Yoga makes better leaders

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Recently a close friend of mine made the jump from high paying corporate executive to becoming a fully-fledged, incense burning Yogi with several of his own studios in Melbourne (Australian Yoga Academy). I was intrigued why someone so successful in the corporate world would embrace Yoga to such an extent that it eventually became his life. Then more recently during my own latest mid-life crisis (I started early at around 20 and have continued to have approximately one every year since then) I also started including Yoga into my health regime. After a chat with this yogi over dinner recently, and reflecting on my own experiences, I realised that there are significant benefits, both personally and at a corporate level, to be had for leaders who integrate Yoga into their lives.

The commonly held view of what a successful, hard-nosed business leader needs to be is someone who is driven, decisive, passionate, can multi-task, and lives for the business. They are ambitious, competitive, assertive and on – 24/7. It’s certainly true that many of these characteristics are prerequisites, but trying to be all of them at all times and achieve perfection is stressful and draining for many leaders, resulting in high burnout rates, followed by the mandatory mid-life crisis. This unbalanced, aggressive style of leadership has also been proven to provide limited, if any, long term benefits for the company, its culture or its workers.

Incorporating Yoga as a regular practice assists in keeping work in context and delivers more balanced leaders who are able to manage more effectively in all situations, both good and bad. Female leaders are often better at participating in Yoga, however there is a growing movement of males who are now starting to take part in Yoga classes. Its benefits are so evident and long lasting that maybe Yoga should be incorporated into the mandatory MBA most leaders aspire to acheive.

Listed below are ten ways Yoga can help a manager become a better leader

  1. Mindfulness – being present is one of the key mantras of Yoga. The past has gone and the future has not happened, so the only reality is the present. True mastery is achieved through learning from the past and incorporating these learnings into the present so that you are continually growing and improving. To assist in being fully present Yoga uses breathing as a focus for calming the mind. As managers and leaders we often have a thousand and one things we are juggling, often complaining that we have no room for anything else. There are the KPIs, goals, and strategic objectives we need to achieve. We need to manage our staff and deliver our results, so we are often very forward focused. However, by focusing on the present in a disciplined and calm manner we are much more likely to achieve our future goals with greater ease and increased satisfaction.
  2. Acceptance – a normal Yoga class starts off with asking you to get in touch with your body and energy levels. You are asked to look within and assess what you need at that time and to then define your intentions for the class. It espouses avoiding self-judgement, fear and blame, which are often the main causes of caustic corporate culture. Acceptance does not mean that you slacken off, in fact it is the opposite. You are encouraged to push yourself to your personal limits, but also accept that there are factors beyond your control, which may impact your performance. A very poignant phrase often used is “you are where you are meant to be”. By learning to accept this as a truth means that you remain positive and calm in the way you manage both negative and positive events. For the Alpha managers and control freaks amongst us this is often one of the toughest ones to master. Importantly it is not espousing taking a submissive approach to the situation you find yourself in, but rather accept it as it is and then calmly make a plan and take considered action to improve your fortunes.
  3. Managing your ego –Yoga Asanas are a series of poses that you will continue to practice in your personal journey to master them. Some are simple and can be mastered in your first class, while others require years of practice. Just like management, your Yoga capabilities are based on a range of factors such as past experiences, training, commitment, passion, daily energy levels and body fitness. Yoga is not about competing or comparing yourself to others and neither is management. By applying this principle Yogi leaders are less likely to put unproductive pressure on themselves and as a result be more effective in their decision making and productivity.
  4. Focus – at the start of any Yoga class you are encouraged to sit in a comfortable pose and focus on your breathing to calm your mind. The class is about being able to let go of the daily thoughts and noise that inundate us second-by-second and focus on just one thing, breathing. You are reminded not to try and fight the random thoughts that come rushing into your head but rather accept them, acknowledge them and then peacefully releasing them. The more you focus on your breathing the calmer your mind becomes. This practice not only calms you, but delivers oxygen to your body and brain which will allow you to push yourself to your personal limits during the class. By mastering this, Yogi leaders can fully focus on the task at hand, complete it to the best of their ability and then move on to the next.
  5. Health – Modern medical imaging technology now allows the brain to be mapped to an extent never before seen and it has confirmed the benefits meditation and Yoga offers to the brain. The resulting significant reduction in stress and anxiety also has a direct correlation to a person’s long-term physical health. High levels of stress are acknowledged as being a major cause of heart disease, strokes, cancer and mental issues. There are also a range of physical benefits on offer including stretching that fights the ailments caused by sitting at a desk or computer all day, core strengthening that helps in your daily activities, and cardiovascular benefits as you work through your Asanas. If you haven’t tried yoga, you may not fully appreciate how physical it really is.
  6. Alignment – Yoga aims to bring your awareness to your multiple brains; your head brain, your heart brain and your gut brain. Once upon a time this fact would have been dismissed as absurd, with the typical response being that you only have one brain and that is the one in your head. However, recent medical research has confirmed the presence of these multiple brains. Yoga acknowledges the multiple brains and throughout the practice aims to centre them and align them so they are balanced and calm. It is acknowledged that great leaders think with the head, heart and gut (intuition).
  7. Calmness – Breathing not only focuses the mind, it also brings about the calmness that is the entre’ to meditation. Yogis often refer to our Monkey Mind, which is a great description for the way our modern brains run wildly from thought to thought. We have been tricked into believing that the more we have going on in our heads then the more capable we are. However, the truth is that having a flurry of thoughts buzzing around our heads is very distracting and doesn’t allow us to really focus on any one thing properly. As a result our productivity and the quality of our outcomes suffer as our Monkey Minds take control. This means that when presented with amazing opportunities or evolving crises we are able to approach them calmly and think rationally about the best way to manage them. Interestingly, inner calmness also manifests itself externally into your physical presence. No doubt you have met people that have an amazing aura of calmness about them. Just by being in their presence, you may have felt more at ease, more confident and been able to think more clearly. No doubt these are qualities you want your team members to display and use to increase productivity.
  8. Breathing – we all breathe, so this may seem a redundant point. However, while we all certainly are breathing it is the type of breath that impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. The more stressed we become, the faster our breath becomes and the shallower our breathing is. This is the same result we get when we are under threat or attack. The more stressed the brain becomes the less it is able to be fully aware of what is happening around it. It becomes focused on only one thing and that is how to reduce or avoid the perceived threat. By controlling your breathing and being able to slow it down and deepen your breaching cycles, it enables you to return your body and mind back to a much more relaxed and productive state. Your breathing technique will not necessarily reduce the threat, but rather prepare you to better manage it to achieve better long-term outcomes.
  9. Comfort in discomfort – Some of the more advanced Asanas really take you out of your comfort zone. They take a lot of time to master and each time you practice them you feel the discomfort of stretching muscles and joints beyond what you previously thought possible. These contortionist positions are uncomfortable enough, but Yoga also requires you to hold them for a period of time and to breathe through the discomfort. Increasingly in business we find ourselves outside our comfort zones and having to still function effectively. Being able to capitalise in both good times and tough time is where true success is made.
  10. Practice – Your Yoga is referred to as a practice. This reflects the philosophy that Yoga is not a goal but really a lifelong pursuit for mastery, inner peace, contentment and enlightenment. Similarly, you may be able to master some elements of management, but there will always be more to conquer. One phrase that comes to mind is “the more you know the more you realise there is to learn”. Equally the more you practice the better you become and the levels you are able to achieve increase. In both Yoga and Management you need to fine-tune and practice each component of the skill to achieve mastery.

There’s no doubt you are able to name many managers who are incredibly successful without ever having practiced yoga. The question that I was able to answer through Yoga was that corporate success is only one component of a life lived to its full potential. I found there is much more satisfaction and contentment to be had by being able to integrate the success of work within a successful life that combines a healthy balance between the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of us as complete human beings. If you find yourself with a strange emptiness around your life or going through your latest mid-life crisis maybe give Yoga a try, it’s worth a shot.

© Gary Waldon and garywaldon.com 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gary Waldon and garywaldon.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Gary is a Director of TalkCommunications.com.au, an innovator, a speaker and a successful executive known for delivering simple solutions to solve complex problems.

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Yoga makes better leaders

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