Neuroscience research over the last 10 years has brought to light the positive and lasting effects of mindfulness on mind, body and emotional response.
“A few hours of meditation can change the epigenetics of our brain,” says cognition scientist Richard Davidson.
Brain’s ability to rewire itself in relation to changes in behavior, environment and thinking patterns—or brain plasticity—is heavily impacted by mindfulness practices. Simultaneously, the discovery of the enteric nervous system (or the brain in the gut) has given an entirely new meaning to the mind/body relationship, shedding light on the mechanism by which mind wellbeing positively impacts the body and vice versa.
Business leaders seem to be catching on.
CEOs Mark Bertolini of Aetna and Jeff Weiner of Linkedin swear by the positive impact of yoga and mindfulness on themselves and their organizations. Programs like Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” are sprouting in and out of Silicon Valley. Global gatherings like Wisdom 2.0 are bringing senior executives from the high tech world together with wisdom teachers. Mindfulness is trending up in the Swiss Alps of Davos at the World Economic Forum. Harvard Business Review backs the hype with hard science in the recently published article, “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain.”
Yet, despite all of the above, the mainstream business culture still lingers in a feeling of unease about yoga and mindfulness.
Based on my own leadership experience, I suspect this feeling has roots in a common bias that paints wisdom practices for the meek. I still remember the quizzical stares I was getting from my team when I openly started practicing yoga and meditation on business trips and at corporate events. Eventually that initial reaction melted away when the realization dawned on everyone that the odd stuff I was doing wasn’t making me a weaker leader—actually, quite the opposite. The excellent top and bottom line numbers generated over a streak of four years were only matched by the increase in passion, engagement and accountability from the team.
Still, in the largest majority of C-suites, the “tough-it-out” mainstream credo frowns upon yoga as “woo-woo” and reduces mindfulness to a “palliative” for stress-reduction.
So, the paradox is that while the US Marine Corps is employing meditation and yoga to make its troops even tougher, the largest majority of business leaders still seem to fear that embracing wisdom practices would turn them and their people into a bunch of happy-go-lucky hippies.
I believe that fear is unfounded. I have personally lead projects involving state-of-the-art exercise equipment and technology to design cutting-edge fitness facilities for Google, Facebook, and Cisco (just to name a few companies in the Valley). Now some of those same companies are building meditation rooms and bringing some form of yoga into their wellness programs.
There is an emerging trend to integrate yoga and mindfulness into our professional and personal lives. This development stems from the need to bring more meaning in our doing. The more the technology the more wisdom needed. This trend is irreversible.
Here are the three main drivers:
- Technology: Hyper-connectivity, incessant streams of information, the constant backdrop of white noise and fast-paced lives have caused us to disconnect from our deeper selves and make us feel like life is rushing by, while in reality, our mind is the one rushing by.
- Uncertainty: Environmental and geopolitical instability, economic crises, disruptions in the workforce and across industries caused by the furious pace of technological innovation have made our traditional meaning-making framework obsolete. While a new paradigm is in the making, conservative forces are at work to keep an untenable status quo. All these stressors are adding an incredible pressure that keeps leaders awake at night.
- New challenges: Leaders in business, politics, education and all institutions of society are facing more situations that require them to tap into their core of self-awareness and emotional intelligence in order to inspire others and manifest the solutions needed to be successful in a world that’s increasing in velocity. We know from Albert Einstein that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Yoga, meditation and shamanic technologies have been around for millennia and base their effectiveness on a set of principles that science and management are currently re-discovering. The relevance of these practices in helping individuals and groups—particularly in the Western world—heal, evolve and thrive account for their resurgence. Coping is not enough anymore, the collective consciousness seems to be shouting.
As further proof of the concept, we just need to look at the recent Harvard Health book, The Winner’s Brain, which describes meditation as a consistent practice of high-performing individuals. Or we could look to large companies like General Mills, Target and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, whose best practices include yoga and mindfulness to decrease burnouts, increase engagement and enhance decision-making.
Definitely these wisdom disciplines are not for the meek but for the brave who want to do the work necessary to turn into more effective and stronger leaders. These practices are for those who have the guts to exercise their minds, their gross and energetic bodies and their conscious breath.
These technologies, when they become experiential, have the power to take us on a journey of transformation and fulfillment.
Our individual responsibility as leaders is overcoming cultural bias and harnessing the power of yoga and mindfulness. The more educated we are about the benefits, the less coy we’ll be in embracing the work, personally and professionally.
Success in leadership is ultimately determined by our inward conditions. It is a function of the inner place from where we manifest. If we constantly operate from a “flight or fight” mode, we end up bringing that dangerous quality of presence to our daily situations. As a result, the business environment we contribute to shaping is frequently dominated by fear; burn-outs are common; stress runs rampant; psychosomatic illnesses abound; long-term results are below potential; negative externalities undermine the planet and people are generally disempowered.
Yoga teaches us that the quality of attention and intention we bring into a situation, decision or relationship is greatly affected by the state of inner connection and openness to our three main energy centers (chakras 6, 4 and 3, respectively):
Mind, rooted in full presence, alertness, and with absence of pre-judgment;
Heart, feeling empathic, forgiving, connected and protected;
Gut, grounded in feelings of self-empowerment, centeredness and confidence.
When we act in a survival mode for a protracted period of time, we short-circuit the intelligence of these power sources. We greatly impair our ability to lead and are instead lead by the three poisons of Ignorance, Greed and Fear. Over time we begin projecting Judgment, dwelling in a state of Cynicism and becoming defensive because of Fear.
We lose our clarity, connection and personal power.
Through practicing yoga and mindfulness we make our inner space a little bit bigger everyday, allowing ourselves to act from a more centered, vaster and richer perspective. Over time we embark on a path of personal mastery where we see ourselves as a part of the system we co-enact. We develop the skills to connect with reality on a deeper level and to engage with the whole field. We cultivate the intention to generate meaningful, positive and productive change in our personal and professional environments.
We become proactive instead of reactive. We learn how to manage and then master our personal energy and the energies around us in a non-manipulative way. We operate as crafty, tough-minded individuals who are simultaneously tenderhearted and in touch with the most profound depths of the soul.
Yoga and mindfulness can and do catalyze a higher level of manifestation in our life work.
I am working on an 8-week program that makes yoga, meditation, breath and energetic alignment practices relevant for engaged leaders in the world. For more info contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org