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What does Yoga have to do with Leadership?


I love when I read something that gives me a new perspective on a subject. This subject happens to be yoga – something that I, and probably all of us should, make more time for. A colleague of mine, Patty McKay, sent me a very personal story that she wrote on this subject; and I’d like to share it with you all. We can all benefit from finding ways to deal with stress and become better people in our professions, especially if we are in leadership positions and have the responsibility of mentorship.

Leadership Lessons Learned on the Mat, by Patty McKay

Go to your favorite search engine and type in “leadership” or “yoga”. You will see an enormous number of hits available to both topics. I would like to share with you a strong connection between these seemingly unrelated topics so that you can benefit as much as I have from these connections.

Yoga has been studied for centuries ranging from great historical yogis such as Patanjali (author of The Yoga Sutra) to more modern day yogis such as Eric Schiffman (author of Moving Into Stillness).

Leadership has also been studied for centuries by experts ranging from military commanders such as Sun Tsu (author of The Art of War) to modern leadership gurus such as Dr. John Kotter, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith and Dr. Dave Ulrich.

There are endless opportunities to study both disciplines. However, what does leadership have to do with the practice of yoga? What does yoga have to do with leadership? Isn’t the corporate world of leadership the direct opposite of the “crunchy granola” yoga world?

For years I have been practicing yoga and for years I have been studying leadership both out of personal interest and also to fuel my corporate career. I have been immersed in the discipline and practice of leadership development for over 15 years. My corporate career has been my way of making a living and my yoga practice is my way of cultivating peace in my life.

In my role of leadership development – analyzing, designing, creating, assessing, measuring, marketing and executing on it – I experience my fair share of stress. In truth, despite the stress, I love my work and feel blessed to have the opportunities that I do.

Nonetheless, the stress is real. The light came on for me about 15 years ago when I found yoga as a way of coping more effectively with the stress. At first, I saw yoga as another form of exercise to supplement cardiovascular options and weight lifting. Then my yoga practice morphed into a thoughtful time in my day – a time to reflect and a time to think about a kaleidoscope of events as my body moved in new and mysterious ways while my mind was beginning a journey of its own.

The emphasis on mental reflection or learning to “quiet the mind” during my yoga practice provided great moments of clarity in my life. I was struck by how much symmetry existed between my “real work” and my yoga practice. In time, I began to understand the value of quieting my mind and savoring the joy of the moment and “being on the mat”. The practice of yoga is frequently done on a yoga mat, hence the reference to “on the mat”. That understanding was a pivotal revelation from which an invaluable seed was planted…

…Then, one day, I experienced a full synthesis of my corporate leadership development work and my yoga practice. I realized that yoga practice is the ultimate “classroom” for leadership learning. I realized that everything I learned about leadership was also learned in yoga practice. I realized the greatest leadership lessons can be learned “on the mat”.

What follows are my revelations and observations about the great similarity between the practice of leadership and the practice of yoga.

  1. A great leader must “be present” in order to be seen as an authentic leader. S/he must be focused on the person or issue at hand. My most powerful yoga lesson is how important it is to be “on the mat”, to “be present” during your practice, in order to have the best possible yoga session. Yoga requires that you quiet the mind and fully appreciate the union between mind, body and spirit as you move through your practice….

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In Joy and Rhythm,

Natalie Spiro

Comment (1)

  1. Qorina says:

    There seem to a few things to cover here Firstly, there is a whole conversation to be had about who is a leader and the fact that everyone needs to be a leader from time to time but unless this is a group with which I have worked on a number of sessions in the past, this is probably not the time to to deal with this. Instead, I would be more pragmatic and try to give short quick reasons why it is still important to talk about the leadership competencies.The most straightforward one for me is to explain that focusing on leadership competencies during the action learning session helps us to be be more effective as a group. By choosing to work on specific aspects of our behaviour during the discussion, we will improve our own individual performance which will have the net effect of helping us to work more effectively as a group. I would also stress that because we will all be listening for examples of how other group members are performing against their leadership competencies, it will improve our listening skills and help us to be more constructive and supportive of one another.If it feels like the term leadership competency’ is too loaded then I think you could re-position the term as being an interpersonal work competency’. Later on at the end of the session (or when the group next meets and after having had a chat with the sponsor) you could highlight the competencies and use the opportunity to ask questions that help the group understand how those competencies link to leadership and how leadership links to their role.

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