What Yoga Can Teach Us About Leadership

5 Things We Can Carry Over from the Mat to the Office

Posted Apr 25, 2018

I've noticed something lately during my time on the yoga mat. My yoga practice isn’t just enhancing my mental and physical health; it’s also highlighted some interesting parallels that map to essential leadership concepts. I suppose that makes sense, considering yoga has been a path to self-realization and enlightenment for thousands of years.

A yoga studio (or our yoga space at home) might seem far removed from our offices, but there are some key lessons we can carry over.

sara canaday
Source: sara canaday

1. Reconnect with Yourself

When we step into any yoga class, we're likely to hear phrases like "bring your attention to the present moment," "check in with yourself" or "turn your focus inward." While yoga might be more known today for enhancing flexibility, it also gently cultivates self-awareness. It helps us hone our ability to identify our true thoughts and feelings at any given moment. To reflect. To process. To clarify.

We're coming to understand more and more about the role of self-awareness in leadership as well. Consider this passage from a report by McKinsey & Company, a leading global management consultancy:

Interestingly, many people aren’t aware that the choices they make are extensions of the reality that operates in their hearts and minds. Indeed, you can live your whole life without understanding the inner dynamics that drive what you do and say. Yet it’s crucial that those who seek to lead powerfully and effectively look at their internal experiences, precisely because they direct how you take action, whether you know it or not.

2. Appreciate the Value in Others

Traditionally, a yoga class or practice closes with a bow and the word "Namaste." The literal translation of Namaste is "I bow to you." In yoga, the sentiment behind the word is often expressed as "the highest in me bows to the highest in you." It's a lovely reminder of our connection to others and of the light — or goodness, or value — in all of us.

"Namaste" is a word that we might want to remember in our work as leaders, too. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, as the world becomes more interconnected, leaders must become more collaborative. They need the ability to think expansively, open themselves to a variety of viewpoints, and synthesize them into solutions. The business challenges of today "call for collaboration between various stakeholders who each hold a different aspect of the reality and many of whom must themselves adapt and grow if the problem is to be solved," the Center says.

3. Sharpen Your Focus

During some poses, yoga practitioners use what's called a "Drishti." A Drishti is simply a place to focus the gaze or attention. It shuts out distractions and helps build focus, concentration and self-awareness.

Of course, we also grapple with distractions daily as leaders, including putting out fires, emails,  and other disruptions from our technology. That's why it's so important to know who we are as leaders and what priorities drive us. Keeping that knowledge in the forefront of our minds deepens our focus and our effectiveness.

4. Be Strong and Humble

Laszlo Bock, the CEO/co-founder of Humu and a past executive at Google, has said that humility is one of the key qualities he looks for in new hires. He adds that humility creates space to learn and for others to contribute.

Research also indicates that humility is one of the most important leadership qualities when it comes to making people of all backgrounds feel included. Yet humility might not be the first word that comes to mind when we think of successful leaders. Sometimes it seems like brashness and boldness get all the attention. But as yoga shows us, strength and humility go hand in hand.

One example is the pose sometimes called Humble Warrior. It's not easy – as you can tell from the photograph at the link. Yoga teacher Erin O'Brien explains that this pose involves an element of surrender, but also requires incredible strength and balance. In the same way, she says, "a healthy sense of self precedes humility."

5. Rest and Restore

Yoga practices end with a pose called Savasana, or corpse pose. It's just what it sounds like: We lie flat on the mat, arms at our sides with palms facing upward and feet hip-width apart. And that's it.

It's not as physically demanding as Humble Warrior, but longtime yoga practitioners agree that Savasana is the most important of all the poses. That's because it underscores the importance of resting, regrouping, and rejuvenating.

The ancient wisdom of yoga has long extolled the need for recovery time, and today research backs that up. Being a hard-working, dedicated leader doesn't mean neglecting self-care so we can grimly slog through every task. It means giving ourselves the periods of rest and restoration that all humans require for bringing our best selves to our leadership roles.

Just like the practice of yoga, leadership is an ongoing journey. A constant work in progress. If we take the time to pause and reflect on all the information we’ve absorbed, we may discover surprising new insights that lead to targeted success.

Sara Canaday is a leadership keynote speaker, author, and executive coach. This gives her the opportunity to advise and support thousands of leaders in diverse situations, inspiring many of them to move from insight to action with dramatic career results.