To Reduce the Strain of Overwork, Learn to Listen to Your Body

To Reduce the Strain of Overwork, Learn to Listen to Your Body

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Can learning how to engage with your body differently help with symptoms of overwork? Research on two groups of people taking yoga teacher training shows that learning how to “let go” during training also helped participants do the same in their work lives. Further, this “third space” of training with others provided a much-needed space to unpack and manage harmful work norms. The lesson: seek out communities beyond work and home that counter the trends of excessive striving and all-encompassing work schedules, and that bring awareness to your body.

If there was one constant theme in Bianca’s life, it was constantly pushing herself to meet others’ expectations. She became an accountant because her grandfather told her that it was a good job. At work, Bianca (not her real name) also pushed herself to meet others’ ideals. “They paid me well enough to be able to get blood from a stone. I let my company suck me into that hole.” Years of working towards others’ ideals eventually took a toll on Bianca’s mental and physical health. “Management was ruthless,” she shared. “It got to a point where there was no work-life balance, I was coming home, working all night, yelling at my kids…the stress just seeped into my family life. I ended up having anxiety issues. My health went down[hill].”

Bianca’s story of overwork may feel uncomfortably familiar. Decades of research shows that workplaces are often grounded in “ideal worker” norms that reward employees for always being ready, willing, and able to work. To cope with these demands, some workers internalize them and live according to the “work hard, play hard” mantra — that is, they valorize overwork in both work and nonwork settings as a means of striving for “balance,” pushing themselves in both realms. Others maintain a willingness to commit to overwork during the week, so long as they can use the weekend as an attempt to recuperate. Yet, by Monday, both groups become caught up once again in the same work grind. Over time, adhering to ideal worker norms can result in breakdowns of the body and mind.

Our research explores a unique way workers can navigate the ideal worker image and break this vicious cycle of overwork and recuperation: through experiencing a community outside of work that taps into bodily awareness. Specifically, we examine how people experience, use, and express their bodies when engaging in various work and nonwork tasks — something called “somatic engagement. ” We do this by drawing on two year-long studies of yoga teacher training.

Most importantly, we find that people can learn to adjust overwork patterns in and outside of work by learning to engage differently with their bodies. By growing to understand what somatic strain felt like during yoga teacher training, participants were able to understand how and when similar feelings occurred in other areas of their lives. And when they started to recognize these sensations on the job, it led them to question their own overwork patterns and resist them. In short, they began to view their bodies from a place of self-acceptance rather than as an instrument for maximizing performance.

We gained these insights through ethnographic research methods. Specifically, we each enrolled and participated in different yoga teacher programs to answer our research questions. Stephanie had prior experience teaching and practicing yoga and was interested in studying how different types of relationships shape professional identity development. Karen also had prior experience practicing yoga and was interested in the implications of mind-body practices for the workplace. As required by our universities’ institutional review boards, we disclosed our dual roles as researcher and participant in the first formal session of our respective training programs. Common to ethnographic research, we participated in all activities that were expected of trainees.

What Participants Learned in Yoga Teacher Training

Prior to joining yoga teacher training, people in our study largely accepted overworking as a given and took their bodies for granted, treating them as instruments to support work performance. When they faltered, participants perceived these experiences as a letdown or inconvenience relative to work demands.

Yoga teacher training was initially seen by many as an opportunity to restore their bodies. One participant said, “I went into [the teacher training] thinking, ‘Okay. I’ll stretch my body and I’ll feel better.’” Another signed up for the training because she had been taking yoga classes after work as a means to unwind and “always felt good afterwards.” A different participant decided to join when her marriage was facing difficulty because she “needed to take some physical and mental space for [her]self.”

Over the course of our research, participants (including Bianca) learned to alter how they engaged their bodies in different activities and settings. They also began to call into question their operating ideals regarding overwork; to think of it as a problem consistent with Western cultures; and to understand overwork as a point of differentiation from yogic beliefs. One participant noted, “In the West, we’re never taught to say you ‘can’t’ … my Mom would kill me. We have to do it all, soccer mom, mother, friend.” This feeling transferred over into yoga, too, resulting in the need to “push, push, push” through challenge and intensity to perform an arm balance or some complex, twisted shape.

Read more about Overwork

Over time, trainees learned to how to scan their bodies, to become aware of their bodily experience of overwork as they held a challenging yoga pose, and to identify where their body felt like it was tense and straining. They learned to notice when and where they felt themselves “gripping” and consider possibilities for “softening.” Further, formal assignments and encouragement from senior trainers directed trainees to “take off the mat” what they were learning in the yoga program. As a result, sharing personal stories of recognizing and making adjustments to overworking tendencies was normal and expected as part of trainees supporting each other’s development. Weekly philosophy sessions often began with a check-in on participants’ work and personal lives in which trainees shared and discussed key moments, including their own overworking behaviors.

Ultimately, participants recognized their yoga communities as a source of encouragement and support that had helped them to identify and respond to their patterns of overworking, whether that meant encouraging each other to “let go” when struggling with learning Sanskrit terms, memorizing yoga sequences became overwhelming, or when competitive dynamics at work became stressful.

The Work-Yoga Connection

Importantly, our research showed that the ability to monitor and adjust their somatic engagement to stop overwork in yoga teacher training was generalizable to our participants’ lives more broadly. They now could catch themselves, pause, and pull back from overwork by lessening reactivity, reducing their time working, and reducing physical and mental straining. A schoolteacher who developed awareness of her habit of feeling “I’ve got to finish, I’ve got to finish” noted that she could now recognize that feeling in her body and mind and “consciously undo it.” “Yes, a project needed to be completed,” she noted “but did it need to be finished NOW?”

A chief financial officer came to recognize that she would become very tight when she became unhelpfully impatient with her direct reports; when that happened, she learned to pause and breathe. A health counselor noted that she had become able to be less reactive when dealing with frustrations at work; she could now “catch” herself and “be more discerning and make more of a choice about” her response and following actions. Broadly, connecting action and awareness enabled participants to pause, engage with how they were feeling, and make more reflective adjustments to their overworking behavior patterns.

In addition, we found that by the end of yoga teacher training, participants began to question the value of being an ideal worker in the first place. They no longer needed to be the “Type A Personality,” the “control freak,” the one who could do it all — at all times. Instead, they saw themselves as the kind of person who prioritizes their own needs. For instance, in the past, a teacher took pride in the fact that she never took time off from work regardless of how she was feeling, going 20 years without taking a sick day. After yoga teacher training, she found herself working to be the kind of person who “honored her body” and took personal time when she felt she needed it.

Participants felt like they could still be a teacher, a lawyer, or an accountant — but they could be an accountant who also sees themselves as a practicing yogi who attends to and adjusts their patterns of overworking. This can have positive implications for more than just the yogis. For example, a development manager was able to pull back from constantly driving her team; as she did, she found was easier for her direct reports to make their own contributions. 

Finally, our study revealed that continuing membership in the yoga community beyond the teacher training programs solidified it as a kind of “third place” — that is, a place beyond work and home that helped participants resist overwork, broaden themselves, and lead richer lives. After the training ended, participants met for coffee, had football game watch parties during the week, shared information about unique opportunities to practice together (such as sunset classes on paddle boards), and even invited each other to special work events.

For Bianca, continued engagement in the community also enriched her family life. “[The yoga community] nourishes me and helps me manage the family. I even said to my kids, ‘Do you like mommy on yoga or without yoga?’ And they’re like, ‘On yoga! On yoga!’… So that’s why I keep going.”

While we studied yoga teacher training, our research can also apply to people who regularly participate in fitness, athletic, or other somatic practice communities. But use caution; some communities may reinforce the forms of somatic engagement underlying overwork. Activities such as running marathons, CrossFit, or even power yoga may be less effective in moderating overwork norms because they reinforce the very same competitive and perfectionist ideals underlying many workplace cultures.

As people become more aware of the downsides of ideal worker norms, there’s no shortage of tips on how to think about and manage overwork. Ours is a bit different, but no less effective: Seek out communities beyond work and home that counter the trends of excessive striving and all-encompassing work schedules, and that bring awareness to your body. This can feel daunting; you must be intentional about wanting to develop more sustainable ways of being. But our research suggests that it can be a challenge worth accepting.

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