I have the whole Gemini thing going on. In my younger days, I was a preppy good girl by day. Then, right around 11pm I transformed into a punk rebel thrashing in a mosh pit. Now I’m the organic Whole Foods exercise freak mom who also enjoys fireball shots in a dive bar with friends. Right up until the pandemic, my work worlds also followed this parallel world pattern. I own a marketing agency that works with small to medium-sized businesses and I co-own a yoga studio. But lately these two businesses have started to seep into each other.
Since COVID rocked our world, it’s no longer enough to focus solely on the traditional external communications. We also must focus on what’s happening within the company, and more specifically, within each employee. By incorporating basic yogic principles and ancient wisdom into the office, we can more effectively do our jobs and ultimately position our companies for success.
Pre-pandemic, many companies addressed employee stress by subsidizing a gym membership. Business leaders need to go further, and deeper now. Instead of merely working on the physical outer body, leaders must cultivate awareness of the internal landscape. With so much anxiety and uncertainty until who knows when, it would be beneficial for businesses to go back a few thousand years to glean some of the wisdom imparted from the non-physical practice of yoga and the ancient Sanskrit text, the Bhagavad Gita.
The Enemy Within
On the face of it, the Gita (as it’s commonly called) is a book about war. But it’s actually about the war within. It addresses the struggle between our light and dark sides, good and evil. Without getting into a political discussion, this struggle is more relevant now than ever. To truly help employees get back onto the battlefield, or, in this case, the office, business owners and CEO’s must take a more compassionate tact in order for employees to operate at their highest level. We cannot allow our fears, doubts, insecurities, and irrational doubts to take over. If we are in a constant state of internal struggle, which many of us are, it’s inevitable that we are going to carry that into how we react to colleagues and clients.
The Gita talks about Bhakti, which is to be of service to others. But in order to be of service, we need to create good space internally. The Gita also discusses Dharma, which stresses the importance of action vs. words. If more business leaders set a mindful example, using the principles of Bhakti and Dharma, then employees will have the space and desire to produce at the highest level.
One of the most powerful parts of a yoga practice is pranayama (controlling of the life force), or breathwork. This is often done at the beginning of a yoga practice, to help warm up the body and narrow the focus. By bringing pranayama into the workplace, we provide the power for each person to find calm and get centered in a strenuous situation.
When we are stressed, the breath is often the first thing to go. We might be breathing solely from the chest in deep, shallow breaths. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing us for fight or flight.Short bursts of adrenaline can be beneficial, but the long term effects can be brutal. Holding onto stress can affect sleep, digestion, weaken the immune system and cause physical pain.
To calm the nervous system, just breathe. One of my favorite techniques is the practice of taking 6 breaths a minute. Inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds for a set of 6. Notice the immediate effect this has on the heart rate and speed of the thoughts. Make sure that the inhale first fills the belly inflating like a balloon, then the rib cage and then the chest. Deflate in reverse. Holding a hand over each body part helps properly direct the breath to each section.
Depression comes from thinking about the past. Anxiety arises from focusing too much on the future. By narrowing the focus to what is happening at this very moment, we are better able to notice what is going on with the body. Most people are only aware of the physical practice of yoga. They might have taken a class and gone through the poses (asanas) hoping for those awesome yogi arms. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Yoga teaches us the importance of being present — in the moment. This moment is the only one that matters, yet no more important than the moment before or after.
To come back to the present moment, simply do a mental scan of the body from the crown of the head all the way down to the toes. Take time with each body part. When the mind wanders, as it will, come back and continue to travel down the body. Acknowledge any tightness and then release. This simple yet powerful practice can be done first thing in the morning or during a short break. The act of being present is an ongoing practice that will soon become regular operating procedure.
Another way to practice being present is to truly listen during a meeting. Focus on the person who is talking. Don’t think about the next meeting or a to-do list. Don’t get distracted by texts or emails. This practice can decrease fatigue and increase productivity.
Get Out of Your Groove
By being mindful and in the present moment, we are well positioned to work on our habitual patterns, or samskara. The goal is to move away from a reactive place, allowing others to dictate how we’re going to react. Instead act from a place of wisdom, love and understanding. Think of samskara like the grooves on a vinyl record. When we are not aware, we tend to fall back into our groove, our familiar territory, our long-held beliefs. As the Gita explains, without this awareness of our habitual patterns, we become the enemy of the self.
Most of the time, we can’t control what happens. But we can control how we react. By not allowing the external world to dictate internal experiences or actions, we regain that power. In order to stay out of our habitual groove, we must cultivate awareness instead of operating on auto-pilot.
To get out of our patterns, why not take a different route to work? If we’re working from home, position your computer in a different room or at a different angle. These simple acts can have a profound effect.
SEE IT AND YOU CAN BE IT
There is so much negativity and a barrage of negative news hitting us from all sides. It’s incredibly taxing and even if we don’t realize it, it takes its toll. This is where visualization comes in.
There is significant scientific research proving the power of the mind-body connection. Psychology Today reports that “Brain studies now reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization. It’s been found that mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow.”
Business leaders can easily incorporate this into the workday, whether remote or in person, by giving time at the beginning of each day for employees to practice visualization. Take 5 minutes without distractions to go step by step through a task. As Psychology Today recommends, use all 5 senses for this exercise and get as detailed as possible. See the positive outcome as if it’s happening at that moment. What sounds do you hear? Are their particular smells associated with the result? Is there anyone else with you? Professional athletes use this technique to prepare for a game, from Tiger Woods to Muhammed Ali.
By addressing the internal world of employees, we can put each person into a healthier state of mind. We move away from blind reactivity into a place of purposeful proactivity. Leaders must set the example. It’s not just about one person, it’s about the whole. We have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. With these techniques and understandings, we will be better equipped to get back on the battlefield with the strength of a warrior.