Thanks to my current yoga teacher, I think I am finally beginning to get what yoga is supposed to be about. I have practiced yoga off and on for at least 15 years with a variety of different teachers. While each or my previous teachers had her own approach, the sessions were pretty similar: starting with seated poses, stretching and warming up and focusing on the breath, moving on to standing poses (some including elements of balance) followed by floor poses (sometimes inverted), concluding with shavasana (final relaxation). I appreciated when my teachers would come around the room to gently adjust our positions or would focus our awareness on our breath or alignment. I loved when one played chants and eastern music softly in the background, another infused the studio with aromatics, and one teacher even briefly gently massaged each student with essential oils during relaxation. I always left each session with a sense of well-being, relaxed and rejuvenated and slightly more flexible.
But I can’t say that I came away with a full experience of the purpose of yoga. According to David Surrenda, founding dean of the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University in California and CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, “the original context of yoga was spiritual development practices to train the body and mind to self-observe and become aware of their own nature. The purposes of yoga were to cultivate discernment, awareness, self-regulation and higher consciousness in the individual.” Yoga was meant to be a system of increasing awareness and wellness and decreasing disease. So, while I certainly benefited from reduced stress, increased relaxation and greater physical flexibility, my yoga practice fell short of really permeating my being.
My current yoga teacher’s approach is very different. Sometimes, we devote an entire session to a single pose, focusing on each element. She might begin by drawing our attention to our feet, bringing our awareness to each component part, to their inter-relationship with each other and the rest of our bodies, and the points of contact with the floor and our environment. She brings us to awareness of what it feels like to be in the position. And then she repeats the process with our legs, our torso, our arms, and our head. She invites us to recognize what it feels like to embody the pose, and to be self-aware when we are well-positioned (vs not). I find that this focused self-awareness not only allows me to get back into the poses on my own with proper alignment but has also begun to infuse other aspects of my personal and professional life.
For example, I recently shared this insight with a coaching client who seeks to change the culture of a community-wide board that she chairs. The board aspires to model a collaborative partnership to foster diversity and inclusiveness in the community, but the members are high-power executives with high levels of expertise who are conditioned to “get stuff done.” This tends to get in the way of collaboration when each expert is convinced that they have THE answer. Inspired by my yoga experience, my client and I talked about component elements that characterized the “posture” of collaboration, and how she might introduce them to the board – while making them self-aware of what they were doing, and encouraging them to reflect on how it felt. We created a series of “exercises” and discussion processes for each of the upcoming meetings. Through mindfulness and celebrating each step toward collaboration (and noting when they got off track) the board began to establish new habits for discussion and decision making – and began to recognize advancement toward their aspirational goal of partnership. They developed greater familiarity with each other’s strengths – and how they support and interconnect with one another. They seek each other’s advice and support outside the board meetings – which is one of the goals of the partnership. When they talk about the board to others, they emphasize what they are accomplishing because of the way they partner!
As Billie Jean King once said: “I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.” What I’ve learned from my yoga teacher is that self-awareness (of individuals or organizations) provides the capacity to learn from successes, and to self-correct, encouraging continuous growth and improvement.