Employees Stretch Away Stress at Work

Instead of pacing around the office or going outside for a smoke when they're under fire at work, some employees are doing "warrior one" and "downward facing dog."

Many companies across the country are recognizing the benefits of deep breathing and stretching on employees' health, mood and concentration — and as a result are incorporating yoga (search) programs for the workplace.

"This was a suggestion people had for ways to deal with stress and being crunched over a computer all day," said Anne Kenny, director of corporate communications at Katz Media Group in New York, which has a yoga program at the office. "It's a nice break for them. They come back to their desks refreshed and relaxed."

Of course, some employees might be less than thrilled at the thought of seeing their coworkers twisted into a pretzel shape or upside-down in a headstand.

"Not only would such a thing be distracting, it would also open the door to the practicer feeling harassed with others watching or making comments," said Eric A. Spanitz, president of the international management consulting firm Synergest, Inc. (search)

He also said safety is a concern, since people might get injured, and thinks there should be limits on what is allowed at the office.

"While I am all for flexibility in the workplace, enough is enough," he said. "Yoga has its time and place."

But complaints are rare, say those involved with corporate yoga programs.

"We have not heard one negative thing about it," said Kenny. "It's not intimidating. The only thing people were funny about in the beginning was taking off their shoes."

Once a fringe activity considered "New Age," yoga, which combines intense stretches and breathing exercises, has gone mainstream in the last several years. Participation has increased by almost 30 percent in this country since 2002, Yoga Journal (search) reported. And some studies have found it reduces stress, elevates mood and improves focus.

U.S. companies spend billions each year on absenteeism, reduced productivity and turnover. Eighty percent of all illness is due to stress, according to Yoga At Work in Baltimore, a group that researches and implements corporate yoga programs. And an estimated 75 percent of visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems, according to SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital.

"I think companies see it as a very cost-effective way to reward their employees," said Jo Sgammato, head of Integral Yoga Institute's workplace yoga program.

The New York-based yoga studio teaches the classes for Katz Media, as well as for New York University, Jack L. Gordon Architects, KeySpan Energy Corp. and EuroMSCG Partners New York, according to Sgammato.

"Yoga has really proven itself to be the healthiest, most natural stress-reduction tool that anybody can employ," she said.

Yoga Tree in San Francisco also helps employees of various companies limber up.

"So many people are sitting in front of the computer all day and have lower back pain and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," said Stephanie Snyder, an instructor at Yoga Tree. "It really helps them reconnect to their bodies and work out physical stress and tension."

Integral Yoga charges $150 for a 60 to 90 minute class that can accommodate as many as 30 people; a 90-minute Yoga Tree class of 10 to 20 people costs about $75-$100.

Where the classes are held depends on the office space and the work environment.

"Some of the more corporate companies have a conference room, so we'll go there, but in other situations we'll do it right in the reception area," Snyder said. "In smaller, high-tech companies, we'll just throw mats down in the middle of the office."

Big corporations like Nike Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. offer yoga and other fitness classes in the company gym instead.

While many employees are happy about the yoga classes, there are some who will never get over feeling awkward about donning sweatpants and breathing heavily in front of colleagues.

"There will always be people who feel uncomfortable doing yoga with their boss sitting next to them, but then those people won't take the class," Sgammato said.

In fact, the equalizing nature of yoga at work sometimes turns out to be one of the program's biggest benefits.

"It's great that the CEO and the receptionist are in the same place together," said Snyder. "It's good for the corporate culture, which is based on more of a hierarchy."