I went to my first yoga class over 15 years ago, with the intention of trying something new to reduce the chronic stress I was experiencing. Working as a mid or senior level leader inside large Fortune 200 companies over the years has provided me with my share of 60–80 hour work weeks and the syndrome of never feeling like I could ever “catch up” with all the multiple demands coming at me. Those ever-increasing demands coupled with my default over-achiever personality catapulted me into performance overdrive, and my physical symptoms of blinding headaches and difficulty breathing began pretty early on in my career.
When popping extra-strength Tylenol and mega doses of caffeine didn’t do the trick, a friend recommended I try yoga to relax. Since I resonated with the philosophies behind the practices, I decided to attend a session. My first class didn’t go very well. As someone who was used to high-paced step aerobics classes and daily workouts on a stationary bike, the slow breathing exercises the teacher started with made me crazy. The pace felt like molasses, and the moves seemed slow-motion to me. I felt like I was just standing still and not moving.
I didn’t go back to the next class, resolving that yoga was too slow for me, the breathing made me dizzy, and that exercising more strenuously would instead do the stress relief trick. It didn’t. At that time, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t realize that my body was trying its best to tell me to slow down and listen to it.
Years later, a trip to the emergency room with the same yet more magnified symptoms and a heart scare finally made me sit down and listen. And yes — try another go at the yoga thing.
But this time I was ready. It clicked and I got it. I now practice regularly and my whole orientation has changed.
Here’s what I learned the second time around:
1. Your body sends you messages all the time
We pride ourselves for our intelligence and use of our minds — and are rewarded in our jobs for how smart we are and how much we get done. But just as our mind speaks to us in thoughts, our body speaks to us in signals and symptoms. It is a valid and critical messenger that communicates in the language of symptoms, and is just as or sometimes even more reliable than our busy minds. We just have to learn its language and listen to its signals and their meaning.
2. Sometimes you must slow down and stand still to move forward
In environments that reward achieving, fast pace is equated with action and doing. Slow pace is often interpreted as laziness, detachment, or lack of momentum. When you take up a practice such as yoga, you realize that just pure pushing without pause and contemplation actually keeps you stagnant. It is the slowing down to be still and reflect that allows you to see things more clearly, integrate different seemingly disparate pieces, and then move forward from an even stronger stance.
3. The secret is in your breath
The thing that drove me crazy in that yoga class so many years ago was the emphasis on breathing. Each movement is associated with a thoughtful series of breaths, as is the entire practice. What I found after I surrendered to the process is that by controlling my breath, I was able to quiet and in some ways, control the speed of my mind, and eventually integrate the rhythm of the two.
I realize now that this integration was the key to managing the stressors coming at me and eliminating the shortness of breath I was experiencing. What I couldn’t see 15 years ago in that initial yoga class is that I had only the illusion of holding all my high-achieving multi-tasking together, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Only by slowing down, learning to take deep, intentional breaths, listening and attuning to the messages my body was sending me, and quieting my mind was I able to be still enough to find a center to provide solace. Ultimately that regular solace enhanced my overall performance.
Here are some questions for your reflection if you are looking to minimize your stress and enhance your own performance:
- Are you associating how much you are “doing” with your success?
- Are you going so fast that you fail to “catch your breath?”
- Where can you create the space to allow stillness in your day?
- What can you practice on a daily basis for 10–15 minutes that will require you to slow down and be still?
Try some contemplative or integrative practice such as meditation, yoga, sitting quietly at your desk doing nothing, or taking a walk without headphones or distractions for 10 minutes a day for a month. I’d love to hear what you learn from the experience.
Originally published at www.themanagroup.com.