Leadership Lessons from Yoga

Posted 12.15.2010

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?