by Jill Malleck
Ahhh, summer. For those of us in southwestern Ontario (or most of Canada) summer is the hot season, and we revel in it. Not everyone likes the heat – but I do. And heat has turned out to have another great use – it is a main ingredient in a type of exercise called “hot yoga.” This involves holding prescribed poses while in a classroom that is heated to about 105 degrees with about 40% humidity. Yes – you sweat!
Many leaders are familiar with hard-core cardio exercise: cycling, running, aerobic classes, racquetball, tennis or squash or a myriad of team sports (especially hockey, eh?). There is a lot to attract high achievers to these competitive, adrenaline-pumping pursuits. So if you are fit – why would you consider other gentler forms of exercise – like Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi or AquaFit? They do increase your physical flexibility and strength, and they offer another advantage. They counter-balance the push, heave, grasp and grab environment that exists not just on the sports field, but in many office meeting rooms. They offer a chance to slow your rhythm to the speed of a steadfast heart, where you can learn skills that carry over into your everyday work life.
Here is a sample of the surprising lessons regular 90-min classes of Moksha Yoga have taught me.
- Concentration and Focus: To do the variety of yoga poses you must pay attention. The instructor skillfully reminds us to stay “in the room” and to give each pose my full attention. This brings my very busy mind back to the present moment. In a world that forces us to multi-task, and that busily presents a million distractions, this is a skill that I hunger for. My classmates and I are perfectly silent for 90 minutes. Close attention to my breath, and choosing a spot on the floor, help keeps me grounded in the harder standing/balance poses
- Patience: A moderately paced and concentrated workout at first feels annoyingly different than the driving aerobic physical exertion I am used to. Like many of my coaching clients, I have a competitive nature that is often bored silly if there isn’t some goal to strive toward. I have learned that I cannot treat my yoga practice like training for a 10 km. race. I am not preparing for another event so much as experiencing today’s event. The poses become easier when I slow down, move in and then relax into them. What is hard at first becomes almost natural when I patiently lean into it. In learning to soften my often tensed face and my belly, I am learning to slow down and patiently pay attention in other areas of my life.
- Self-awareness: In yoga we face a full mirror, and therefore we face ourselves. Sometimes the instructor will remind us to smile at our reflection. With yoga, each class is a chance to greet myself. During the class, I am not comparing my form to others (ok, I am trying not to) but instead I am attending to myself. Other, more subtle aspects of self-awareness come to the fore. I notice, with gentle probing from my instructor, when I am resisting being in the class; when I am being critical of myself and others; when I am finding it hard to commit to a pose.
- Paradoxical living: Yoga allows you to intimately experience living in a more natural way. This is a way of complexity and neighbouring contrasts. Life, especially in business, is not as black & white as we might like to make it. So my instructor asks me to be strong when I am in warrior pose. Strong without being rigid. My legs are not steel posts; they have a system of moving muscles and tendons that hold my bones and me in place. There are times when we are reminded to be soft – but not so soft that we collapse. Strong spine with a soft belly. The subtle nuances of my way of being feel more real to me, and my choices are endless.
In addition to my personal experience, here are some additional benefits explained by the talented yoga instructors at Moksha Yoga in Waterloo, Ontario: Ashley Keefe, David Huckle and Eric Mathias.
- Owning our Reactions: We can notice many of our life’s stressors just by moving our bodies into and out of each yoga posture: these include responses toward our current mental and emotional state (e.g., I’m preoccupied, stressed, tired, sad, angry, happy, running out of time), limitations within our body (sore knees), responses toward our breathing (rate, depth, quality), and certainly responses toward our thoughts (e.g., I’m not good enough, I won’t get as far as I want to, it’s too hot in here, my breathing is changing, my legs are tired, I’m hungry) . Every time we enter, remain in, and exit from, a pose, these stressors become present and they make themselves known. By remaining presently focused in each posture we can notice our reactive tendencies, ways in which we respond habitually in the presence of these stressors. By reacting, instead of choosing how to act, we get caught in the suffering that our habitual tendencies bring; that is, the stressors are now actually causing us suffering.
- Transcending Stress: Practicing yoga can allow us to notice how many of life’s stressors (e.g., work stressors) can be accepted and transcended. The ability of stress to affect us can and should be included in our response to stress. That is, by inviting stress into our awareness and feeling it affect us, we develop the ability to form responses that help us grow. A yoga practice can help us develop the ability to simply notice (and breathe deeply) just as we begin to experience some of these life stressors. Taking just a few moments to breathe deeply and slowly can help to change our perspective and our potential responses.