Interview: Donnamarie Hirst
We sat down with WHA’s Yogi, Donnamarie, to ask her about all things yoga and workplace movement.
Hi Donnamarie! Why don’t you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself and why you became a yogi?
My childhood was spent doing gymnastics and when you become an adult there aren’t many options for gymnasts or dancers, since as we get older our bodies changes and we no longer have that same ability to be invincible. So, there aren’t as many people willing to teach those things to adults.
I was in Europe and not feeling safe to go running in cities that I wasn’t familiar with. On my travels I somewhere came across a book about yoga. When I began to practice, it was like I had come home. All the muscles in my body that were so used to that treatment suddenly went, “I know this”. I found that yoga marries together the flexibility and strength of dancing and gymnastics.
After this my travels through Europe then morphed a little bit and I started to search out ashrams [communities of yogis]. You can go to India to do that or you can go to the centre of Putney in London and there’s an ashram right there. They bring in travelling yogis who come and take a class and they have all these different philosophies of karmic yoga, the art of doing without expectation of receiving. So, this was my introduction to a yoga lifestyle and to being a yogi.
Then, one day I walked into a yoga class and the teacher went “Are you going to be doing this for a while?” and I went “I just moved here, I guess I will”. She replied with “Great, I’m going to Amsterdam, you can teach for me while I’m away”. So that’s how I started teaching.
It all sort of started accidentally and then became intentional.
What are some of the benefits to having yoga in the workplace and encouraging employees to get moving?
There is this belief that sitting is the new smoking, and if you have a job where you sit for the duration of the day and you come home and you run for 10kms, you’re still not going to undo the wrong that was done to your body through that one day.
Running is also very linear and your organs are subjected to a pounding. What yoga does is it opens the body and it stretches and allows space so that blood and fluids can flow into those spaces. When we sit and we’re static for long periods of time, all our muscle fibres shorten and tighten. There’s compression on the organs, there’s compression on the disc spaces. There’s compression everywhere in the body and lack of movement means lack of flow in terms of fluids. Those fluids, some of them are removing toxins, some of them are bringing in oxygen into your body.
We can be sitting doing stuff at work and you look up and suddenly it’s 4 o’clock and you haven’t eaten or had anything to drink. You just become so immersed in what you’re doing. What that does to your body is starves your tissues and organs of oxygen and nutrients. There’s no lubrication or flow in your body. Often, we find for some people that they notice they become really sluggish and they get really tired or become grumpy or overwhelmed.
If you’re going to introduce something that creates movement, then you’re introducing oxygen. You’re opening the body up. Yoga specifically is the only form of exercise that consciously massages the internal organs. As well as that, you are creating some strength, which equates to stability and stamina. It brings oxygen to the brain so that the person is more awake, so their productivity goes up. You’ll find that there’s a lot of bonding that happens in the workplace when people are doing activities together on a social level.
After yoga, a lot of the time people report they feel very calm, there’s an absence of stress and sometimes in work environments you can become quite stressed without realising it. When stress is high, our breath is shallow and our body is tight. So that further restricts the flow of fluids into the areas it needs to be in and the fluids are carrying less oxygen as well.
Yoga practices are very good at inverting the body gently so that the blood can get to the brain tissue and then bringing the body the right side up. It also releases endorphins which create those feelings of calmness.
A lot of people feel like they’re not allowed to take some space for themselves when they need it and they sit there suffering without realising they can change it. The practice of yoga teaches someone how to take that space for themselves.
If someone is reading this and their workplace doesn’t offer exercise classes but they want to get moving, where should they start?
Often when people want to introduce something that’s going to involve movement, for a lot of people, that also goes into the realm of sweat. If you do something that’s quite vigorous or demanding in the middle of the day, often you sit there feeling like you need to freshen up afterwards.
For me, yoga or any kind of movement. Even if it’s just getting up out of your desk every couple of hours to do something small is really beneficial. For example, getting up and setting a 5-minute timer and doing 30 seconds of star jumps and then resting and then 30 seconds of another movement. It gives you the chance to get up and move at your own pace.
I find that I’m a bit passionate about yoga and movement practices, but I do think that it’s a really good place to start. It’s also very educational. You find that people who would never normally go to a yoga class, they might go to one and then it opens the doors for them moving more and perhaps being introduced into something else. Their body will start to go “you know what, I actually liked that movement. What else can I achieve?”.
Even the fittest sports person needs yoga. The unhealthiest of people need yoga. The person who has a lot of different limitations, there’s still yoga that they can do. Pregnant people can do yoga, older people can do yoga. It’s something that’s very universal and broad. Just that breathing side of it and bringing more oxygen into the body, the benefits of that on the brain, sleep, and mood is incredible.
Any advice you can offer a workplace that wants to encourage their employees to get moving, but maybe doesn’t have the budget for weekly classes.
Yeah, any movement that isn’t going to challenge those that are already challenged. Most of those challenges are in people’s heads. If we have an injury or an area that you need to be careful of, you will nurture that and you will be really careful of it and you won’t push yourself. You won’t mentally allow yourself to even consider pushing yourself beyond what your perception of that weakness is. So, introducing something into the workplace that is going to conflict with people’s preconceived ideas of what their body is able to achieve isn’t necessarily going to be helpful for them.
Going for a walk is probably a really easy first step. Most people can achieve that. Some sort of system where people can get up out of their desks every hour or so to stretch, move desks, or walk around the office would get people to break that monotony and be conscious of themselves and their own health.
You can find loads of great videos and resources on YouTube for easy workplace movement practices as well.