I met a woman at the dog park the other day and we got to talking about yoga, meditation, “mindfulness” and, really, what brings us peace. I know, pretty intense for a conversation at the dog park, but that’s the beauty of the random conversations I strike up with the other dog-owners who seek out the beautiful oasis of a park where I bring my dog.
This woman is a former professional ballet dancer and I could tell the moment I met her that she has an extraordinary sense of presence. She spoke of how her husband is very into meditation and yoga as a path to his own inner peace and is always telling her she should go to yoga classes. She explains to me that she has tried a few yoga asana classes and they were “disastrous” for her. She didn’t like the heat, she didn’t like the approach, she didn’t like the way it made her body feel and she didn’t like the perceived competition in the room. She felt the opposite of peaceful.
Now this is a woman who, as a dancer, is schooled in body awareness and knows what does and does not work for her body. She gave it the old college try and, knowing herself, decided that yoga classes were not the way for her to access inner peace. She then segued into a story about how she had gone to temple the previous weekend of Yom Kippur. It was a spiritual endeavor, but ended up filling her spirit with dread. She saw too many people she knew, there was too much “going on,” which she felt diverted her from accessing her own spirituality. So she left services early and drove to the sanctuary of a Greek Orthodox church (I think, though it may have been a monastery) where her mother-in-law was buried and where she had spent lots of meaningful time with her mother-in-law in the past. She lit a candle and was immediately soothed by the peace and serenity of the sanctuary, and immediately felt a connection to the divine. It was in that moment and that space that she found a sense of inner peace and was able to connect with her own spirituality, outside the confines of her own religion.
I tell this story because this woman and her story embodied a sense of mindfulness and frank self-awareness that I don’t often encounter in our culture. As I embark on teaching a Yoga and Mindfulness for Leaders & Executives course to a group of women at Simmons School of Management next week, I started thinking about the “shoulds” that are shoved down our throats in American culture.
How many people are told by well-meaning friends and family members that they should go to a yoga class or they should meditate? I know I’m guilty of should-ing at times. As a yogini, I truly believe that yoga (including meditation) is a genuine path toward the goal of stilling the whirling thoughts in one’s mind in order to see clearly and find some sort of inner peace and stability.
However, I’ve come to that through years of my own practice and, believe me, my yoga does not look anything like the asana classes one sees in most American towns and cities or in Lululemon ads. It takes discipline and years of practice to build the self-awareness that can lead to the stilling of the mind. As my friend from the dog park knew, what brings stillness to one individual can wreak havoc on the mind of another.
So often in the context of leadership and being advised what it takes to be competent and successful, especially as women (not that this doesn’t apply to men, but I can only speak from my own experience as a woman), we are schooled on how we should be and act in order to succeed. We should be more assertive, we should be tougher negotiators but, wait, not too tough or too assertive, because then we’ll be perceived as ice princesses (the polite term). We should be more decisive, but also collaborative. We should be approachable, but not let people trample over our boundaries. I’m confused even writing this list!
In my mind, this conundrum brings us back to the simple idea that, instead of reading all the latest books on successful leadership styles or the latest research on how women should behave in order to make it to the top, we need to first, as individuals, know ourselves. Take the time to be mindful and self-aware and really meditate on what matters to us as individuals, so we can use that to anchor ourselves as we determine what is good for our career, our business, our clients, our group or our career.
Yoga and meditation may not be for everyone, but it has the extraordinary potential to provide us with the tools we need to search inside ourselves for the authentic voice that will enable us to be the best leader we can be. To leave the temple when we need to leave the temple in order to find peace in a different sanctuary.