Create easy opportunities to be healthy. Making sure your leaders live healthy lifestyles isn’t always enough to create a healthy culture. Many cultures have healthy leaders, but then offer unhealthy office snacks and beverages like soda and chips. Sometimes companies plan workplace parties with unlimited alcohol or overload their teams with too many projects or meetings. Leaders must also think about what opportunities they create that make it possible or impossible for their team to choose unhealthy options. For example, are they offering healthy snacks? Do they encourage walking meetings? How about subsidizing health coaches, personal trainers, in-office yoga, or after work kickball? Do they allow their employees to create a flexible schedule so they can squeeze in a midday workout or work from home so they can save time commuting and use that time to walk their dogs or make a healthy dinner. Create clear opportunities for you team to make healthy choices.
As a part of my series about leaders who integrate mindfulness and spiritual practices into their work culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hillary Acer.
She is the Director of People Operations at Osmosis.org, a leading health & medical education company with an audience of more than a million clinicians and caregivers. Hillary is also a 500-Hour Registered Yoga Instructor with a passion for education and wellness. She has been teaching yoga since 2010 and currently leads trainings, workshops, and worldwide retreats. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Hillary worked in health care clinics and research labs before making a leap to HR to try and improve the health and wellbeing of organizations and the people make those organizations succeed. Prior to joining the Osmosis team, she worked at Khan Academy in People Operations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I grew up in a small, rural town in Arizona with three older sisters who played competitive sports, did well in school, and participated in a plethora of leadership activities. Though we were busy, the stress rarely felt like too much. After high school, I chose UC Berkeley for college and once I got there, felt quite overwhelmed. Having been a big fish in a small pond back home in Arizona, I was now a tiny minnow in an ocean of incredibly smart, talented, and harder-working students than myself. My anxiety worsened as I struggled to compete in a pre-med environment while holding a few jobs, and I began turning to yoga more and more for a breath of fresh air. Lucky for me, Berkeley was a hub of incredibly wise and skillful instructors who taught me techniques that helped calm my anxiety. Once I tasted the power of consistent mindfulness, breathing, and movement practices, I knew I needed to keep practicing.
After my sophomore year of college, I spent the summer in Colorado training to become a yoga instructor and when I returned my Junior year, I started teaching at local studios. I was one of the youngest teachers at every studio, but enjoyed guiding people through breath, meditation, and movement practices to a place of momentary stillness. My love for practicing and teaching yoga accompanied me as I journeyed from the health sciences into tech and has continued to provide me with the tools to stay balanced in a fast-paced environment.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
I hated the first yoga class I took. I was an active teen at 12 years old taking class at a gym in my hometown, and I couldn’t quite understand why adults were laying around on their backs, sighing and breathing loudly. I wanted to run, dance, play volleyball and everything in between. I could barely stand the slow pace and couldn’t get myself to sit still. Later that year, a friend of mine who was far less flexible and in need of a good stretch convinced me to go to a second yoga class; I felt completely at peace after class. Since then, yoga has been a consistent activity in my life and has been something I’ve continued to turn to during stressful times, sports injuries, and even political crises.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
Often at work, there are a million tasks to get done and we are often operating as efficiently as possible. In that state, it can be easy to get stressed, get too far ahead of ourselves, and sometimes forget to step back and see the bigger picture. My personal practice reminds me to pause, slow down, take a breath. It helps me stay balanced — even in the face of difficult decisions, conflict, or tight deadlines. It helps me stay aware of my own needs and gives me the space to better understand the needs of colleagues, partners and learners.
A few years ago, I had been asked by coworkers to lead yoga and meditation sessions at Khan Academy and it became a regular activity. Recently, I have started teaching yoga and meditation sessions at Osmosis virtually (our organization is 100% remote). It seems that most people are longing for a sense of mindfulness and ease — especially during the workday — and I’m grateful to offer opportunities for colleagues to prioritize wellness at work.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
Everyone has to define their own version of success. I’ve never been a fan of looking at success as a single accomplishment or a box that gets checked off. To me, success is something I hope for daily: it is feeling content and confident in my own skin; it is taking care of myself even in a culture that rewards exhaustion; it is maintaining a growth mindset in everything I do. When I can access that, I know I can tackle whatever comes my way. I’ve been lucky enough to work at some of the leading education companies that are changing how students learn and how students access knowledge. I’ve also been lucky enough to teach yoga to Olympians, professional athletes, and brilliant tech executives. These things, to me, are byproducts of the deeper success I hope to achieve every day.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
Wow, that’s a big question for someone in her 20s!
From my personal experience, it is difficult to lead a good life if what you do daily does not match with your personal values or your larger purpose. If you can’t find a way to integrate your values and your purpose into what you spend the majority of your time doing, you will create conflict in your heart. You will know if it’s right or wrong because if it is wrong (and you are paying attention), it eats away at you. I understand at times, making these kinds of leaps may not always be possible but if you have the opportunity, wake up, find something that lights you up, learn from the people who have carved a similar path, and then get to work. And do the work. One of my favorite quotes from the Bhagavad Gita is: “It is better to do your own duty badly, than to perfectly do another’s; you are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing.” As you know, we are not here forever, so figure out what you value and go do that. And if you’re not sure, try observing where your mind tends to wander during the day. It may have some clues.
Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?
I’ve had many “a-ha” moments since I’ve started practicing yoga and meditation. One of my favorites — and perhaps the most simple — was when I practiced with a teacher named Kevin Collins in Berkeley, CA. He used to hold us in “utkatasana” — commonly called chair pose (a deep squat with your arms overhead)- for what seemed like an hour. Every time I’d practice with him, I knew that as soon as chair pose came around, my legs would be shaking and my mind would be screaming. He always dropped wisdom, but during this particular practice, I had tuned him out momentarily and all I could hear in my mind was “When are we getting out of this pose? Is he serious?! How is everyone else holding this?! I can’t breathe! I can’t think! I can’t do this!” and so on. My mind went wild. I was particularly observant this time and noticed just how intensely my mind reacted to a simple pose in a controlled environment (my yoga mat), and suddenly, a voice in my mind said “Do you really need to fight like that?” Everything in my mind let go. I remembered who was in control. I realized the sensation wasn’t pain, it was just fatigue, and I knew I could be there for longer than my monkey mind desired. Suddenly, I met the pose with acceptance and, believe it or not, joy. Now, chair pose is by far my favorite pose (just ask my students!) followed by any other pose where my mind has a tendency to flirt with anger, frustration, and intense anticipation.
I’ve had other experiences where my world was flipped upside down and those quickly became the greatest teaching moments in my life. I was a competitive runner in high school and was excited to take running to the next level in college. Suddenly, one summer training run, I started sensing a pain in my hip, and I thought that just like every other sensation, it would go away eventually. It only got worse. By the end of the run, I couldn’t pick up my leg. My future in running (and every other activity) was seized. I started to gain a lot of weight from inactivity and sunk into a depression. I really struggled to feel whole. It took me a while to figure out that my worth didn’t need to be connected to my physical ability and my happiness didn’t need to depend on endorphins, winning races, or praise. About 3 years after this injury is when I did my teacher training to become a yoga instructor and saw everything clearly in retrospect. Looking back at my high school self, I was pushing myself harder than I needed to push. I had experienced Female Athlete Triad and received positive reinforcement for it. My health was declining both mentally and physically at that time and the injury really forced me to pause and change directions. Now, I’m grateful for that wisdom and even though the injury still visits, I’m learning to make friends with it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents. I can’t express enough gratitude to them. They are responsible for keeping me grounded (not in the punishment sense of the word) just in the balance. Every year since I was 6 years old, we hike the Grand Canyon (they had first hiked for their honeymoon and it became a favorite pastime). It never really got easier — if anything, each year the hikes became more challenging. Mostly I remember complaining to my parents that it was too hard, but the promise of two scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream at the top kept me going. They always provide us experiences that “build character” and this one certainly did.
I’m also grateful to all of my yoga and meditation teachers. My very first teacher in Arizona — Cathy Grenda who created a sanctuary for me to retreat to during high school. My teachers during college, Kevin and Jenn Collins — who taught me how deep the subject of yoga is for curious students. And to Annie Carpenter — who has asks me to pay closer attention than I want to and to practice with more care and precision than I thought possible. And to Will Kabat-Zinn who helps me better understand and manage my own mind.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
Three ways leaders can create a healthy and uplifting culture:
- Lead by example. If the leadership team doesn’t believe, practice, and promote a culture of health, something else will take the front seat. Our CEO at Osmosis, Shiv Gaglani, does an incredible job of showcasing the importance of physical activity, healthy eating, and mindfulness practice. He encourages our team members to carve out time to take care of themselves and to prioritize their physical and mental health. He has shared his personal health goals transparently which has motivated many of our team members, and created a community that supports and celebrates healthy decisions. He has also brought in a Health Coach to help team members better manage and take care of their health. At my previous organization, Khan Academy, the CEO, Sal Khan, also advocated for and ate a very healthy diet and took mostly walking meetings. He made sure healthy snacks were available at the office at all times. He also spoke about his personal mindfulness practice and partnered with Arianna Huffington and Thrive Global to offer the Thrive e-course to the entire team. These actions have ripple effects throughout the entire organization and show the team that health is a priority.
- Create easy opportunities to be healthy. Making sure your leaders live healthy lifestyles isn’t always enough to create a healthy culture. Many cultures have healthy leaders, but then offer unhealthy office snacks and beverages like soda and chips. Sometimes companies plan workplace parties with unlimited alcohol or overload their teams with too many projects or meetings. Leaders must also think about what opportunities they create that make it possible or impossible for their team to choose unhealthy options. For example, are they offering healthy snacks? Do they encourage walking meetings? How about subsidizing health coaches, personal trainers, in-office yoga, or after work kickball? Do they allow their employees to create a flexible schedule so they can squeeze in a midday workout or work from home so they can save time commuting and use that time to walk their dogs or make a healthy dinner. Create clear opportunities for you team to make healthy choices.
- Build habits through reinforcement. Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book, “The Power of Habit” made me think long and hard about the cues, routines, and rewards that make up my personal habits. In order to shift a bad habit, or rather — lay a stronger habit on top, one must swap out the routine (habit). One way to encourage this is to build positive rewards that reinforce healthy behavior. For example, in an effort to get your organization to be more active, you might launch a friendly step competition wherein each team member tracks their steps and those who participate get rewarded. You can incentivise people to book walking meetings whenever possible so that they can increase their steps. Over time, walking meetings should become more routine, and will be reinforced by a culture that habitually schedules walking meetings.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
The two things I’m most passionate about are education and health care. I hope the next big movement is focused on increasing access to education for women around the world and for those in under-resourced communities. I hope at the same time, in the US, we move towards a single-payer health care model where prevention becomes more profitable than disease management and the priorities shift to keeping people healthy.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?