New Leadership Principles found in Ancient Yogic Wisdom
The ancient system of yoga has continued to increase in popularity, its practitioners having doubled in the last decade. Currently, over 37 million people practice yoga in the U.S, or about 1 in 10 Americans. According to yoga workplace statistics, about 1 in 7 workers shows engagement in activities that improve mindfulness, as they have been shown to improve employees’ health and productivity.
It appears that the yogic practices of postures, breathing, and mindfulness continue to remain relevant for our modern age, and are becoming more so. I’ve experienced how relevant they are first hand—personally and professionally. I’ve designed a system to help people incorporate the wisdom from these practices into their everyday lives and workplaces.
Here is a leadership secret I want to share:
Leaders can only create externally that which they can create first internally.
In other words, if you work first on your “inner game,” the outer game of influencing others reflects it. To change the outer situation without awareness of your own internal state will at best produce frustration, and at worst damaged relationships.
I have found yoga and the practice of meditative awareness to be a foundational tool for helping leaders achieve this internal awareness. My clients demonstrate, week after week, that as they learn to dial down their repetitive, habitual thoughts, new possible actions become available. They often experience previously unimaginable possibilities.
What makes yogic traditions relevant to leaders?
There are two fundamental yogic principles are beneficial to everyone, and especially to leaders.
The first yogic principle is learning to use the breath to control your inner state of mind.
Our minds are constantly active, generating about 2000 thoughts an hour. As we discover that we are more than just our thoughts is a game changer.
Our state of mind is directly related to the state of our breath. So, in order to change our state of mind, simply change ther breath! When we first begin to practice this, we soon discover its power for ourselves. Try it right now.
Inhale deeply through your nose, while pulling the breath into your body through your lower belly rather than inhaling through the top of your lungs. Then consciously move the breath up to the top of your lungs. Hold your breath for a few seconds, and then release the breath back down through your lungs and allow it to leave your body through your abdomen area. This long, slow exhalation will increase your body’s ability to relax. As you continue to practice, see if you can make the exhalation longer than the inhalation. With each breath, exhale more slowly than the time before. Do this simple practice for 5-7 breaths, and notice what happens in your thoughts and in your body.
Breathing in an intentional way through the belly and not through the lungs helps reduce the high-alert status of the sympathetic nervous system that we most often use during our daily activities. Simply learning how to shift your breathing pattern will change your ability to see people and opportunities with a different perspective. This is due to the fact that when you slow down enough to access your higher intelligences through activating the para-sympathetic nervous system. These relaxed brain waves are correlated with heightened creativity, visualizations and integrated thinking.
The second yogic principle is that of “going to the edge.”
Yoga affords the opportunity to use the physical body as a vehicle for psychological insight. People often think yoga is about putting your body into pretzel poses. Although that is the visible side of yoga, here is much more to yoga than that. Yoga means “union;” the integration of mind, body and soul. With yoga, you use the postures to get into your body; not the body to get into the postures!
This is an important distinction. Getting into the body means getting out of the mind. The mind is busy with its non-stop chatter of to-do lists, worries about the future, and ruminations from the past. In a yoga posture you have the opportunity to experience pure sensation in the body. As you do, you will notice the usual “mind chatter” gradually starts to fall away.
What happens when you feel discomfort when entering a pose there may be a place where discomfort occurs. You notice a buildup of strong sensation. The body may feel pain. This is where the edge comes in.
When you first go to your edge, what is your typical pattern? Do you push through it? Do you force it? Do you back away and then beat yourself up? Are you comparing your body in the posture to others on nearby mats?
As sensation builds, you have an opportunity to do something different than what you may have done “off the mat.” You can simply breathe deeply and slowly through the belly, noticing what the changed breath pattern does to your thoughts. Observe that as your breathing pattern shifts, your body begins to relax into the pose. With deeper, slower breaths over a period of time, you may notice that you are effortlessly entering a pose that would have been impossible without the breath and the deeper awareness that breath (and relaxation) created for you.
Going right up to your edge is where the transformation happens. The edge is the psychological border that brings up our typical patterns of engagement. These patterns are usually transparent to us in daily life. A yogic practice can be a portal to those patterns. We can explore what happens in our physical edges on the mat, so that when we are “off the mat” in our daily lives we can develop new habits. We can use edges that are situational instead of physical to experience our edges. When we do, we are transformed from the one who experiences discomfort to the one who witnesses the discomfort, similar to when we are on a yoga mat.
Consider what may be limiting you in your life or at work. Consider your familiar patterns. If you disrupt that patterning through awareness of your “edge,” what changes unfold?
Leadership is an art of engagement— the ability to influence others towards a shared vision. The edge offers a place of possibility for you to practice self-mastery, the place where leadership begins.
I hope that you discover as I did how effective these yogic principles are while working with a wide range of leadership challenges. They truly offer a powerful means for leaders who seek accelerated development and lasting change.