Do yoga, work harder: how productivity co-opted relaxation

Balance sheet … can yoga boost productivity? Photograph: FatCamera/Getty Images

Are you reading this when you should be working? Please don’t feel bad. Later, you will get more done, because reading enhances your productivity and so does surfing the internet while at work. Just make sure that it does not account for more than 20% of your time, say researchers at University of Melbourne and the National University of Singapore. You can idly scroll, safe in the knowledge that you are offsetting your present indolence against a productive future.

Productivity is the great preoccupation of our age. The productivity industry is thriving. It has its own aisle in all the app supermarkets. You can type “enhances productivity” into Google and validate as a productivity hack almost any human activity, from laughing to crying. If there is something depressing about the idea that your emotional responses can be bent to the services of work, ask your desk neighbour for a hug. It might take you away from your screen for a minute, but that’s OK because a hug is a great brain hack to get your oxytocin flowing, which will make you more productive.

There is almost nothing you can do to escape being productive. The old escapes have become productivity tools. Go for a walk? Chat by the water cooler? Hang out with your pet? Eat chocolate? Get laid? Daydream? Open your bowels? All these and more are now propounded as aids to productivity. Leisure itself is being reappropriated. Corporate yoga is booming. Even the chief executive of Public Health England has advocated it. Meditation and mindfulness sessions are offered to employees at companies including Ford, Google, Goldman Sachs and Aetna, the last of which according to David Gelles, a business reporter for the New York Times, estimates a saving of $2,000 (£1,475) a head in healthcare costs and a gain of $3,000 a head in productivity as a result. There is no point shutting your eyes to seek oblivion in sleep because sleep is undergoing a reawakening, led by Ariana Huffington, who sees it as “a great performance enhancer” and is harvesting your insomnia anxiety to build an empire.

Does it matter that leisure is increasingly being put to the service of work? If the results are good, and productivity makes us happy, where is the harm? Sarah Vaynerman is the founder of Work From Om, a yoga company based in New York City. Six or seven years ago, she was working as a marketing manager in a “very toxic environment on Wall Street” when she found herself “in a kind of a hole – so stressed I didn’t know how to get out of it”. She began to practise yoga, and soon rose from the mat with a new business: corporate yoga, which she now provides to firms ranging from startups to giants such as Warner Music Group.

In many ways, Vaynerman was her own first student. “I was expecting relaxation. There was plenty of that. But what really surprised me was how all other aspects of my life came to improve. My attention was improving, my focus was improving, my ability to organise was improving.” And if she was less stressed, she says, that was “not because I was lying on a beach* but because I was doing more, my life felt fuller. I felt more capable and confident.” (*Don’t fret if you are reading this lying on a beach; some scientists say holidays can help your productivity, too.)

 Screen break … A woman boosts her productivity by looking at the internet. Photograph: Tim Robberts/Getty Images

I wonder whether Vaynerman ever worries that it is inherently un-yogic to harness the potential of yoga for the purposes of enhanced productivity, but she says not. “I don’t believe so at all. It’s a misconception that yoga is there just to relax you,” she says. “In fact, yoga in Sanskrit means ‘to yoke, to union’. It is supposed to connect your outside circumstances with your authentic self, your purpose.”

This sounds great, provided that the outside circumstances to which we are yoked are not overly concerning. But it cannot be coincidence that personal productivity has thrived as a preoccupation at a time when global productivity is failing to grow as well as it did before the global financial crisis. This poor performance of labour productivity growth during the economic recovery is commonly referred to as “the productivity puzzle” (incidentally, puzzling is a great boost for productivity, so I’m surprised this hasn’t resolved itself by now), which makes fathoming it sound like a fun hobby.

“Increased productivity used to be something that companies and managers were responsible for,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. “Today, though, individuals are responsible for their own productivity. You become more productive through life-hacks, having the right noise-cancelling headphones and so on. We have a whole language that shifts responsibility for productivity back on to the individual, meaning that you have no one but yourself to blame if things go wrong: it’s not because you work in a super-noisy, poorly managed office, it’s because you have trouble multitasking in a fast-paced, dynamic environment.”

Maybe this kind of biohacking is prevalent precisely because individuals feel obliged to incorporate or embody the demands of the workplace. Even LSD, once the ultimate expression of the counterculture, has been harnessed as an aid to productivity.

Since 2010 James Fadiman has tracked microdosing of LSD, in which a small dose – typically 10 micrograms – is taken every three or four days without psychedelic effect. He first heard the idea from someone who had been recommended a microdose by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesised LSD, “to clarify a relationship he was in”. Fadiman has gathered a sample of 1,500 microdosers, aged from 18 to 80, across 59 countries, who submit their findingsfor him and his colleague Sophia Korb to study.

Fadiman, speaking on the phone from Menlo Park, California, has countless examples of the benefits of LSD in this form. “A young man at a San Francisco meet-up said: ‘Well, I only use microdosing when I have a coding problem,” he says. Another found that he could drive for longer. Another still, who had been eating really badly, went to a restaurant while microdosing “and he said to me: ‘I looked at the menu and, by God, I wanted the salad.’”

For Pang, this shows how “modern capitalism is capable of turning anything either into a product you consume or an enhancer of productivity”. But Fadiman sees it differently. “The people I’ve spoken to,” he says, “they don’t feel they’re more productive.” Instead, he sees microdosing as “an enhanced wellness tool” of which productivity is only a part, although he acknowledges that one of the major benefits is “diminished procrastination”.

 Hug it out … grappling with your workmates can get the oxytocin flowing. Photograph: Claudia Burlotti/Getty Images

Steve Jobs was influenced by Zen Buddhism and LSD, and Mark Zuckerberg has also spoken about his interest in Buddhism, so there’s a long association between the search for spiritual enlightenment and productivity. Still, it seems ironic to think that LSD was once enjoyed as a way to turn on, tune in and drop out. “Absolutely,” Fadiman chuckles, suggesting an update. “It’s turn on a really little bit, tune into your life and enjoy your day. Somewhat different.”

Like Fadiman with microdosing, Vaynerman advertises productivity as just one of the many benefits of yoga. And Richard Pierson, the co-founder of bestselling meditation and mindfulness app Headspace, emails to say: “It would be a shame if employers are only integrating mindfulness to improve productivity. My hope is that they are supporting it so their employees can be healthier and happier throughout their life.”

“Happiness is a route to productivity, not the other way round,” agrees Graham Allcott, who calls himself “the productivity ninja”. He enjoys meditation and yoga. But, he says: “I’m not doing yoga to be productive, though I know it helps me.”

This makes me wonder if anything these days can be considered unproductive. What could Allcott, or anyone, do to escape? To get a proper break, I mean, not the kind that’s flagged at the back of our minds as performance-enhancing? What is the least productive activity Allcott can think of? “I would say the least productive way to spend time would be … Well. I think it would be working on something where …” He hesitates: “No. That’s not quite right. I was kind of thinking about the opposite question. What’s the most productive tends to come down to whether you’re adding value in the best way. The best way to add value is to define the task really well.”

I don’t feel that we have struck at the core of unproductivity here. Perhaps there is no longer such a thing as purposeful unproductivity. After all, even procrastination has been claimed as a productivity tool, provided it is “high-performance procrastination”. And if productivity is simply a byproduct of enjoyable pursuits, are Allcott, Vaynerman and Pierson right to see it as harmless?

“These companies that sell relaxation tools and techniques are kidding themselves if they don’t understand this is part of an acceleration of our economy and expansion of work into all aspects of our life,” says William Davies, a lecturer at Goldsmiths University and author of The Happiness Industry. “It’s a cruel mentality where everything can be used or should be useful, and if it isn’t, I’m not trying hard enough. That’s one problem. The other problem, of course, is that where you once had things that added intrinsic value for people, they’ve become captured in some way.”

What we lose, he says, is the idea of comfort, that nurturing state of ease or strength that is an end in itself. Does he have any suggestion for how to escape the need to be productive? “I suppose slumped in front of the telly with a burger in one hand and a beer in the other,” he says. But unfortunately, some European researchers have got there first and declared vegging out to be healthfully productive. This suggests another possibility. Maybe the idea of productivity itself has been co-opted, to describe the things people like to do, so people can continue to do them, while appearing to be busy.