13 May 2012

Yoga's Place in the Workplace: Part 1

Upholding the philosophical yogic principles that Patanjali codified in the yamas and niyamas, particularly in the workplace, is of great interest to me. The yamas are the character-building restraints, the niyamas the character-building observances--the first and second "limbs" of yoga often overlooked as aspiring yogis focus primarily on postures. Given how much time we spend there, people in the workplace can be like a second family, presenting special challenges when we are trying to live according to these yogic principles. Even those who practice may not be aware of all the ways the yamas and niyamas make themselves evident in this context.

In a series of blog posts over the next few weeks, I hope to illustrate some ways for yogis to practice each yama and niyama while at work. I hope to hear about your own challenges and to be able to encourage each and every one of you on your journey. After all, it is a practice, so it's important for us to be compassionate toward ourselves, even when we have days (or moments) where we wished we'd behaved differently.

The Basics of the First Yama: Non-Violence

This week I'll talk about the first yama, known in Sanskrit as ahimsa. Ahimsa is generally translated as "non-violence" or "non-harming". There are some obvious implications of this yama, just by it's name.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic school system, for example, my first instinct was to relate this to the commandment: "Thou shall not kill." And yes, that's true. Don't kill anyone while at work. Check. (Sadly, in this day and age, killing at work sometimes does happen.)

But there are many, much more subtle ways this yama can impact our lives, and help us become people of real integrity, starting with the morning commute.

Getting to and from The Office

Even with a relatively easy commute, practicing ahimsa some days is challenging. Those who have longer distances to ride, more traffic to deal with, morning obligations prior to work, and/or apprehension about what's in store for them when they arrive will find the practice of non-harming even harder. Here are some examples:
  • Do you say (to yourself or aloud to others) hurtful things to other drivers when they don't behave as you would like?
  • Do you think judgmental thoughts about those you see on the bus or train, or while walking?
  • Do you chastise yourself for being late or not leaving enough time in the morning?
  • Do you replay an argument that happened before you left the house over and over in your mind, justifying why you are right and the other person is wrong?
  • Do you anticipate having a negative interaction with someone when you arrive at the office, before you even get there?
Interacting with Others

Many offices these days encourage collaboration, and that's great. And, it means you may be getting more "face-time" with your colleagues. Just as one spends a lot of time with family--and therefore often behaves in less-than-stellar ways toward them--it's important to be mindful of and intentional in your interactions. Adhering to ahimsa with office mates is not only advantageous for your career, but it is also important for maintaining your personal integrity with those who may frequently test your patience. Here are some ideas:
  • Do you give your colleagues your full attention when they're talking to you, and practice active listening skills? Do you wait for your turn to speak, or do you interrupt and speak over others?
  • Do you gossip or converse negatively about people at work to "friendly" colleagues, or do you engage in compassionate conversations directly with a person when an issue arises?
  • Do you respect your colleagues by not scheduling meetings during their lunch hour, starting / ending meetings on time (or ending early if there is nothing additional to cover), giving them breaks during longer meetings, not unnecessarily keeping them at the office late, etc.?
  • Do you exercise compassion toward others, anticipating that they may be overly busy, stressed, or distracted by personal situations, before harshly judging their work? Do you first give them the benefit of the doubt when your expectations or standards aren't met?
  • Do you make it a point to tell people positive, affirming things, or are you always focused on the ways they might improve? Do you smile and say "hi" to colleagues you see in passing?

It's easy to see how the principle of non-violence can relate to food--many yogis are vegetarians for this reason. (Watching some documentaries, such as Food, Inc., may help even the non-yogi move in this direction!) But vegetarianism aside, there are many other ways in which ahimsa applies to eating, specifically within the office environment. Ask yourself:
  • Do you listen to and honor your body's hunger and thirst cues when they occur, or do you ignore them and continue working, until you find yourself really starving or dehydrated?
  • Do you eat hastily during meetings or while working at your computer, or do you make time and space to allow yourself to mindfully eat and digest your food?
  • Do you make healthy choices in the cafeteria, or bring your own freshly prepared food?
  • Do you eat more than you should, particularly when you're stressed, tired, bored, or anxious?
  • Do you always partake in goodies when they're available, even when you know you're not hungry or they're not good for the health of your body? (Sugar can be challenging at the office, especially during celebrations like baby showers.)
Relating to Yourself

Lastly, it's critical to recognize that ahimsa isn't just about how you do violence or harm to other people: it's also about how you treat yourself. Do you:

  • Beat yourself up for saying something "stupid", or making a mistake? Or are you compassionate with yourself when you didn't act as you wanted to?
  • Refuse to step out of your comfort zone and take on a new project or task because you're afraid of failing?
  • Often tell yourself you're a fraud that your boss will eventually discover and fire? Or do you believe in yourself and your abilities, even when you're challenged?
  • Over commit your energy or time by saying yes to too many requests, sacrificing your physical and mental health as a result? (More on this when I write about the yama that deals with energy management!)
  • Know and practice techniques for keeping stress and fear at bay, such as deep breathing, going for a walk, or taking a brief Yoga Break?
Daily Practice

I hope this post has you thinking about new ways to practice ahimsa, or non-violence / non-harming, toward others and yourself in the context of work. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know how it's going for you, and stay tuned for next week's yama / niyama--I might even take requests!

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