Yoga at Work

Promoting mindful living on the job.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

About 15 Novartis employees pad silently into a dimly lit fitness studio on the pharmaceutical giant’s East Hanover campus. Most have changed out of their business attire and into loose clothing, but their minds are anything but relaxed.

It’s the early afternoon, and heads are rushing with impending deadlines, conference calls and conflicts.  Montville-based yoga instructor Michele Vakili invites them to leave those thoughts at the door.

“Whatever challenges they saw at the beginning of the day,” says Vakili, “whatever they see ahead of them, I invite them to let it go for this moment.” And so begin 45 minutes of workplace yoga.

Vakili has been making New Jersey office calls for two years, also working with other corporations like Nielsen and Everbank, to reduce stress and promote mindful living. She connects deeply with her students, whether they are lawyers, analysts or bankers. “They sometimes tell me that yoga is the only reason they feel like they’re showing up for work, the only thing bringing them peace throughout the rest of their day.”

Vakili knows firsthand the physical and emotional toll of office stress. For nearly 20 years before becoming a full-time yoga instructor, she practiced law, working largely with corporate clients. She enjoyed her job, but in time, yoga became more of a priority. She studied  asanas (yoga postures), anatomy and mindfulness on the side to obtain certification as a yoga instructor. At one firm, she taught weekly yoga classes to her colleagues.

The benefits of yoga for employee health have become apparent in recent years, with a growing number of companies instituting yoga practice to help relieve  physical and mental tension. A study by Aetna Insurance Group and Duke University in the last decade confirmed the value of such programs. The study, which compared two mind-body programs, found that the addition of just one hour of yoga per week reduced employee stress by a third. Aetna instituted wellness programs internally in 2010. After more than 3,000 employees benefited, the insurance company began offering similar programs to customers. Other corporate giants, including General Mills, GM and Verizon, have followed suit.

The East Hanover campus of Novartis—the global company’s U.S. headquarters—has included yoga as one of its extensive fitness offerings for about 10 years, says fitness manager John Matino, “but it’s only been catching on recently.” Matino says the company has increasingly been promoting yoga and mindfulness at the fitness center—or anywhere that works for the hundreds of busy Novartis employees. “The stress level,” he says, “has gotten higher.” It’s not just an increased workload, says Matino; the changing corporate environment also creates a new level of tension.

Yoga, Matino says, can reduce stress, and in doing so, make employees more productive. “The more stressed they are, the more days they’re going to miss,” he explains.

Vakili, along with five other yoga instructors, helps Novartis employees break through the mental clutter and find peace, offering walk-in and department-specific classes in conference rooms and at the three fitness studios around the campus. “I have really good yoga instructors,” says Matino. “They bring their peacefulness into the environment.” The company supplies plenty of yoga mats and blocks. Until recently, employees had to pay for the classes; now, Novartis offers yoga sessions free of charge.

“Anybody can participate,” Matino says. “You don’t even have to change your clothes.” The no-pressure environment is a major draw. “Conference-room classes are booked out every time we offer them,” he says, “I’ve seen up to 50 people in a class.”

Vakili’s class structure varies with employee needs, but her goals are the same: to encourage participants to get in touch with their bodies and minds, and combat stress. “I really can identify with that corporate environment,” says Vakili, recalling her days in corporate law. “We were always on, all the time. The last thing anyone is thinking about is getting up to stretch.”

She reminds her students that the benefits of yoga are only effective when incorporated into their lives. “We start on the mat,” Vakili likes to say, “but it’s about really living your yoga, knowing how to find that peace despite the chaos.”

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