Yoga’s benefits and accessibility make it perhaps the ultimate mind-body practice and foundation to embodied leadership.
On a 40-foot sailboat last week in a remote sea, yoga was the most consistently practical activity I could do for my body, still healing from my 2nd shoulder surgery a month prior. After three planes, ground transport and a dinghy ride, I arrived late morning on my CEO-turned- sailor friend’s boat. We set sail within the hour, soon had three sails up, and for the remainder of the day, saw only blue sea and sky.
At sunset, we dropped anchor near a slim island intersected by the Tropic of Cancer, and swam to a pristine white-sand beach before dinner. With no other souls in sight, on turquoise water that sparkled as the stars appeared, the tranquil beauty was unparalleled.
In the next days, we weathered extreme tides caused by the Super Blue Blood Moon. Between reefs, rocks and sandbars, amidst swells and shallows, we navigated an improbable narrow-gap entry to a protected sound. Cut loose from my thrice-weekly PT of the last ten months and land, I spread my mat on the deck each morning and mindfully pumped healing blood through my veins. I directed the correct, under-used muscles in my back to fire. Engaging the proper actions to move through breath into postures, I fully inhabited my mind-body.
My practice grounded, opened and connected me to the flow of breath and breeze within and around me.
Inevitably, consistently, yoga fills me with gratitude. My decades-long practice began when I was getting my PhD at CU Boulder, and I was blessed to learn from some of the best Iyengar and Ashtanga teachers in the world. Yoga has been the nourishing complement to my competitive running, begun as a girl, and to dozens of triathlons and ski seasons, begun as a professor in my 30s.
Yoga lengthens and makes supple muscles that traditional exercise compresses and makes dense. Pairing yoga with sports thus breeds a musculature that’s long and strong. Supportive and beautiful. This pairing has girded my birthing and raising two children, substantial professional and relational commitments, and ongoing athletic prowess.
Distinct from western variants of “power yoga,” classical yoga cultivates an attention to muscle, alignment and breath that is meditative. The stress and health-care cost-reduction results of yoga are well-documented.
Less known is that yoga’s benefits and accessibility make it perhaps the ultimate mind-body practice and foundation to embodied leadership.
The term “mind-body” has been in use for decades, and practitioners have apprehended the mind-body experientially and intuitively for centuries. Yet it’s only recently that neuroscience has mapped four dimensions of our humanity as four brains: the head, heart and gut brains—and consciousness.
The heart and gut brains contain networks of some 40,000 and 100,000 million neurons, respectively, that communicate with our “executive” brain to produce feeling and thought.
Consciousness, in premier neurobiologist Daniel Siegel’s words, is the “fourth facet of brain.” It completes the mind, which Siegel defines as within the embodied brain and between people, occurring as energy.
Yoga is a mind-body practice in that it connects, strengthens and amplifies these four interconnected neural networks.
As we deepen our practice, our gross body movements become fine-tuned muscle articulations, and we activate the subtle body. This is the energy that we now know, scientifically, moves through us and drives our behaviors.
Yoga trains our mind- body awareness to the level of consciousness. Like meditation itself, yoga builds our capacity to see, feel and guide our neural circuitry, and quiet our minds.
Through its disciplined, aligned exertion according to the symmetry of breath, yoga breeds a relaxed brain. A relaxed brain is more receptive. This “feminine” brain state improves clarity and focus, the directed “masculine” brain state.
How to keep the brain cells in a relaxed, receptive and concentrated state is the art that yoga teaches. This is why and how yoga fuels presence, mindful communication, and skillful action.
A devoted practice literally awakens and integrates our entire being. It centers us in a conscious power that ripples through our body, and an energy that emanates from within.
The body as vital to high performance informs premier leadership organizations such as The Energy Project and Human Performance Institute that recognize, “the body is business relevant.” Most such wellness programs focus on incorporating exercise and nutrition into corporate life, an important goal that supports work-life balance and employee engagement.
The mind-body, however, is the central force that shapes our lives, relationships, culture, and results. Understanding this–and tapping its power and wisdom for embodied leadership–is a whole other ball game. It’s a whole other playing field.
You’ve probably heard that every experience we’ve ever had is stored in our bodies, at the cellular level. Our neural pathways were formed as and by the conditions in which we were raised. The means by which we learned and learned how to learn. Every trauma, physical or emotional, is part of our neurological system. This is why old instinctual and emotional states can so easily be triggered.
The amazing news is that we can re-wire our neural circuitry. We can change our perspective and our responses.
We do this, not by mere positive thinking, but by conscious activation of the mind-body. Yoga grows our capacity to respond, rather than react to stimuli, including habitual triggers. Combined with mindful leadership training, a regular yoga practice empowers us to choose our responses, our shape, and our very posture.
Over time, daily, and even in the moment.
The body is a source of rich intelligence. It holds not only our history but also our present and future. For transformation to be sustainable, it’s vital to engage the body. Because our “executive brain” is one of four interconnected brains, good intentions and thoughts alone collapse under pressure.
In the moment of truth, crisis, or challenge, what is most deeply embodied comes forth.
A mind-body practice re-educates our neuromusculature, our brain pathways and emotional states. It opens space for creativity and newness to support our commitments.
15% of US adults, or 37.6 million, practice yoga. 56% of US adults, or 137 million, want to practice yoga.
With proper instruction, yoga can be practiced by anybody, most anywhere.
I’ve practiced yoga on the exactly mat-sized sailboat deck in the middle of an ocean; the narrow deck of a treehouse in rural Georgia; in dozens of hotel rooms and balconies; and on countless earthen floors—rock, beach, mountain, forest. En route to my brother’s wedding in Serbia, I was the only yogini on the vast deck of the cruise ship that transports passengers from Rijeka, to Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Each practice grounded and exhilarated my wilderness or urban experience, embedding them in my body-memory. Each practice made me a healthier, more present and engaged traveler, colleague, and companion.
As a teacher and practitioner of 20+ years, I’ve taught yoga to business professionals in an executive leadership seminar, my Leadership Studies students at CU, my kids’ violin teacher (who’s developed her own practice and leads her band in yoga on tour), as well as “traditional” yoga students in classes and privates. Prior to stepping onto the mat, occasional hesitancy and mild nerves are not uncommon. Yet I’ve never known a student who didn’t emerge on the other side of a practice altered in some beneficial way.
We are what we practice. We are always practicing something.
Most people today are practicing distraction. Look around in any public place and you’ll see the world that 2013 movie, Her depicts , come true.
Ask yourself today: Is your practice aligned with who you want to be? The leader you want to be? The influence, impact, and contribution you want to make in the world?
If so, take your inspiration and encouragement where it finds you, and keep it up. If not, start where you are. Your mind-body, and the world, awaits you.