Yoga and the Mindful Leader

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By Edi Pasalis

Yoga is offered in almost every corporate gym across the world but can be overlooked, perhaps because it is equated with exercise, as a tool for cultivating a mindful leader. Yoga is more than a chance to get fit or flexible. Yoga is a suite of practices, often known as the eight-limbed path, that includes lifestyle practices, breathing techniques, physical postures as well as various meditation practices. This suite of practices serves the leader who faces a myriad of challenges every day—including making decisions.  

As part of our effort to understand the impact of yoga, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health sponsored a scientific consortium to analyze the relationship of yoga practices with the capacity to pause and make wise choices. This group of researchers, including David Vago, director of the Contemplative Neuroscience and Integrative Medicine (CNIM) Laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, demonstrated in their paper published in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, the importance of both the top down, attentional training components of yoga, and the bottom up practices that directly impact the physiology of our bodies and help us be in a ready-state for mindfulness. Both of these skills are very important to good decision-making.

The top down attentional training that yoga is particularly helpful at cultivating is interoception – the ability to notice and feel what is happening in the body. In any yoga posture or mindful movement the instruction is to pay attention to bodily sensation. We begin to discern the difference between sensation and pain or energizing tingling and heavy dullness. Being aware of sensation is an essential part of effective decision-making.

First, it is an early warning system. When we are more quickly aware of the information coming in through our bodies we are given advanced notice that a situation is brewing that calls for a skillful response. The sooner we notice our hearts beating faster or our temperature rising, the more quickly we can begin figuring out what is going on and what is needed to address it.

Second, it provides a wealth of information. The body gives us signals when we are angry, excited, disappointed, or intrigued. We can use this information to engage our emotional intelligence and make wise decisions that shape a positive path forward.

Third, it helps us be ready for the next big decision. Just as we become aware that the need for a decision is brewing, we can be more aware that a situation has been successfully addressed and move on.

To take advantage of the interoception-building aspects of yoga, consider adding a bit of physical intensity to your meditation – for example, instead of sitting in a chair, try standing up. Or, explore moving the arms slowly up and down in time with the breath. Keep the focus of your attention on the sensations in the body.

The most simple and powerful yoga interventions that work from the bottom up are the various breathing techniques. Breathing practices help us be ready to respond skillfully in a variety of ways.

First, in the moment, they help us shift out of the stress response, which sends us headlong into reactivity. For example, taking a breath in the middle of a heated discussion helps us stay open and listen to our colleagues rather than rushing to argue our own opinion.

Second, done regularly over time, breathing practices help develop a more robust nervous system that is less likely to be hijacked. Conflicts or risks that might have sent our stress level soaring in the past no longer register as problematic.

Third, breathing practices can reduce our perception of threat such that our stress response is lessened. With time, a more robust nervous system helps us see the world through a lens of more possibility.

In RISE, Kripalu’s evidence-based mindful resilience training for leaders, we introduce breathing techniques before we offer more traditional top-down mindfulness practices such as mindful movement, sitting meditation, and mindful listening. The very first breathing technique we offer is the Letting Go Breath – a big inhalation through the nose and a long, hearty exhalation out the mouth. This breath is very much like a sigh and helps reduce the tension in the body and stop the forward momentum of the body-mind. It solidifies the possibility for a purposeful pause.

Try it now: take a big breath in through the nose, let it out through the mouth. Perhaps again, and a third time. What do you notice?

To understand the impact of the top-down and bottom-up approach, Kripalu has partnered with researchers including Sat Bir Khalsa PHD, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, and Jeff Dusek PHD, a research advisor at Kripalu, to evaluate RISE. Results published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine show a 32% decrease in perceived stress, an 8% increase in resilience, and a 13% increase in mindfulness. These results hold for at least two months after the program.  

Imagine if you faced every decision with less stress and more mindfulness. What might be possible? As Director of RISE Programming, I have overseen the training of this top-down, bottom-up approach to thousands of people in education, healthcare, community safety and business. I regularly hear that this two-pronged approach is easily adopted and helps professionals skillfully engage the important aspects of their lives at work and at home. The breathing practices break the cycle of busy that threatens to swallow leaders and opens the door to the awareness of sensation needed to be fully present and wise in the moment.

So, the next time you want to make a good decision, take a breath first then notice what’s going on in your body. It will enhance the likelihood you’ll make a wise choice.

Edi Pasalis is an experienced social impact leader who cultivates mindful, resilient organizations. She is the driving force behind RISE, Kripalu’s evidence-based initiative that trains individuals in high-impact, high-stress organizations and helps create more people-centered, emotionally intelligent workplaces. Edi has overseen the training of thousands of educators, health and human services providers, law enforcement personnel, business leaders, and middle and high school students. Scientific documentation of her work has been published in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health and the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Edi has presented at the American Academy of Management, the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine & Healthcare, the Embodied Positive Psychology Conference, and the Symposium on Yoga Research. She holds master’s degrees from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Harvard Divinity School, and certificates in Kripalu Yoga and Positive Psychology.

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