Yoga at Work and Embracing the Full Spectrum
Yoga Wisdom at Work (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2013,) by Maren Showkeir and Jamie Showkeir invites the reader to embrace all of yoga’s teachings to cultivate the spark of the divine within. Featuring examples from professions such as law enforcement, teaching, medicine, and more, this work encourages one to build a productive and energizing office environment. In this excerpt from “Beginner’s Mind: The Power and the Promise,” the authors write of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, and how yoga wisdom at work can pay dividends in all aspects of life.
More often than we can count, people have said to us, “I could never do yoga. I’m not flexible” (or “I’m too hyper”). That logic is like saying, “I can’t tend to my garden—it has too many weeds in it.” Or to use a work metaphor, “I can’t clean out my email inbox. It has too many messages in it.”
It’s understandable. The sheer amount of stuff we are asked to attend to in our daily lives can be overwhelming. But when people say they lack the physicality to put their bodies into yoga poses, they are not taking into account that it is the practice that develops flexibility, balance, and a quiet mind.
In any case, yoga on the mat is only one part of the practice—one-eighth, to be exact. To use one of Jamie’s favorite analogies, the physical practice (asana) doesn’t represent the full spectrum of yoga any more than looking through a knothole in a fence and seeing a pitcher throw and catch a ball gives you a complete picture of a baseball game’s nine innings. Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who received an honorary degree from the University of Calcutta, said, “Yoga practice would be ineffectual without the concepts on which yoga is based. It combines the bodily and the spiritual in an extraordinarily complete way.”
The first time I heard a yoga teacher mention the “Eight Limbs of Yoga,” I was a mid-career newspaper journalist, and the term sounded bizarre to me. I imagined some exotic Hindu deity with appendages sprouting from its body like an octopus. Although I had taken a few yoga classes at that time, I knew almost nothing about the provenance or philosophical underpinnings of this rich, ancient tradition. While the teacher’s brief description of the Eight Limbs sounded interesting, it also was foreign, peculiar, and a little too “woo-woo” for my mindset at the time. The exotic words she used were hard to remember. My brain did not fully register the notion that yoga had far more to offer than exercise.
What I have since discovered is that the Eight Limbs of Yoga contain a potent philosophy that can have a positive influence on every aspect of your life, especially the way you work. Continuing your on-the-mat practice by living yogic principles off the mat at work will help you become more successful. It will enhance your sense of meaning and purpose in a way that makes work more satisfying and rewarding and less stressful.
The Bhagavad Gita, an epic yogic scripture that chronicles conversations between the warrior Arjuna and his spiritual guide, Krishna, emphasizes the importance of work. As Arjuna prepares for battle, Krishna tells him “… no one can gain perfection by abstaining from work.” He instructs his protégé to attend to his duties, saying, “Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself—without selfish attachments and alike in success and defeat.”
Work as yoga was underscored in an email I received from a professor at Fielding Graduate University, where I earned my master’s degree. Dr. Barclay Hudson is a yogi, teacher, mentor, and friend. In the context of a class called “Good Work, Meaningful Work,” he shared this thought: “It’s easy to forget what yoga offers as part of work. We think and talk about ‘work–life balance’ as if work were something different from life, and different from being alive and conscious.”
Jamie and I present yoga practice as both a literal and metaphorical guide to a way of working that can inspire and transform the ways you view what you do to earn a living and how you do it.
GOING OUT ON THE LIMBS
Few people are familiar with the First and Second Limbs of yoga, which concern universal morality (the yamas) and outline a personal code of conduct (the niyamas). The most well known is the Third Limb, or asana, comprised of physical movements meant to prepare the body for meditation. In asana classes, most teachers also talk about the importance of breathing, or pranayama—this is the Fourth Limb. And the resting pose (savasana) that concludes most asana practices is a facet of the Fifth Limb, withdrawal of the senses, or pratyahara. The Sixth Limb, a practice of focused attention (dharana), is somewhat obscure to most practitioners, although many practices incorporate meditation, or dhyana, which is the Seventh Limb.
The Eighth Limb is about absorption, unity with the divine, or enlightenment, and is called samadhi. It is often seen as an esoteric concept with little practical application in the real world. (That is not our view, as you will see.)
The first two limbs are instructive about forming intentions, making choices about action, and understanding consequences. The remaining limbs speak more to aspects of your mind, which can be trained and shaped through physical movement, breathing, introspection, focus, and meditation. Practitioners gain self-discovery, wisdom, and pragmatic applications to work. With dedication, this leads to absorption or fulfillment, which we define in a practical way for this book: It is cultivating deep understanding of Self. It means consistently aligning your intentions and actions with your highest, most noble purpose, developing your full potential, and recognizing a universal spiritual connection that unites you with something greater than Self.
The Yoga Sutras are brilliantly simple. They are not an attempt to corral or control behavior. They don’t delineate “right and wrong,” but they do emphasize the role consequences play in any decision. Certain actions reap certain results. Eknath Easwaran, in his introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, calls this the true meaning of karma: “Something that is done.”
“The law of karma states simply that every act or thought has consequences, which themselves will have consequences.… We ourselves are responsible for what happens to us [emphasis added], whether or not we can understand how,” Easwaran writes. This echoes the message we consistently deliver in our organizational work—you are constantly making choices about how you respond to your circumstances. It’s not about whether your choice is definitively right or wrong, or judged good or bad. Knowing that everything has consequences, even your thoughts, is what’s important. Yoga’s Eight Limbs give you the means to get clear about intentions, the way you see other people and interpret events, your attitudes and actions—and all these things will shape your destiny.
We’ll begin this journey with the first two limbs of yoga, each of which has five associated precepts. The First Limb, the yamas, contains the precepts of universal morality, also referred to as moral restraints. These suggest a path for creating a world that puts the well-being of all people (indeed, all sentient beings) at the center of every decision you make. If attended to, the yamas purify human nature and contribute to the health and happiness of society. Practiced at work, these actions will develop self-awareness and ethical focus, facilitate compassion and collaboration, and foster an orientation that emphasizes personal accountability that sets aside pure self-interest and connects to the whole.
Yoga is a robust and active way of living. The Second Limb, the niyamas, provides a guide for helping you develop the capacity to choose “right action” in your daily life. The five precepts that comprise the niyamas are more personal, intimate, and call for conscious commitment to apply mindful skill in the art of action.
Lived out, the yamas and niyamas of yoga will have a significant impact on how you find success—and keep your sanity—in today’s chaotic, competitive, and stressful work environments. They are touchstones to return to when your work becomes overwhelming or you find yourself in situations where clarity around right action is murky.
EACH LIMB REINFORCES THE OTHER
Like hands, the yamas and niyamas each have five fingers, or precepts. Integrated, they create a synergistic strength and energy, just as using ten fingers allows you to accomplish what you could not with one or two. Contained in the clasp of these ten fingers is an inherent compass that can help you stay on a course of ethical, mindful living no matter where your work journey takes you.
The Third Limb, asana, is designed to keep the “instrument” of your work—your physical body—in tune. Asana has a positive effect on overall health, energy, and well-being, which allows you to better perform your work and successfully serve your enterprise. It also can be an instructive metaphor for the qualities needed to be successful at work: focus, flexibility grounded in stability, balance, and continual improvement (practice!).
Harnessing and controlling the breath, pranayama, is the Fourth Limb. It offers techniques for maintaining calm, increasing energy, and keeping you grounded in the most stressful of work environments. Bringing conscious breathing into your work also creates space for clarity and mindful action.
The Fifth Limb, pratyahara, is withdrawal of the senses. The root of this term, ahara, means “nourishment” and is a practice of examining sensual habits (sometimes referred to as cravings) and the results they have on our actions. Pratyahara practice can help you disconnect from a situation to keep instinctual reactions at bay. It develops the skill of being a participant in a situation while simultaneously observing your emotional responses.
The last three limbs represent the results of the actions and practice of the first five limbs. Intense focus, dharana, is the Sixth Limb. This practice is training for the mind and helps foster inner awareness of your relationship to surroundings. It further develops your ability to become the “observer,” which is useful in all kinds of ways when you’re working with others, particularly around issues of communication and accountability.
Meditation is covered by the Seventh Limb, or dhyana. A calm, clear mind contributes greatly to work success, as do introspection, self-awareness, and the ability to neutrally observe yourself and others when you’re engaged in work. Meditation is training the mind in much the same way you physically train the body. It is key to developing self-awareness. The skill of becoming “the witness” to your emotions and reactions is more finely honed with practice, which fosters your ability to make mindful choices that connect actions to consequences.
The Eighth Limb centers on union with the divine, or samadhi, also referred to as absorption or enlightenment. The word means “to bring together, to merge” by bringing everyday actions in line with your supreme self. The practice asks you to recognize and celebrate a force larger than yourself, however you define it, which guides and directs the course of our lives. We will be using work as a metaphor for recognizing your purpose and potential, helping others develop theirs, and using your energies to create an enlightened workplace that serves everyone.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Yoga Wisdom at Work: Finding Sanity off the Mat and on the Jobby Maren Showkeir and Jamie Showkeir and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2013.