Corporations are turning to age-old tools such as meditation to help staff improve focus, combat stress and sleep better.

SINGAPORE (Mar 25): Everybody can meditate,” says Ishan Shivanand. “In today’s world,” he adds, “it is a necessity.” More than ever before, we live in a state of continuous partial attention, tethered to our gadgets, our minds flitting from office emails to unwieldy WhatsApp chat groups to social media feeds. We are relentlessly distracted by the pings on our phones and binge on Netflix as a bedtime ritual.

Added to that, the majority of workers in Singapore — around 60% — say they experience elevated levels of stress at work, according to a 2018 survey by Willis Towers Watson. Stress directly impacts mental well-being and has also been found to contribute to chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. And yet, despite the prevalence of work-related stress, the survey noted that only 27% of employers are actively taking action to address it.

Some companies, however, are realising that wellness in the workplace can improve productivity and employee engagement. Instead of a fringe benefit revolving around yoga classes or Fitbits, they are looking at ways to make it a more integral part of corporate life. To do this, some are turning to spiritual practitioners like Shivanand, who use age-old tools such as meditation to help staff handle stress.

Shivanand was in Singapore in February to conduct a series of corporate wellness workshops at companies such as LinkedIn, a professional networking company, and MatchMove, a fast-growing digital payments firm. His interactive mindfulness-based sessions start with holistic exercises, breathwork and awareness procedures. These are designed to enhance blood flow within the body and optimise metabolism and endocrine function. He then introduces a set of detox protocols involving meditation and visualisation to promote stress and toxin release in the emotional and mental realms. Finally, he discusses techniques on how to achieve deep and restorative sleep.

Born in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, Shivanand comes from a line of spiritual masters for whom meditation and self-healing is a way of life. His father Avdhoot Shivanand is a founder of ShivYog, a non-profit organisation that promotes meditation and helps the underprivileged. The younger Shivanand embarked on his training in an ashram at the tender age of eight, learning over the years how to master himself.

“You can take a Prozac to destress,” he tells ­Options. But instead of relying on a chemically induced quick fix, he advocates learning to control your inner thoughts and physiology. “Learn to master yourself before anything else,” he says. That begins with putting aside some quiet alone time for self-reflection to understand your strengths and weaknesses and to ponder on what it is you want and what you have to do to attain it. By expanding your consciousness, he believes people can break their self-imposed limitations, make peace with their past and release unwanted memories. “Learn to be selfish, have some time for yourself for self-awareness,” he says.

Mastering yourself also calls for mindfulness in your daily activities, which means being in the present moment and devoting your attention to your surroundings, thoughts and feelings, whether it is eating a meal or interacting with colleagues. Beyond that, Shivanand strongly recommends making meditation a part of daily life, where time is set aside to still the mind. For beginners who cannot seem to stop their minds racing, he suggests short sessions where you focus on one action, such as your breathing, and keep bringing your attention back to that anchor whenever your mind wanders.

“Imagine you are out on Orchard Road shopping and you have all these bags. You are happy but your hands hurt from carrying the bags. So you go to Starbucks and put your bags down. Have a coffee and relax,” he says. Likewise with meditation. “I am not telling you to throw away your Jimmy Choos or Louis Vuittons. Just drop them for a while. [Meditation] gives you a nice space to drop your bags.”

Meditation could well emerge as a compelling antidote to our frenzied, fast-spiralling lifestyles. Scientists at Harvard University have found that it positively impacts brain activity by redirecting activity from the limbic system (the reactionary part of the brain) to the prefrontal cortex (the rational part). This enables us to rely more on executive functioning than impulses. Deep breathing, meanwhile, brings more oxygen to the body and can instantly change our blood chemistry.

Shivanand firmly believes meditation boosts memory and concentration as well as improves decision-making. Those benefits may be why a growing number of organisations are investing in emotional health management programmes. Aside from improving focus and attention spans, these wellness activities help engage staff, especially millennials, who often expect wellness to be a part of their work experience.

At MatchMove, 30 employees at its Telok Ayer office were joined by more than 100 other staff from India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, via a video link, for the company’s inaugural workshop with Shivanand. The idea came from MatchMove CEO Shailesh Naik who said: “We require our staff to be operating at peak physical and psychological levels at all times. While we already invest heavily in productivity tools and team building techniques to make their work-life more efficient and effective, we have decided to incorporate cognitive tools as well, especially scientifically proven methods such as mindfulness, [for] general career fulfilment.”

Meanwhile, at LinkedIn, over 40 staff at its Singapore office attended a session by Shivanand where he talked about the power of meditation, yogic breathing and visualisation. “LinkedIn has a fantastic company culture, with really good people from really diverse cultural backgrounds. However, people do get stressed as it’s a high-performing culture,” said ­Rishi Venkat, a sales strategist at the company. What particularly struck a chord with him was how Shivanand urged the audience to stop bringing their past into the present and instead to bring their future into the present. “By meditating on our futures selves, he made us think about the changes we need to make to bring ourselves closer to the best versions of ourselves,” says Venkat.


A monk’s guide to a good night’s sleep

According to various surveys, Singaporeans are among the most sleep-deprived people on the planet. Sleep is very important for rebuilding the mind and body, says Ishan Shivanand. Rather than popping a pill, he offers these tips to help train your internal clock to achieve deep, restorative sleep.

• No phones and blue light emitting screens one hour before going to bed.

• No caffeine, alcohol or heavy meals close to bedtime. These put a toll on the body’s digestive and detoxing functions and are also neural inhibitors.

• Meditate with deep breathing for 10 minutes before sleeping. This activates the pineal gland, which produces melatonin and helps maintain circadian rhythm. Try a guided app or download free guided meditations from his website: www.ishanshivanand.com.


Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, desperately needs a good night’s sleep