Yoga helps employees deal with 9/11 aftermath

Relaxation techniques help relieve stress

A New York City-based wellness consulting firm has helped the city’s workers cope with the emotional stress of the events of Sept. 11 by offering yoga classes free of charge. The workshops, which entail a program called "Yoga at Your Desktop," are provided by Fitness Plus Inc. "Since Sept. 11, people are dealing with so much stress and the sense that things are out of their control," notes Nancy Burstein, president of Fitness Plus Inc. "We can’t change the stressors, but we can change how we respond to them. You can control your breath, and once you do, you are more able to be focused in a way that’s positive and productive for you."

A clear impact on health

The events of Sept. 11 have had a palpable impact on employee health, notes Penny Merkel, RN, nurse manager at the advertising company Ogilvy & Mather, which recently participated in the Fitness Plus program. "We have seen a definite increase in the symptoms of anxiety, distress, and post traumatic stress syndrome; it’s absolutely impacted employee productivity and quality of life," she says. "You’re also dealing with the advertising world, which is dependent on the economy. I think there was an increased need for people to have more tools accessible to them."

"People have had different reactions to the stress at this time," adds Burstein. "Many have had sleep issues, migraines and other headaches, stomach and back problems. In addition, people have found themselves staring at the computer screen, or not sleeping, which clearly affects productivity. You can turn to smoking, drinking, or overeating, but the question is what can you do that’s positive health wise? Yoga can start to release the tension through its postures."

A natural evolution

Fitness Plus Inc. has been offering fitness programs and yoga classes for nearly 20 years; "Yoga at Your Desktop" evolved naturally from those existing programs. "It takes the principles of yoga and applies them to almost any situation," Burstein explains. "You don’t have to change clothes, or get on the floor. It incorporates breathing techniques and basic postures to open and stretch the muscles, and then a deep relaxation that’s very similar to a meditation. We show you how to take these techniques and use them at your desk, while commuting, or at home."

The sessions are run by certified yoga instructors. They start with breathing — an awareness of breath and how we breathe and the acknowledgement that most of us only use the upper third of our lungs when we breathe "normally." "Through the technique of the complete breath’ you can take oxygen to the base of your lungs, oxygenate the blood and bring energy to the body," explains Burstein. "Then, you exhale with thoughtfulness and consciousness."

From there, the session proceeds to some simple postures and stretches. "You do the breathing during each exercise," Burstein notes, "Because the basis of all yoga is the breath." (For a description of the "complete breath" and these stretching exercises, see "Yoga at your desk tipsheet" in this issue.)

Program well received

The program has been so popular that at one workplace, registration had to be closed at 100, says Burstein. "The response has been extremely positive," she observes. "You see people leaving the workshop saying, I didn’t know I could feel like this.’"

"The program was excellent," Merkel adds. "It was user-friendly, it was relevant, and it was simple to access."

Burstein notes that programs like this could even benefit workers who live hundreds or thousands of miles away from "Ground Zero."

"Without question they can be helpful," she asserts. "Even before Sept. 11, with our economy hurting and people not knowing what was going to happen, there was just a very high level of stress. We don’t know if a tiger is coming to attack us or our boss is coming to fire us, but we prepare [through stress] because we’re not physically fighting off the tiger anymore. To physically discharge the energy your body produces is critical. There are a variety of routes; you need to find one that works for you."

Merkel agrees. "I think it would be erroneous to feel that one’s safety is threatened merely by one’s geography," she says. "I talk to people with EAP [Employee Assistance Program] systems across the country, and they’ve all been activated and actively used." Speaking of EAPs, Merkel says she is offering a variety of programs to help employees cope. "We had some group counseling sessions through our EAP immediately after Sept. 11, and we then offered confidential one on one sessions as well," she recalls.

Altruism can also be therapeutic, Merkel notes. "There was a great outpouring of employees asking what they could do to help," she says. "We adopted’ a firehouse down the street from us, and we also put together an extra blood drive for December. The other half of dealing with stress is helping employees to not feel quite as helpless."

At Olgivy & Mather, other stress-reduction strategies had already been in place before Sept. 11. "We offer chair massages twice a week; they’re fully booked," Merkel says. "But all of these recent events have created for me a sense of urgency to set next year’s agenda on stress management."

[For more information, contact:

• Penny Merkel, RN, Olgivy & Mather, Medical Department, 309 W. 49th St., New York, NY 10019. Telephone: (212) 237-4111.

• Nancy Burstein, President, Fitness Plus Inc., 10 W. 15th St., Suite 612, New York, NY 10011. Telephone: (212) 691-7819.]