Niki Leondakis of CorePower Yoga: “CorePower Yoga is built on the principles of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, so integrating those into our corporate conversations isn’t new”

CorePower Yoga is built on the principles of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, so integrating those into our corporate conversations isn’t new. We often take yoga classes together as a team, in person — or more recently — virtually. I’d encourage other companies to allow their employees the space to practice these daily. Talk about mindfulness, provide tools, bring in […]

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CorePower Yoga is built on the principles of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, so integrating those into our corporate conversations isn’t new. We often take yoga classes together as a team, in person — or more recently — virtually. I’d encourage other companies to allow their employees the space to practice these daily. Talk about mindfulness, provide tools, bring in resources. Some people just need exposure and a little encouragement to try a new practice. It doesn’t matter the industry, we are all human and share physical, spiritual, and mental anguish.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote the Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Niki Leondakis.

With more than 30 years of experience building lifestyle brands and creating award-winning workplace cultures, Niki Leondakis has consistently built and led some of the most diverse and customer-centric teams in the hospitality industry. Throughout her career, Niki has been CEO of multiple companies including Equinox Fitness Clubs, Two Roads Hospitality and Commune Hotels & Resorts; President of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants and received numerous industry awards, including being named one of the “100 Most Influential Women” by the San Francisco Business Times annually since 2002. In her free time, Niki enjoys traveling and is an avid yoga practitioner, hiker and runner.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

The opportunity to create an impact on people’s lives and make their day better was always a passion of mine. This led me to companies that are built on people caring for other people and creating positive experiences on a daily basis. For me, it’s about service to others and improving people’s lives.

I came up in the hospitality industry through restaurants. I grew up spending a lot of time in my grandmother’s diner. She was a young widow, and I watched in awe as she consistently took care of others and provided for herself and her family. She inspired me by providing a positive experience not only for her customers when they stopped in for a bite to eat but also for those who worked for her as part of her diner family.

I’m passionate about creating teams, cultures and experiences that play a positive role in people’s lives, just like my grandmother did for her employees. She was passionate about creating an environment where people felt valued and appreciated at work. In my previous positions, and now at CorePower Yoga, I always strive to do that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I started yoga for the same reason many others do — to be better at another sport or physical endeavor. I was a compulsive runner, racing in marathon after marathon. I did yoga so I could be a better runner. With consistent practice though, I learned that yoga was doing more than helping me run better. It was helping me become more centered and grounded. Yoga carried me through the most difficult times of my life.

In 2017, I lost my home in the horrific California wildfires of that year, and my husband passed away one year later of a sudden heart attack. I was left with what seemed like nothing. My life partner was gone. My house was gone. I found myself on my yoga mat every day where I felt safe and a sense of belonging. I’m so grateful I had a yoga practice to turn to during that time, and I don’t want to think about where I would be today had yoga not been a part of my life already.

The mind-body connection that yoga provides has been incredibly beneficial to me in my personal and professional life. I spend a lot of time in my head and yoga allows me to connect my body to my mind and my emotions. My true belief in yoga’s transformative power has led me to where I am with CorePower Yoga and the deep desire to bring the opportunity for grounding and self-awareness to everyone, everywhere.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

As an avid yoga practitioner and advocate for mental wellness, I always recommend creating time to care for yourself. Whether that’s a five-minute walk outside to stretch your legs and be in nature, talking to a friend on the phone or clocking out a bit early if you feel like you’re done for the day. Whatever it is — the email/message/call — can likely wait until tomorrow.

I encourage organizational leaders to model these behaviors as well. The length of time is not as important as the consistency in which you’re able to find your breath and connect to it. When we get anxious, we often think doing more will help but really, we need to pause, take deep breaths, and reset.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Listen to your employees. They are critical to the success of your business, as they have a direct line to the customers. Ensure that your employees feel seen, heard, and included in an authentic way that is woven into the fabric of your company’s culture.

As a leader, you don’t have to have all the answers. The answers usually lie with the employees directly serving your customers.

I let employees know that communication with me is an open door, and I want their feedback. Employees can email me with feedback or ask a question at any time and they can expect a response from me. It’s important that I foster an environment of open communication, so people feel comfortable sharing and to continue to make CorePower Yoga a great place to work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I grew up coping with early childhood circumstances that were difficult by rebelling against the establishment. Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change” was such a positive force for me because the idea that I could be the change I wanted to see in the world gave me power when I felt powerless.

Growing up in a family of Greek immigrants, I was treated as less than. I ate different foods, spoke a different language, and acted differently. I assumed I needed to abandon my heritage to fit in.

Then again as a female in the workforce, I found myself abandoning my femininity to fit in. I believed I needed to hide my nurturing instincts and act more like my male colleagues to demonstrate that I was tough-minded to get promotions and thrive in my career.

In my early thirties, through some personal growth and development work I was doing, I became aware and evolved enough to realize that fighting against everything wasn’t helping anyone, especially myself.

I have carried this quote with me as a powerful inspiration to evolve the culture of the companies I’ve led to embody the change I wanted to see in the world, like providing more opportunities for women and others from underrepresented groups to be promoted into leadership positions and giving employees on the front line a voice and empowering them to make decisions.

I’m very proud to have helped create work environments where people can be their true and authentic selves. Equality does not mean sameness. We are all better when we embrace and celebrate our differences and shine a light on our unique strengths.

As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years, many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that CorePower Yoga has taken to help improve or optimize your employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

It may be years before we comprehend the full ramifications of COVID-19 on our society and places of work. But one thing is for sure: it changed every aspect of our lives — particularly our work/life balance and well-being. And these extra demands across work and home come at a heavy price.

  1. CorePower Yoga is built on the principles of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, so integrating those into our corporate conversations isn’t new. We often take yoga classes together as a team, in person — or more recently — virtually. I’d encourage other companies to allow their employees the space to practice these daily. Talk about mindfulness, provide tools, bring in resources. Some people just need exposure and a little encouragement to try a new practice. It doesn’t matter the industry, we are all human and share physical, spiritual, and mental anguish.
  2. Work is where so many of us spend most of our time, and, therefore, as organizational leaders, we can set aside dedicated time to bring mindfulness and meditation into the office environment. At CorePower, we start meetings with a gratitude or mindfulness practice. Introducing short sustainable ways people can incorporate breathing and mindfulness tools into their days will help them develop a habit and understanding that it’s something they can do. It’s a low-cost, preventive, and holistic healthcare measure.
  3. We recently rolled out a company policy at our Studio Support Center on Fridays, there will be no scheduled group or team meetings. We heard from our team that they needed one day, away from meetings, to plan, strategize and simply read some emails. We hope these days will provide employees with more flexibility and time to be thoughtful, planful and feel accomplished as they head into the weekend.
  4. We encourage employees to take wellness days and use their allotted time off for personal time to reset and recharge and take care of themselves. Other senior leaders and I model this as well.
  5. We are consistently expanding the continuing education opportunities offered to employees for their personal and professional growth and development. We saw the impact the pandemic was having on the wellbeing of our teams and therefore, we began hosting virtual “Power Hour” panel conversations bi-monthly as a chance to listen and learn from outside voices, and to share experiences. And recently added 300-hour yoga teacher training as an ongoing benefit to our teachers and studio leaders for deeper self-study and a way to further develop their careers.

What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Mental wellness is critical to avoiding burnout and enabling employees to operate from a centered place, where they can be their best, most authentic selves. If you are unable to provide employees with opportunities to breathe and be mindful, provide resources where they can go to benefit their mental wellness (podcasts, videos, articles, books, etc.).

COVID-19 has created a virtual environment that has many benefits. However, Zoom fatigue is real. I encourage people to get out from behind their computers and have phone calls. Have walking meetings so people can get out and go for a walk. Give people permission to do this by modeling it for them. Model self-care by taking days off when you need to. Stop rewarding the ‘busy’ badge of honor.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

Speaking as a CEO, a key step to support the mental wellness of others is to promote movement and meditation. Talk about it and incorporate it consistently into the workday for employees. Movement stimulates the release of endorphins and bond-building hormones, which combat stress and makes for healthier, happier people.

We are not meant to be stationary all day. Our musculoskeletal makeup is meant to move and it:

  • Improves circulation
  • Encourages the flow of the Lymphatic system
  • Gives us energy
  • Enhances our mood
  • Keeps our gut in check — that’s where 70% of our immune system is

Google started offering meditation to its employees more than 10 years ago. Nike and Facebook have incorporated it too, and we’re seeing more and more companies see the value of keeping their people happy in an environment where they spend much of the day.

One trend I’m so excited about is the deprogramming of multitasking. Corporate culture that is rooted in speed and goal attainment has programmed us to think that doing multiple things at once is not only achievable — but expected. When really multitasking is a myth. Research in neuroscience tells us that our brains can’t do tasks simultaneously. It’s not possible. It just means we’re switching between tasks quickly — and that start/stop/start process is rough on us. We should be allowing staff to be fully dedicated to one task at a time and supporting them with mindfulness tools to come back to the present task when we’re distracted from trying to do too many things.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Checking in with yourself is key and the pandemic has taught us that change and, therefore, adapting to change is a part of life. Navigating post-pandemic life requires us to listen to our mental and physical well-being. Mindfulness tools, like taking a few minutes to take a few deep breaths, can bring us back to the present moment, improve our focus and help us be more efficient and effective in the workplace.

Applying yoga and meditation to your life doesn’t have to be hard or take a long time. It can be as simple as:

o Pausing and taking a couple of slow deep breaths

o Setting an intention at the start of the day

o Moving & stretching your body

o Embracing the quiet

Start small. Fifteen minutes every day is more effective than two hours, two times a week. The consistency of the practice is what enables us to see that we can fit it into our daily lives. You begin to learn to balance ease with effort rather than tensing up. It gradually becomes natural to breathe our way through a stressful situation.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I do yoga daily and breathwork throughout the day when I’m feeling stressed or tense. When I connect with my breath, I can tap into my compassion for myself and others rather than fear and anxiety.

When I have an important meeting, I take time to breathe deeply and decrease the tension throughout my body. Sometimes it’s not a long, formalized meditation, but just sitting calmly and breathing with a count or simple mantra that I repeat. A few minutes of this can impact how I show up — more present, engaged and less stressed.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

A book that made an impact on me is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

One of my takeaways from this book was an understanding of what cultivates my personal energy stores as an introvert. Susan Cain writes about how our society has misconceptions about what introversion is, e.g., introversion = shyness and has shifted to the “extrovert ideal”. About the time I read this book I was President of a hospitality company and was doing “road shows” around the country to visit the businesses and co-lead interactive talks with our employees along with another executive. I was powering through these two-hour talks with groups of 50–100 employees at a time. We were doing three talks a day for three days straight when I noticed a pattern in both of our speaking styles.

The first and second talk of the day, I felt like I was doing a great job hitting my key points, connecting with, and inspiring our employees. The third talk of the day was different. I was less passionate and could see that I wasn’t resonating as well. My colleague on the other hand, by the third talk, was on fire. He got better and better as the day went on. I was perplexed because I’d been described for years as having endless amounts of energy. I finally realized it was our different hard wiring. Even though I did a fair amount of public speaking, I needed to recharge my battery and reconnect with myself in solitude after being with large crowds much more so than my extroverted colleague.

While this may seem obvious, after years of working with extroverted colleagues and following their schedules of back-to-back group meetings and activities, I thought I just had to power through this way of constantly being “on”, busy, and productive. I realized as an introvert who gains energy differently than many of my extroverted colleagues, I need some time alone in between-group activities. Even something as simple as not joining a large group breakfast before I was the opening speaker at a conference made a difference in the energy, I was able to bring to my talk.

I’m so much more effective, engaged, and happier when I proactively schedule restorative time for myself in between group meetings, activities, and social events to read, practice yoga, do a short meditation or get outside in nature. I’m now much more intentional about what I say “yes” to, both personally and professionally, and organize the flow of my schedule so the types of activities that require the most energy are bookended with those that cultivate energy, even if it’s only 10 minutes. Managing my schedule with the understanding of what fuels and depletes me has made a meaningful impact on my mental and emotional state throughout even the busiest of days.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

More yoga! Before I joined CorePower, I believed in the healing benefits of yoga. It’s a lifelong practice that challenges the student to be a better human both on and off their mats. As part of my work with CorePower Yoga, I want to make yoga more inclusive and accessible for all.

I’d love to see companies provide incentives to employees for practicing yoga as part of their benefits plans. Companies often support gym memberships and have wellness strategies to help employees stay well. Providing access to yoga or supplementing yoga memberships to offset the cost would show employees that their mental wellbeing is truly prioritized. And we can introduce more people to the healing benefits of a yoga practice.

If we can continue to work toward more people practicing yoga, the world can certainly become a better place.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

Instagram: @niki_leondakis

Twitter: @Niki_Leondakis


Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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