Finding your Work/Life Balance
Can yoga really help?
Achieving the perfect work/life balance – many of us hanker for this mythologised vision of professional and personal success, yet few seem to actually manage it.

We explore how yoga can simplify your quest for equilibrium.
HEALTHY BOUNDARIES

These days technology makes it harder than ever to leave work behind when we clock off. Work can now be at our fingertips – literally – 24/7. This of course can make work/life balance, that elusive holy grail of compartmentalisation, all the harder to achieve. Before we look into the ways yoga can help us find what we are searching for, it's useful to pause for a moment to ask, what is work/life balance? Is it realistic? What would work/life balance look like, were we to attain it?

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines work/life balance as "the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy". The aim is for these to be in harmony, though dreams of them being equal are quickly thwarted by western culture's normative delineation of a 9-5 Monday-to-Friday (or equivalent) time commitment to 'work'. Minimum. Many of us work more than this. At face value, work/life balance makes sense as a relatively simple concept, and yet as we all know, in real life, it's often not that easy to split the different dimensions of our lives into discreet categories.
GREY AREAS

What about the times you get a phone-call at the office to say your child's unwell at school, and you have to spend the evening working from home later to make up the time, or when you're officially on holiday, but a work emergency comes up? These days, both work and life seem to be spilling into one another more readily than ever before, and a lot of us are feeling the strain. The boundary between being reachable and being available (by both our work and home communities) has become blurred. For those of us who are self-employed, or who work at home, work and life can feel even further from black and white. When your workplace is also your nest, it can be difficult to switch off.

Even as a yoga teacher with an attendance to yoga philosophy on my side, I often find myself in a very grey area indeed. By no means have I cracked it; sometimes I write yoga articles in my bed, reply to emails at the gym, sacrifice my self-practice in order to take on an extra job per week. It can also be insidiously difficult to make my own yoga practice a 'life' thing, and not a 'work' thing – even within pranayama, or vinyasa flow sequencing, my mind can get in the way and start an intrusive analysis of how a particular practice might be suitable for my Tuesday morning class... Or maybe my Wednesday evening, though it would depend who was there... And bang, voilà: all of a sudden, self-practice is no longer for me, but for someone else. Work.

So what can we do in these moments? When 'work' starts to encroach on 'life' to the detriment of our ability to stay fresh, rested, healthily balanced? Despite the fact that my work is yoga, it still presents me with many of the same work-into-life spillages as many other jobs. Yoga teachers are conditioned just like everyone else.

But, what I love about it is that, at least for me, yoga itself also holds the remedy to the imbalance implicit in my conditioning. I just have to look a little deeper. Yoga asks me to to ask myself, what are my expectations here? What conditioning underlies the difficulties I am having? Millions of us relentlessly expect ourselves to be able to hold down a demanding job,to take care of those nearest and dearest to us, to exercise and eat healthily, to lead a lively and fulfilling family and social life, to travel, to make some kind of impact somewhere along the way, to sleep well, to look good, and to attain and maintain a balance across it all. Whew! It's a LOT.

In fact, it's often way too much, but because we are constantly manipulated by the media, each other, and ourselves, we don't see that, and continue to expect ourselves to be as happy as we feel we 'should' be while trying to do it all. All of this is an undercurrent that flows through all our lives, and if we don't learn to navigate it, it will captain us. Learning to navigate it requires a certain degree of self-reflection, a healthy introspection which lies at the heart of yoga.

This is the concept of Svadhyaya, meaning 'self-study', or the practice of interrogating your own habits, assumptions, expectations.2 It's hard work, but worthwhile because it can expose the patterns that habitually restrict us from seeing a bigger picture.

"sometimes standing on your head really can help give you a different view, as well as being a lot of fun.."
THE BIGGER PICTURE – NO SUCH THING AS WORK/LIFE BALANCE

Sometimes we don't want to see the bigger picture.The bigger picture can feel scary and radical. From a yogic philosophical perspective, one might say that there's no such thing as work/life balance.

Yoga is all about union, about thinking full circle, joining up the dots, and bringing things together. So, from a yoga perspective, such distinctions as 'work' and 'life' start to seem arbitrary in the greater context that it is all Life. It is all Life. Focusing too much on the labels of parts of a thing can detract from keeping sight of the whole. The whole is always more than the sum of the parts anyway.

Stuck in a job I used to hate, renting in a city which didn't feel like home, and feeling lost within myself, I remember distinctly being chilled by Annie Dillard's haunting phrase "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives".1

It's scary because it's true. But sometimes the truth can be scary enough to stop us from seeing it, scary enough to keep us within the tramlines of our habitual categorising, labelling, compartmentalising attitude towards work and life. We must all find a way of living that works for us, of course, which is not to say that sometimes circumstances can limit our choices. However, within reason, our perceptions of choice are often limited by what we expect from and believe about ourselves and the world. Yoga can help us expand our perception by opening our minds and bodies to what's possible.

If you are finding that the concepts of 'work' and 'life' feel at loggerheads in your own life, it might be worth questioning whether an alternative perspective might help. And, yes, it might sound like a cliché, but sometimes standing on your head really can help give you a different view, as well as being a lot of fun..

HOW TO MAKE YOGA WORK IN YOUR LIFE

So, yoga holds huge possibilities. Ok. So do many things. But can we implement it on a day-to-day basis in order to feel more balanced? Yes.

Philosophy is all very well, but unless it has application, its use is limited. This is why we don't do yoga for esoteric satisfaction. We do yoga because it feels good. I personally believe that one of the reasons that yoga has proven such an enduring practice, is that at its deepest, yoga is also at its very simplest. It is this depth in simplicity that makes yoga so special.
The Way Out Is In: The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh
Simply spending a few minutes – even five can make a world of difference – tuning into an awareness of our wholeness in the present moment can be an incredibly stabilising practice. When we slow ourselves down to the natural movement of breath in and out of our lungs, we touch something the runs deeper than the day's deadlines, stronger than the demands of our job, truer than everything we try to be. We touch what we actually are, which is energy, exchange, movement.

We touch the thing that enables us to do every single thing we do. If we didn't breathe, not only would we not be able to work, we wouldn't be able to live. So bringing this physiological marvel into our conscious attention acts as a means of drawing together our resources, mental, physical and emotional. For any sceptics out there, bear in mind that so much of life is determined by how we look at it.
The Way Out Is In: The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh
Another resonant quotation I heard the other day springs to mind. It's attributed to Albert Einstein. It says:

"There are two ways to live your life. You can live as though nothing were a miracle. Or you can live as though everything were a miracle".

We have a choice. Perhaps this is a little binary, but you get the idea, and it's hard not to see breath as a miracle.

When we bring ourselves back to the essentiality of breath, the seemingly miraculous side-effect is that the whole nervous system calms down, we physically alter the chemistry of our body, and this in itself can change our minds. When we're in touch with our essence, we feel naturally more balanced. We feel a balance between inhalation and exhalation, between take and give, between gravity and natural lift; between the density and lightness, darkness and light in our bodies, and in our minds and spirits.

So, again, yoga comes down to how things feel. When we feel calmer, we are calmer. When we feel in touch with our wholeness, we are whole. When we feel connected, we are connected. It just takes trust. When we feel these things, there is deep balance that undercuts distinctions between work and life. The beauty of life is that we are always whole, and always connected, so all that practice really is is remembering how to feel it.

This may or may not resonate with you. Perhaps you feel most whole and most connected doing something other than yoga, and perhaps you don't need to think about it. It might be walking, surfing, singing, cooking, being with animals; we must do what we feel works for us. But we must also move towards an understanding of yoga that isn't limited to classes labelled 'Yoga'. Yoga often starts in class, but ultimately there is yoga in everything. Some even say that yoga is everything: everything is yoga. Yoga is what puts you in touch with yourself in a way that makes you feel your wholeness, what makes you find your balance.

And if getting in touch with yourself means that you realise parts of your life aren't working for you, then yoga might well help you to open your mind and heart to possibilities you might not have previously seen. Human potential is always bigger than we perceive it to be, so it will always be more than a life's work to move closer to it. I don't know about you, but I feel there's something deeply reassuring about that.

Camilla Walker, March 2017


SOURCES

  1. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
  2. Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras, trans. Swami Satchidananda
  3. Calligraphy images from The Way Out Is In: The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh