It's noon on a Thursday at the venerable Fowler White Boggs law firm — time for employees to put their trials behind them and become "one" with the universe, or at least get in some really great stretching.
In the muted light of the firm's old law library, New Age music undulates softly as Marisa Santino, in soothing tones, leads about 15 employees through a workout program that's more than 2,000 years old.
Yoga, the mind and body discipline developed in ancient India, has become a staple of the high-stress American workplace. Morgan & Morgan law firm, Banker Lopez Gassler law firm, TECO Energy Inc., MetLife and the University of Tampa are among local employers offering to nourish the spirit during lunch break.
"It's become less touchy-feely and more accepted by the mainstream,'' says Maryanna Klatt, an Ohio State University professor who developed a stress-lowering program for workers that emphasizes yoga. In the last five years or so, she says, a lot of companies became convinced of yoga's benefits in reducing stress-related illness, such as migraine headaches and backaches.
"They realize it's a low-cost, high-yield investment for their employees.''
TECO pays for the yoga classes offered at its downtown Tampa office, so employees partake for free. Many employers, however, choose to subsidize the classes; employees usually pay a small fee. At Fowler White Boggs, it's $4 per person per session. At University of Tampa, a $50 yearly fee for the fitness center covers the cost of yoga.
Twenty minutes a day of workplace meditation and yoga, plus an hourlong group session once a week, lowered stress among participants by 10 percent and improved the sleep quality of workers who sit at desks all day, according a 2009 study Klatt published in the journal Health Education & Behavior.
TECO offers four yoga sessions a week at its downtown offices, two taught by an on-site instructor and two with video instruction. Matt Wadephul, a fitness specialist for the company, says TECO also offers aerobics and other workouts, but yoga draws consistent attendance. Ten die-hards rarely miss.
"It really helps them to de-stress and relax," Wadephul says, "especially if they're having a rough day.''
Hala Sandridge, 51, an appellate lawyer at Fowler White, says she and most of the other regulars were new to yoga when they started two years ago.
"We all became converts when they offered it here at Fowler White.''
It's a great stretching workout for people who sit at desks all day, she says, but it's more than that.
"I consider it both emotional and physical.'' Sandridge uses the breathing techniques to relax at various times during the day.
Sherry Lyon, 70, the firm's receptionist, says she feels the effects all afternoon after a yoga workout.
"It peps me up. Instead of tiring you, it does just the opposite.''
Roland Licona, a computer troubleshooter for the firm, spent years under the care of a chiropractor to relieve his chronic back pain, he says. After a few weeks of taking yoga, he was surprised during a workout to hear his bones pop and feel the relief in his lower back. Licona, 48 — a back pain sufferer since an injury at age 17 — realized he no longer needed the chiropractor.
''Someone gave me a tool kit to maintain my back health.''
Santino, 34, a paralegal who leads yoga sessions at three firms as owner of Rising Sun Yoga, believes yoga breaks will become more commonplace at work as companies realize the benefits.
"At the end of the day, I think people do better at their jobs because they can handle stress better,'' she says, noting that the results show in an employee's productivity and interaction with others.
"Overall, it's just better for the world.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.