5 Ways yoga makes me a mindful leader

5 Ways yoga makes me a mindful leader

There was a time when a day never had enough hours.

I’d start work at 7 or 8 in the morning, checking emails right after waking up. I’d either skip lunch, have it at my desk, or have it during a meeting. By the time I realized it’s already 7pm, I’d have gotten to less than half of my day’s to-do list.

And I loved it. Working gave me purpose. A busy day like that made me feel important and valuable.

Until it didn’t.

My family life hit many challenges. I was never present with them. On vacation, I’d get bored at anything we did, finding little value in spending time “unproductively.” I went in and out of top restaurants at the same speed as drive-thrus. And worst, I neglected my partner in life, my best friend, the love of my life. I spent very little time acknowledging her needs, often failing to listen… thinking that my life was more important.

That’s when I knew I needed to stop and smell the roses. I hadn’t been able to enjoy the moment for years… always preoccupied with the next step.

So I picked up yoga. I chose it because I wanted to take on an activity that I perceived as “useless” professionally, that would snap me out of my daily routine, and that would take me out of my comfort zone. And if I got a good stretch out of it, why not?

I thus signed up for a Groupon at a local yoga studio. It became the best thing that ever happened to me all year.

It was everything I expected, and more. It did take me over six months to start feeling what it’s like to live in the moment, to focus on what I’m doing. I still struggle at it. Yoga also made it apparent when I failed to be present: I simply fell from my poses. Falling helps me recognize my mind has gone astray, subconsciously. And that’s when I actively bring my mind back to the moment.

Ironically, taking the time to be away from work has also allowed me to reflect more comprehensively about work. That’s right, I owe to yoga many important lessons in leadership. Here are five of them:

“It’s ok to fall, it shows that you’re trying.”

My yoga teacher said this to me a lot when I first started.

I’d be falling left and right when trying to balance my poses. Her words encouraged me to keep trying and to push myself.

The same can be said of innovation. If we truly want to do something new, may it be a new product, new process, or new business model… we have to be OK with mistakes. We have to create an environment where team members are comfortable trying new things. It’s when we make a stretch mistake that we know we’re trying, that we’re pushing ourselves into unknown territory, that we’re growing.

“Observe differences, don’t judge.”

As a decision maker, it can be difficult to not judge everything around me.

Everyday, I have to judge individual team members’ performance, the team’s progress, the company’s culture, among other things. And it rarely stops when I go home. I keep judging my friends’ behavior, my spouse’s thoughts, and even strangers’ actions. I once judged a mother who seemingly was neglecting her child in a park… Yet fact is, I don’t even have a kid. Who am I to judge?

My constant need to judge also affected my objectivity. I’d often base judgements, and even take action, on unconfirmed assumptions and preconceptions. At work and at home. This hurt the people around me.

In one instance, I received note that a team member said something inappropriate. Without fact checking and without asking for that team member’s version of events, I proceeded to reprimand him. It fired back once we discovered that the person reporting the event misheard the conversation and took things out of context. The damage was done.

Then one day at yoga, we were doing a pigeon pose where we stretch our hips. After stretching the right hip, we proceeded to the left one, and the teacher said “Observe differences, don’t judge. Notice how the left one feels compares to the right.”

That’s when something clicked in my mind.

Being so quick to judge, I had forgotten the importance of observing things as they are. It impaired my objectiveness.

Slowly, with the help of yoga, I learned to simply observe. At work, this translated into spending more time assessing the facts before jumping to a conclusion. Instead of starting conversations with “I think that…,” I asked “Why is it that…” or “What’s the background on…” I became more confident in my decisions, but more importantly, team members trusted my decisions more.

“Practice non-attachment”

As I made my way to yoga class one day, I found myself with a substitute teacher instead of the usual teacher. I really enjoyed my usual teacher and reacted with some disappointment. Yet when class started, the substitute teacher said “I know that many of you didn’t expect me to teach your class today. It’s thus a good opportunity to practice the concept of non-attachment. To be OK when things don’t go as planned. To not be attached to a certain idea or desire.”

She was brilliant. Not only was it one of the best yoga classes I’ve attended, she also reminded me of the importance of being OK with not getting what I want. To simply go with the flow, react accordingly, and not be emotionally disturbed by surprises. Fact is, nobody can predict the future, so why get upset at something that was never certain in the first place?

At work, I applied this mindset when planning for the future. I favored scenario planning as opposed to forecasting when it came to strategic planning. I wanted the team to be ready if things went wrong, and not to be upset by surprises. We continued to try our best in achieving the best case scenario, but we were also much better prepared to face the worst case scenarios.

“Let the teacher and student in me honor the teacher and student in you.”

My yoga teacher ends her practice with this line every single class. At first, I thought to myself “I don’t get it… there’s nothing that I can teach her about yoga.”

Yet one day, while having a random conversation with my teacher, she asked for my advice on something about online marketing. It finally occurred to me that each and single one of us knows something that another individual doesn’t.

Armed with this mindset, I saw my team members in a new light. I perceived their diverse background and experiences as sources of learnings for me and for everyone around them. I actually went back and looked at each individual’s resume to see if I had missed anything about them. I also became a lot more active in asking whether anybody has had previous experiences when it came to implementing a new change or a new process.

Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot more from my team and my colleagues after seeing everyone as a teacher.

“Dedicate your practice”

At the beginning of class, my teacher often starts by asking us to dedicate our practice. I usually go to yoga without much planning, so that question always catches me by surprise. It forces me to ask myself “Why am I here?”

To which I’d respond with: To learn to live in the present, to avoid conflict with so and so, or to stop hating inconsiderate drivers. That question helped give meaning to the time I spend at yoga.

Then one day, I started asking myself that question at work as well: “Why am I at work today? How should I dedicate my work?”

To which I’d respond with: To help solve XYZ, to feed my family, to make a positive impact on…

On good days, asking myself these questions boosts my motivation. And on bad days, they remind me of the bigger mission I’m pursuing, helping to smooth out any temporary bumps in the road.

I can confidently say that dedicating my practice, and my work, helps to remind me of my life’s purpose.

I’ve been much happier since that first day of yoga. It helped me make some good headway in being mindful, in appreciating the time I spend with my family. And in addition to yoga, I also discovered a book that helped me reflect and practice mindfulness: Wherever you go, there you are. Highly recommended to all those that are always thinking about the next thing in line…


Recommended exercise

Let’s ask ourselves: “When’s the last time I didn’t try to get somewhere else?”


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