From the Yoga Room to the Board Room

What yoga teaches us about leadership and professional life.

Of the 24 years I’ve been a devotee of corporate life, the last 12 have been spent in equal devotion to Bikram yoga. Often, when I listen to the gentle wisdom of my yoga instructors, I find myself thinking about its application to leadership in business.

In yoga, as in Heraclitus’ River, it’s never the same river twice: your body, the room, the instructor, and your mindset are always in flux. On any given day, you feel new pains. The room is cold. The group energy is off. No matter how hard you try, you can’t touch your forehead to your knee. Someone’s hand is in your face. You didn’t eat enough and feel sluggish. You must navigate distraction, disturbance and even disappointment to the best of your ability to make it to the end of class.

Sound familiar, business leaders?

My Bikram yoga instructor, Grace Tung, who also happens to hold her MBA from the University of Chicago, recently worked with me to highlight five tried and true yoga principles that are relevant to effective business leadership in an increasingly complex world:

1) Start strong: If you’re taking on a new project, be mindful of your physical readiness to rise to the challenge. Just like a yoga class, approach each new project with physical strength derived from healthy eating, restful sleeping, breathing and hydration. You’re much better prepared to handle the inevitable pressures and support others if you are physically strong from the start and pay special attention to sustaining yourself physically.

2) Clarify intent: Yoga is a practice of intention. At the start of each class or as you ease into each posture, you set your intent: a mindful commitment you’re making to your mind, body and yourself. Your intention may be about doing a posture for the first time or staying in it longer than you’ve ever done before. In leadership as well, state your intention upfront, both to yourself and to your team. Keep an active presence of your intention throughout, stopping and stepping back to remind yourself and your colleagues where you are going, what you are doing, and why you’re doing it.

3) Eliminate distraction: In Bikram yoga, the goal is to stay in the room despite the heat and other annoyances that might get in the way. Students are taught to stay focused on their eyes in the mirror and ignore the inevitable sweating and itching. Same goes in business: Don’t let the small stuff like politics and naysayers distract you from reaching your goal. You can acknowledge that these distractions exist, but you also must repeat to yourself that it doesn’t matter. Ignore the noise and stay focused on the bigger picture.

4) Rest if you need to: In the United States, we’re taught that resting is a sign of weakness, especially in the workplace. For some odd reason, exhaustion, lack of sleep and working when you’re sick are badges of honor to be admired and commended. Well, it doesn’t work that way in yoga. Or in life. If a student sits down in yoga, it’s a symbol of self-value and acceptance of where they are in that moment. Our humanness is embraced by the acknowledgement that we simply can’t be our best selves if we’re tired or sick.

5) Inspire collaborative energy: While yoga is an individual practice, the energy in the room is a palpable part of the equation. At its best, it can move you to your deepest, most satisfying postures. On the other hand, a lack of energy — or even negative energy, when no one is moving together — can produce a struggled, chaotic practice. The same goes in business. What you put out to your team has a profound influence on how you and they perform, both as individuals and as part of the collective whole. Appreciate those around you by letting go of ego and allowing others to contribute and rise. After all, your team’s ascension is your own.