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Yoga at work: taking the Yamas into the office

April 12, 2023

Many of us come to yoga as a way of reducing stress from work: so much so that cool tech companies with too much funding usually offer free yoga as a perk. But all too often our practice ends as soon as we step off the mat, when in reality there’s so much more than that physical experience we have in a studio or home gym.

The one truth everyone should know about yoga is that it’s not about stretching. It’s not even wholly concerned with the physical body (as it might appear to the untrained eye): it’s an ancient system of spiritual self-development. One of the most important and oldest texts we can refer back to to learn more about the theory and practice underpinning this journey is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 

These Sutras - which translate to “threads” in Sanskrit - offer an understanding of core principles that guide our day-to-day behavior. These codes “thread” through our lives, acting as a multi-layered moral compass that points the way in many different contexts. While I’m not a scholar on ancient yogic texts (there are several incredible South Asian teachers whose voices we should be uplifting for that), thinking about how to apply these ancient moral codes to aspects of modern life changed the course of my career.

In 2018, an endocrinologist suggested I try yoga after burning out of my first job in tech so badly that I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. I found the physical practice of asana so helpful on my road to recovery, I decided to take on YTT - alongside a full-time job at one of the biggest tech companies in the world. My own experience at the intersection of yoga and corporate got me thinking: how do the two interrelate, and how can we extend our practice beyond the studio and into the studio, the streets, and every other realm of our everyday life?

Patanjali offers us guidance towards spiritual growth via an eight-limbed path, which lays out guidelines for a meaningful and purposeful life. The first “limb” of these ethical principles is the Yamas, which primarily focus on our actions when in community with others. We spend a third of our lives at work; where else do we rely on our relationships with others more than in the context of our careers? 

In a space that has been so colonized, it’s crucial to honor the roots of yoga by acknowledging that the practice goes far beyond the physical asanas, or postures, we see on Instagram. Practicing yoga on and off the mat means taking it beyond the four corners of your mat and exploring what this ancient system looks like in different contexts and surroundings. So how can we apply the Yamas - the first limb of this ancient, eight-fold path - to the modern context of office life? 

Ahimsa: non-violence

While you probably don’t walk around swinging punches at work, let’s think outside the box in terms of doing no harm. Water cooler chat is ingrained into office life, but be wary of the line between healthy venting and gossip. Try not to make unnecessarily hurtful statements about the people you work with: a good rule of thumb here is if it’s not feedback you would give directly to them, don’t say it behind their back. Practice ahimsa with yourself at work, too - watch the negative self-talk and don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes.

Satya: truthfulness

How can we rework this principle of honesty and non-lying in the context of office dynamics? Ask questions when you don’t know the answer, instead of pretending you’re on top of every little detail. Be honest about metrics and data, rather than skewing KPIs to make you look better. Making hard decisions - like calling off a project even after sinking time and money into it - is one way to practice this yama beyond the poses. 

Asteya: non-stealing

We’ve all been the junior employee whose superior takes credit for our work. Pay it back and embody asteya by giving credit where credit is due. Stealing a pen is one thing - stealing an idea from someone else is another!

Brahmacharya: not wasting energy

While translations differ around yama number four, we can apply brahmacharya to modern life by thinking about it as the right use of energy. Stop volunteering for busy work (the Harvard Business Review calls these “non-promotable tasks”), especially when you’re nearing capacity. Say no to a drink after work when you’re physically run down. Don’t feel guilty for having downtime. Setting healthy boundaries in the workplace is a great way to honor brahmacharya. 

Aparigraha: noncovetousness

How much time and energy do you think we collectively spend worrying about the outcome of a huge pitch or big presentation? This fifth and final yama is often interpreted as “non-attachment”, a principle we can cultivate by letting go of the illusion of control we have in our jobs. Working hard to get to where you want to go is one thing, but hyper-attuning yourself to your colleagues and people-pleasing with abandon to curry favor and climb the career ladder is quite another. What happens when you let go of the reins and trust in your own unique path to success?

Remember, this is not a rulebook of tips and tricks to fast-track your spiritual growth or career progression. These are new ways of thinking about an ancient practice: encouraging that dialogue around how we can honor the practice of yoga, both on and off the mat. Now it’s time to put those yogic principles to work, at work!

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