What Yoga is Teaching Me About Leadership

One of my core beliefs is that we are most happy when we feel we’re making progress in our lives. It’s painful for us to remain stagnant in life. In fact, growth is not an option; it’s a necessity. Grow or die. That is the biological imperative that all living organisms experience.

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” – Benjamin Franklin

I recently challenged myself to grow in a very specific area, and never fully realized the impact this decision would have in multiple areas of my life. I took up yoga as a part of my daily practices to support myself in health and well-being.

Now, that decision at face value might not seem so noteworthy. But there are some specifics that make it much more interesting – at least for me. I’m 51 years old, and have never done yoga until a few months ago. Oh, and did I say that I’m about as flexible as a board? Yeah, I’m that guy who can’t touch his toes with legs straight (and not because my belly is too big to allow it!).

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” – Albert Einstein

I have worked out for more than 30 years, consisting mainly of weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise. I have always liked the feeling of exertion and pushing against resistance.

Enter yoga.Yoga

First of all, yoga is challenging for anyone at any level of health and wellness. I have friends who are yoga instructors who tell me that there is nothing in the world like yoga for “bringing up my stuff.” I don’t know about you, but that isn’t exactly enticement for me.

My first few times, I resisted. (Understatement!) Actually, at times I became angry (internally) that I was so inflexible, and unable to manage or hold some of the beginner’s poses. I realized this was very much the same way I have been resistant to change throughout my life. How about you? Do you resist when it comes to change?

Over time, and in listening to my instructor, I began to understand yoga’s true purpose. He would look at us and say, “The goal is to stop resisting. Find the calm in the challenge. Surrender to the pose.” Sure, easy for you to say! Your hamstrings aren’t on fire! Then it struck me. This is about way more than the ability to stretch my body and touch my toes. This is an opportunity to learn, grow, and become more.

Here are some of the things I’m learning about leadership from yoga:

  1. Be patient. When holding some of the poses, my tendency is to want to rush to the end. “Let it be over, already! This hurts.” How often, when facing uncertainty or challenges at work, do we tend to rush through them to “get it over with?” With patience, we can more readily access our resources and result in a better outcome.
  2. Remain calm in the face of challenge. In the beginning my face would be contorting, and my breathing would be intense. It was obvious I was struggling. Yoga is teaching me to be calm in the storm. How often do we contort our faces and make all sorts of proclamations in the face of work challenges? We want people to know we’re struggling with a big issue, as though that is going to somehow increase our status when we do come up with that brilliant solution.
  3. Surrender to the pose. In yoga, resistance contributes to making the poses more painful, not less. In life, however, we tend to respond to change with resistance, not realizing that many times we’re causing our own pain. Surrender doesn’t mean to give up. It refers to acceptance. One of my favorite self-help authors, Byron Katie, says of resistance, “We can accept what is, or we can fight reality. When I argue with reality, I lose – but only 100% of the time.” It’s our choice. Resist or surrender.
  4. Be flexible. I’m not talking about physically flexible. Be open to new ways of seeing things, new opportunities to engage. When I am up against a pose that is difficult, my instructor will offer alternatives, making the pose easier in some way. Many times when faced with challenges, we tend to become rigid and inflexible. If what we’re doing isn’t getting the desired result, we push harder, rather than seeking alternatives. How well does that usually work?
  5. Progress feels good, even when it’s painful. Makes perfect sense, right? But think about it for a moment. How many times have you worked your way through a difficult or even painful challenge, and when you get through it you feel better? Progress makes us happy. It doesn’t mean the vehicle for that progress was necessarily fun or felt good. And if that momentous day ever comes when I can do a full forward bend with straight legs, I will be oh so happy! Even if I had to endure weeks or months of painful preparation to get there.
  6. The best leaders push themselves. Like I said earlier, I have several friends who are yoga instructors and who have been engaging in this practice for 10, 20, or even 30 years or more. They still push themselves to go to new levels in their practice. In our work, it’s imperative that we do the same. Remain stagnant at your own peril. To become an influential leader in any organization, you must push through new barriers, growing and becoming more.

“All growth depends upon activity. There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work.” – Calvin Coolidge

In the weeks since I’ve begun, I can’t truly say I’ve learned to “love” yoga, or even that I’ve finally become flexible and can touch my toes. But I can tell you this; I have learned more about my ability to be with discomfort and challenge and to remain calm, focused, and engaged.

That sounds like great leadership training to me!


2 thoughts on “What Yoga is Teaching Me About Leadership”

  1. User Avatar

    Wonderful metaphor, Kevin! I especially appreciate you drawing attention to our need for growth–and to the fact that it is frequently uncomfortable. (And when I was recently able to touch the floor with straight legs I felt a huge sense of breakthrough and accomplishment! :-))

    1. User Avatar

      Thanks, Joel. I find that many times in my life as I’m noticing anxiety or discomfort, it is usually because I’m stretching myself (both literally and figuratively). Growth is essential to fulfillment in life, and yet it can be challenging in ways we’re not always prepared for. Good for you on your accomplishment! I’m looking forward to the day when I can do a full forward bend with legs straight… still room to grow!

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