to do corporate yoga because it brings calm to people who are leading hectic lives.

Janet Schriever, an Aliso Viejo, Calif., yoga teacher, said most workers enter her class with tense faces and stiff shoulders. But at the end of each session, she said, she's always amazed at how transformed her students look.

"They really look like they've been reborn," said Schriever, who teaches yoga at BDS Marketing in Irvine and Main Street Trading in Aliso Viejo.

Experts say the stress-releasing experience is driving yoga's popularity.

Birch, one of the first instructors in the country to bring yoga into the corporate world, said what sets yoga apart from other job-site wellness programs is its focus on the body and mind.

She explained that centuries-old yoga postures and breathing techniques build muscle strength while promoting a sense of well-being.

"They [workers] do it, and get more centered and feel less overwhelmed by work and less scattered," said Birch, who has taught yoga for General Electric Co., PepsiCo, the old Chase Manhattan and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Keeping workers happy and calm makes sense.

Employers are expected to have spent $20 billion in 2003, compared with nearly $9 billion a decade ago, on workers' compensation premiums, according to a recent report by the California Workers' Compensation Insurance Ratings Bureau.

Fitness programs

Also, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that companies nationwide lose about $70 billion a year because of absenteeism, lost productivity and disability caused by mental distress.

"They [employers] are realizing that if employees are stretching and breathing, then they might be more productive down the road," said Judi Ulrey, owner of Fitness Consulting Inc. in Corona del Mar, Calif.

Ulrey has been crafting fitness programs for businesses for 25 years.

Among her yoga-using clients are the city of Irvine and Hyundai Motor Finance Co. in Fountain Valley.

Stress relief

"We first began [yoga] to offer an alternative to sweaty workouts, but the class developed a core group of students who really enjoyed the midday break and became very devoted," said Susan Radke, manager of business systems at Hyundai, which began on-site classes for workers in 2002.

Still, yoga can conjure up images of hippies twisted into pretzel positions, said Schriever, who tries to dispel that myth among potential clients.

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