What lessons does yoga have for the business world, and for everyday life?
Mention the word “yoga” and you’ll get a range of responses. Some people associate it with ashrams and ascetics, a discarding of the modern way of life in favour of a quest for the more spiritual. Incense and chanting come to mind. Others think more of its physical manifestations, and of extremely flexible practitioners contorting themselves into unlikely or even dangerous poses – feet arranged behind the head, for instance.
Dominique Santana from the Australian Yoga Academy says when yoga is taught authentically it is a mental, physical, and spiritual workout.
“Yoga literally means union – of mind, body and soul,” Santana says. “It is the state of harmony achieved when all aspects of yourself are in balance.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a practice that has such seemingly lofty aspirations, but yoga and business are inextricably linked. At its heart yoga preaches the virtues of accountability, focus, stillness of mind, calmness, dedication – all practices espoused by and even necessary for business success in an era of corporate social responsibility.
Yoga’s physical benefits are undeniable, and many in the corporate world have embraced its practice as a way to unwind and relax from workaday stress.
Along with masseurs and healthier food in the canteen, you’re quite likely these days to see a yoga teacher guiding corporate types through breathing and stretching exercises on site. Managers have worked out it actually makes their staff more productive.
And there is an even more obvious connection: yoga is big business worth serious coin to those spiritual gurus not afraid of making money.
In its many and varied manifestations, yoga has been practised for thousands of years.
Yet the type most frequently practised in the West, and the most exercise-oriented, is hatha yoga, whose foundations were laid by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sri T. Krishnamacharya and B.K.S Iyengar in India in the 1930s.
Yoga participation in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years to become the 13th-most-popular physical activity, not including walking, according to figures from the Australian Sports Commission.
Practised by 2.9 per cent of the population, it ranks ahead of Australian rules football, dancing, fishing, and martial arts.
All sorts of reasons are given for participating in yoga.
“Why you would practise yoga is because it improves the quality of your life,” says Cairns-based Nicky Knoff, who has been teaching and practising for 38 years. “You breathe correctly, it improves concentration and focus, it clears your mental landscape, it increases muscle tone and range of movement so health is improved. It improves flexibility and enhances balance.
“It helps you to connect with yourself, so you’re tuned in when anger arises, so you have to time to act rather than react. It helps you build strength, fortitude, courage, daring.”
She also says it strengthens the immune system, normalises weight, helps release emotional blockages, improves self-esteem, and assists in overcoming injury.
Stephen Penman is the president of the Yoga Teachers Association of Australia, and a teacher of wellness, health enhancement and lifestyle management at RMIT and Monash Universities in Melbourne. He helped conduct a national survey of yoga in Australia in 2006, interviewing 4,000 yogis (or yoga practitioners).
The reasons most commonly given for starting yoga were to improve health/fitness and flexibility/muscle tone and to reduce stress or anxiety.
Although relatively few respondents mentioned “spirituality” or “personal development” for why they began doing yoga, many cited these as a reason for continuing.
“Yoga teachers will tell you that this is no surprise,” Penman says. “People come to yoga for the physical but stay for the spiritual.”
Santana is all for enhancing and mastering “the physical vehicle” (that’s “the body” to you and me) but believes practising yoga serves a much higher purpose.
“To me the most important benefit is a sense of responsibility and empowerment that comes from really understanding the psychology and philosophy of the yoga tradition – and that is that we are all responsible for the lives we create for ourselves,” Santana says. “And what we do – the actions we take, the words that we say – have a carry-on effect to those around us.”
It’s something that Knoff is also passionate about.
“That’s why we teach yoga, because we want to have a better world,” she says. “That’s how we find we can reach people. When they look after themselves, they start looking after other people, animals, the environment. Imagine if George Bush was a yoga practitioner. He never would have gone to Iraq – no way!”
Ask yoga teachers about the connection between yoga and business and their first instinct is to talk about the anxiety-ridden suits who come to class wanting to learn how to relax.
“Let’s just take for example pranayama, or the awareness of your breath,” Santana says. “There are so many engaged in the rat-race that miss out on so much health purely because they’re not breathing properly.
“One of the things that we do with our corporate yoga training is to get people to become more aware of their breath, to stop regularly at work and take a few deep breaths. And that practice of breath awareness can completely change your life.”
James Bryan, who teaches alongside Knoff in Cairns, says corporate clients often attend with the goal of discovering how to switch off from work.
“We have one stressed-out, high-powered businesswoman who comes to class and says the one time when her brain is not whirling at a million miles an hour is in yoga,” Bryan says.
According to the result of the Yoga in Australia survey, yoga has the capacity to change one’s outlook on life.
“Generally, I am a much happier, emotionally stable person, which is a change from how I was before yoga,” commented one survey participant.
Said another: “Practising yoga increases my quality of life ten-fold. I am calmer, more balanced and more in tune with my physical and spiritual self, making me a better friend, lover and mother.”
Don’t even get yoga teachers started on how our sedentary desk-bound lifestyle is damaging our postural alignment and health. Better just to step away from the desk for a couple of minutes, stretch in the opposite direction, refocus. It could make a huge difference.
Perhaps the apotheosis of yoga and business is Bikram Yoga, a form of the practice invented by Bikram Choudhury – a self-styled millionaire, “bad boy of yoga” and Beverly Hills guru – and performed in hot rooms around the world.
Arriving in the US from Calcutta in 1976, Bikram, as he is known, opened his first studios in California and Hawaii, combining the 26 postures in his series with two breathing exercises – all done in a superheated studio (up to 40°C) in a 90-minute sequence.
Though adherents swear by its health benefits, others in the yoga community aren’t so convinced.
“It’s not yoga,” says one teacher. “It’s aerobics in a sauna.”
Bikram was Knoff’s first teacher. She first encountered him in Japan in 1970. Then when she visited him again five years later in Hawaii, Bikram sent her to the airport in his chauffeur-driven convertible.
Yet Knoff is no fan of the style, either.
“I don’t agree with it all,” she says. “I think it’s downright unhealthy.”
That hasn’t stopped Bikram Yoga becoming the style of choice for many seeking the toughest of workouts.
Mili Crncevic owns and manages The Yoga Tree in Melbourne, which teaches Bikram Yoga classes.
The advantage of the hot room, she says, is that most activities have a warming-up and cooling-down period but only 30 minutes of action. In a Bikram studio you are hot straight away; muscles are more supple and there is less chance of injury.
“That’s the way it’s done in India,” Crncevic says. “If Indians can do it, there’s no reason Westerners can’t do it, too.”
Like all Bikram Yoga teachers, Crncevic completed a nine-week course taught by the guru himself in Los Angeles and costing US$5,500. Accommodation and food were extra. In order to continue teaching she must recertify every three years, which also carries a fee.
“He’s making a mint,” she says of Bikram. “He’s a very clever businessman.”
Bikram is also extremely protective of his empire. Having trademarked his series of poses, he threatens to sue anyone he sees infringing on his yogic territory.
“I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each,” Bikram told Business 2.0. “Nobody f*cks with me.”
There isn’t a lot of philosophy in Bikram Yoga, Crncevic admits. Rather, there is a set script that Bikram insists be narrated by class teachers. The idea is that wherever you go in the world to do Bikram Yoga, you’ll have exactly the same experience.
For this reason, some have labelled it, not insultingly, as the “Starbucks of yoga”: a brilliant business model.
Yet classes at the Australian Yoga Academy and places like it can frequently change depending on the experience of participants, the season, or the mood of the teacher. Early in the new year, Santana dedicated one class to the cultivation of consciously creating new beginnings. The message, derived from Buddhist teaching, was that each single moment is an opportunity to start anew, to reinvent oneself.
The goal is for participants to experience a physical workout, but also to have the opportunity to become more flexible in their hearts and minds. One class staple is the final salutation, a Hindu word meaning “the divine in me greets the divine in you.” Namaste.
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 edition of INTHEBLACK magazine.