Leadership Lessons from Yoga December 15 2010

Yoga1 If you'd wandered into one of my group coaching sessions after lunch yesterday, you would have seen 16 people stretching their hands toward the ceiling, taking three deep breaths in and out through their noses and bending from their waists and letting their heads hang loose for a minute or so.  It just felt like the thing to do.  We'd done a lot of brain work in the morning, had an in-depth discussion with a senior exec over lunch and were getting ready for more coaching and brain work in the afternoon.  It was literally and figuratively a time to stretch some different muscles and take a deep breath to clear our heads. The group had a good time with it and one leader said one of his takeaways for the day was that he was going to introduce stretching into his team meetings.

The idea to call a stretch and breathing break came to me because I've been a regular at yoga class three or four times a week for the past three months. I don't want to bore you with the details or preach with the passion of the converted, but it's been a great all around experience. I've been a runner all my life and never thought I'd find any physical activity that I enjoyed more than that. It's been pretty amazing, though, to see what happens when you spend 90 minutes stretching, sweating and twisting in a 95 degree room with a bunch of other people on a regular basis. (It's not as extreme as it might sound.)

Since my compulsion is to look at most things from a leadership angle, here are a few lessons I've learned so far from the practice of yoga that seem to apply to the practice of leadership.

Every day is different and is its own day – One of the things that the yoga instructors like to say is that no two days on the mat are the same.  True statement.  Over the past two months, I’ve seen how my capabilities vary from one day to the next.  That’s teaching me to be less self-critical, more patient and to pay attention to what’s working.  In my own experience as a leader and in watching other leaders, those are three things worth cultivating.  Leadership lesson learned?  Every day is its own day. Yesterday is over.

Improvement comes incrementally, then suddenly – So, let me say right now, I have no expectations of being the next Rodney Yee. I don’t think I was born with those kind of joints.  Still, I’m enjoying the process of developing new skills and increased flexibility.  One of the basic poses is called wheel where, while laying on your back, you sort of do an upside down push up.  I worked on that for a month and half and just could not get my head and shoulders off the ground.  Then one day, I tried it and, zoom, up I went.  Big surprise.  Last night, I did three wheels in a row and am working on extending the length of my hold.  It’s a process.  Leadership lesson learned?  Sometimes progress is hard to observe even if it’s being made.  If you give up too soon, you forgo the opportunity for sudden breakthroughs.

Breathing can focus you – The studio I go to is called Down Dog Yoga. They put a lot of emphasis on breathing there.  By a lot, I mean for 90 minutes the instructor is saying, “Deep breath in…  and deep breath out.”  Lately, I’ve been getting to class without a lot of time to spare because my schedule has been packed. Starting yoga (or a meeting for that matter) in a slightly frantic state isn’t necessarily the best way to go.  It’s amazing to me, though, how quickly I tune in after five minutes or so of being told to breathe in and breathe out.  Leadership lesson learned?  If you want to show up more focused and present at your next meeting, take five minutes before you walk in to just breathe in and breathe out.

Invest in your team and the results will follow – I’ve dabbled in yoga a few other times at other places over the past couple of years. One of the reasons I’ve become a regular at Down Dog is that the instructors are consistently good. They’re very well trained around the approach to yoga that the owner of the studio believes in. They each exhibit their own personality and lead the classes in their own way but there is a consistent framework that they all follow and a common language and approach that they’ve all been trained in. The leaders of the studio are clearly investing in building and sustaining a team of instructors who are good at what they do, like doing it and enjoy working with and supporting each other. Needless to say, all of that creates a great experience for the students.  Leadership lesson learned?  It’s worth the time and effort to clarify your philosophy and approach and then invest in sharing that with your team.

Anyone reading this blog doing yoga? What are you learning from it?  What other physical routines are you pursuing that make a difference for you as a leader?


29 Responses to “Leadership Lessons from Yoga”

  1. Scott,

    Having done yoga for nearly 20 years, I really like the parallels you’ve drawn between yoga and leadership. As you mention, leadership is about clarity of focus and being able to remove distractions. To me, that’s the greatest benefit of yoga.

    Another possible leadership lesson learned: yoga requires immense discipline and concentration. Even the simplest moves aren’t easy. Sure, you can approximate the Half-Swan, but are you really doing it correctly and with full intention?

  2. Dawnamaclean says:

    Fabulous post Scott, I could not agree more on all counts. I discovered yoga about 10 years ago and now it is a daily morning ritual for me, right after my run along the lake with my dog.

    There is no question that yoga has elevated my awareness as a leader. Have you learned about the 7 energy systems within us called Chakras? I was fascinated by the wealth of insight I discovered when I first viewed chakras through the lens of a corporate environment. So much so that it inspired me to develop "The Group of Seven", a corporate diagnostic tool inspired by my learning of the principles within the study of yoga. I have not shared that this was my inspiration until just now reading you post. I would love to hear what you think http://dawnamaclean.com/2010/09/12/the-group-of-7


  3. I started Yoga three years ago with a very inflexible body. I am much flexible now.

    I also started daily meditation since June. It helped me to keep clear mind in hectic situations and to learn breathing in rhythm with my yoga movements.

    Leadership lesson learned – it might take two practices to master one competency. Don’t drill on one and only one channel of learning or communication.

    Danwa, I will contact you after reading your work. I am also into energy work.

    Hsuan-hua Chang, PCC http://www.coachseattle.com

  4. Scott Eblin says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights Jennifer and Danwa. Twenty years is quite an endorsement of yoga Jennifer. If I go that long, I'll be a "senior" yogi, but I'm up for it! Had a chance to check out your Group of Seven, Danwa. Nice application of yoga principles to organizational effectiveness.

  5. Scott Eblin says:

    Hsuan-hua, love your wisdom that it sometimes takes two (or more!) practices to master one competency. Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Gina Hawkins says:

    I have been doing yoga for about 5 years now. I am a 43 year old woman who is in the best shape of my life due to the benefits of yoga. It helps gives me strength and flexibility on and off the mat. Yoga is a great way for me to decompress and clear my mind at the end of the day. I find that taking the time to clear my mind gives me the ability to then reflect on the details of my day with better insight.

  7. Scott Eblin says:

    Gina- Ditto, ditto and ditto. All of that for me too, plus my wife says I'm easier to live with.

    By the way, appreciate all the comments – please keep them coming – but I'm wondering where the guys are on this string. Gentlemen, is there not a one of you doing yoga? Real men do, you know. :)

  8. Carolyn Butcher says:

    Scott, Great post on the very real link between leadership + yoga. Taking care of the physical body, mind, the spirit is what I often look for when someone indicates they want to affect some real change .. for themselves, their organizations, their careers, their lives. As a leader, how do you care for yourself and your team? Yoga or any flow art (running, cycling, tai chi, etc) are great ways to cultivate leadership presence and vital for restoring and renewing the energy it takes to lead self and others. Thank you for your sharing your insights & generating awareness on this topic!

  9. I love this posting! I am a student and yoga teacher. I'm also a strategic communications consultant with experience working with leaders and organizations on change and culture.

    I think yoga belongs in every organization (I know I'm biased) and I love how you drew the parallel so clearly (because leaders love that!).

    I think it would be cool if you developed some sort of workshop around it!

  10. Margo Burnette says:

    Scott – A post I wish I had written! Your fellow coach and yogi.

  11. Scott, I, too, loved your post! As a longtime yogini (20+ years), it has not only kept my mind and body flexible, it has kept me centered and grounded.

    In business, it is essential to remain flexible and open to possibilities, as well as centered in the moment and the big picture.

    There is no doubt that deep breathing can calm your mind for whatever comes next. Thanks for seeing the parallels between yoga and leadership–awesome!

  12. Tom Schuler says:

    As the husband of a yoga instructor and a fellow runner, I practice 3-4 times per week. A few quotes and insights that mirror your comments:
    "You can never enter the same river twice." Each experience is new. Be present enough to realize it and experience it.
    "Most people are rummaging around in their pockets for the tape of their experience that they will place when the person they're supposed to be listening to is talking" Be present enough to actually listen.
    "Don't agonize about the past or fret over the future. Try living in the present"
    They call it practice because you're never really done. We need treat the rest of life the same way

  13. SarahRyck says:


    I guess I've never thought to look at it like this. I think I'm going to give yoga a serious try!

    Great post!

  14. Beth Cooper says:

    What a terrific post! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Scott Eblin says:

    Thanks for all of the terrific and overwhelming number of comments everyone. Great stuff and, Tom, thanks for stepping up and repping the guys who do yoga. As I look over the range of commenters, the ratio of women to men is pretty close to what I usually see in my yoga classes. Guys, you are missing out! :)

    Happy holidays and namaste everyone.


  16. Nick Clark says:

    Hey Scott,

    I have taken the plunge and am teaching a good amount of yoga every day at a wonderful studio in Sacramento. I am impressed in your ability to articulate a lot of ways that yoga can be related to leadership and to life. For me, over the last 4 years of practicing, the awareness of my breath has allowed me to further enjoy every moment in the present, as apposed to looking forward or backwards. Thanks for your insight and commitment to improving yourself. Love your blog. You might find mine interesting as well!


  17. "Wonder-full" post. Amazing comments. Here are my insights on linking yoga with leadership:

    1. My yoga teacher (www.sariyoga.ca) encourages building the pose from the ground up. Effective leaders build a strong personal and professional foundation.

    2. Caution – Resist the latest fad (yoga and leadership). Over the past few years many have jumped on the yoga 'trends', 'fads' like 'hot yoga'. Beware of the trendy leadership fads as well.

    3. Yoga is not a competitive sport. Bring your best to your practice with the intention of discovery and enlightenment. Leadership need not be competitive. Quiet leadership attracts discovery and enlightment for leaders and those they lead.

    4. When you experience a setback, your practice (yoga and leadership) evolves. Return to your practice and be consistent.

    5. Restorative yoga is a critical part of my yoga practice. Leaders benefit from restorative practices such as quieting the mind; exercise; and time-off to sharpen the saw.

  18. Barbara Ivanko says:

    Fantastic posting, Scott. I am a healthcare system COO and yoga teacher, and teach two classes a week for the employees at our organization. The principles of non-judgment, discipline and clear intention that build an effective yoga practice apply well to leadership. How we do anything is how we do everything, and I believe that the lessons "from the mat" have helped me to approach my organization and its employees in a non-reactive, mindful and principled way.

  19. mark says:

    Yaaay, Scott! As a yoga teacher and student, I've coined the phrase, Whatever the problem, yoga's the answer. Realizing that might be overstepping it a bit, I'm nonetheless encouraged to plod forward with this message, spurred on by people like you! I write the SF Examiner.com column on yoga, and I'm going to do something on you this week! Cheers, namaste, and I hope to see you sometime. https://www.examiner.com/yoga-in-san-francisco/ma

  20. Well written post; I'm also 3+ months into it and finding the same benefits as you, both to my well-being and to my leadership abilities.

    While Bikram ("hot") yoga may seem faddish to those who have pursued yoga for years, it is providing benefits to me, and probably others. As one of the comments notes, this isn't a competition, but a challenge, or a practice, or even a way of life.

  21. Beth Hager says:

    Scott! Okay, you've convinced me, I gotta take up yoga!

    Happy New Year to you and your family – I "found" you being followed on Twitter by one of my friends and colleagues. Great to have your insights – a gift for my New Year.

  22. Scott Eblin says:

    Wow, the fantastic comments just keep coming. Thank you everyone. In the meantime, I'm continuing to learn a lot at yoga. For instance, the classes are very full during the holidays. Lots of detoxing going on I think.

    And, Beth Hager, a blast from my past to hear from you. Great to be reconnected. Looking forward to staying connected with all of you in 2011.

    Happy new year!

  23. Fit4thabo says:

    Scott, I like this post. So apt given I only started stretching again this morning. I have been out of practice and I know what I have to go through in order to regain the flexibility I was at before. "A flexible body is a flexible mind", that is how Yoga is like leadership to me. If you are rigid in any form or outlook, what you resist will break you. Great post and fully agree with you as I have found Yoga and Meditation liberating. Can't wait to get back fully on the horse.

  24. Mike Pieri says:

    Ditto. I work in the world of Leadership Development and I also practice yoga on a regular basis. The one parallel that stands clear is that great leaders have flexible minds, so a flexible body = a flexible mind for me.

  25. Scott Eblin says:

    Nice parallel Fit4Thabo and Mike. I'm working on a back bend for my cerebellum! :)

  26. Hey, Scott! Great post! I've been practicing yoga for 5 years now, and from the beginning I, too, have noted the leadership lessons in each yoga session…so much so that I've co-authored a book called Yoga of Leadership, which we expect to finish up and get out this year. It's been an emergent process, lots of breathing, but would love to get your read on it when we're closer to publishing. :)

  27. Cara says:


    A comment made by a young woman in a yoga class resonated with me for a few days. When asked the difference between a new year's resolution and an intention – summarizing her answer – she said it was when you don't initially accomplish your intention, you don't beat yourself up, but continue to make strides to move forward. Maybe when you are taking that 5 minutes to breathe before a meeting, you might want to set your intentions.

  28. Scott Eblin says:

    Hi Cara

    Nice to hear from one of my Down Dog buddies. Thanks for the comment, I was trying to remember what she said about intentions!



  29. Cara says:

    Scott –

    Toni said you "forgive" yourself if you don't accomplish the intention immediately. For her younger age, her comments were very mature and thought provoking.

Dismiss ×

Get Scott Eblin’s monthly leadership insights

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.