A few years ago, I discovered yoga. I used to think it was too Bohemian for me, or that it required more flexibility than my tired body had to offer. But I learned that the practice isn't just for wizened yogis halfway across the world or the uber-limber closer to home. The flavors of yoga are as diverse as the people who practice it. Meditative, relaxing, physically demanding, or body bending…with yoga, there's something for everyone.
But a few principles span any yoga practice, because they're central to yoga at its core. And while I initially learned these principles on the mat, I've learned that they're applicable to far more. For the open-minded, they're good primers for personal and professional life, even project management itself. "Seriously?" you might be thinking. "My workplace is anything but Zen-like. I can't imagine any two topics more at odds." But whatever the day-to-day zaniness of your work environment, there are actually many parallels to be drawn between the practice of yoga and the practice of managing time, completing projects, and executing work.
Here are just a few as food for existential thought... and the better project management:
1. Set an Intention
Nearly every yoga instructor begins by inviting the class to set an intention for the following hour. It could be as simple as blocking out the stress of the day and being present in the moment or as lofty as developing more general self-awareness. Any way you slice it, it's a great way to focus yourself and make sure that the time you spend on the mat is worthwhile to your broader goals.
In the same way, every project or significant piece of work should begin with an identification of the organizational objectives it supports. It's far too easy to let the mechanics of a project take over—to lose sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak. Beginning the process with a clear-cut definition of what it's all about is the best way to ensure that your project doesn't get lost in the weeds, derailed by shifting priorities, or superseded by one person's idea of what matters.
As Doug Nufer, an Workfront partner from onTrack Project Services says, "Success doesn't just happen to good people. It's planned and prepared for from the outset. It's monitored and controlled throughout the effort. It's recognized and acknowledged upon completion."
2. Find Your Focal Point
The Sanskrit term is drishti, which refers to a "focused gaze" or "a means for developing concentrated intention." It's useful when holding a posture for an extended period of time—and essential when practicing balance poses. You choose something immovable to look at—a spot on the wall, a fixture in the room, anything but the person in front of you who is wobbling just as badly as you are—and let it create balance for you.
But drishti goes well beyond yoga. According to the Drishti Center for Integral Action, "drishti can also refer to outward vision and inward awareness in other areas of life. Similar to other Sanskrit words, ‘drishti' can be interpreted on various levels. It can mean the quality of vision one might use around a planning table, it can mean the vision that unites values with action, or it can mean the vision or recognition of oneness between self and other."
The parallels between focus and work are obvious, and have given rise to a number of workplace platitudes. "Keep your eye on the ball." "Shoot for the moon and you might just hit the stars." And the eponymous "Focus, focus, focus!" But all pithiness aside, there's something substantive here. When we know what we're aiming for, and we keep that goal continually in mind—using it not only to guide every step we take in completing a project, but to determine which projects we undertake to begin with—our chances of success improve exponentially.
3. Breathe Through the Hard Stuff
It sounds basic, but how often do we forget to breathe when we're exerting ourselves, either physically or mentally? In yoga, the term is pranayama, a compound Sanskrit word derived from prana, which means "life force or breath" and ayama, which means to "extend or draw out." And we're not just talking about ordinary breathing. We're talking ujjayi breathing, which sounds a little like Darth Vader trying to be subtle. You feel strange breathing so audibly the first few times you try it, but trust me—you get used to it. Before you know it, breathing becomes a regular cadence for your practice—one that provides a steady rhythm for your poses and, when strained, a warning that you've pushed your body too far.
What's the corollary for managing work? Well, breathing is a little like the daily best practices or work management "good housekeeping" that keep your projects on track, your teams informed, and your progress moving forward. It includes basics like unifying your tools, encouraging collaboration, reducing time-consuming (and soul-sucking) status meetings, and giving people a) visibility into what they need to do, and b) an understanding of what it means to the organization as a whole. In fact, work management done well looks a lot like breathing: steady, well paced, fluid, and capable of sustaining the life of the work.
4. Absorb What You Experience and Learn
Ahhh…Like any good yoga practice, we've saved the best for last. If you're a practitioner, you know what I'm referring to: shavasana. Whether you're looking for enlightenment at the end of a challenging practice—or simply a respite from exertion you didn't think you'd experience in such a non-cardio setting—shavasana is a welcome conclusion to your yoga session. It's simple, really. You lay on your back and chill while your body and mind absorb all the benefits of the practice. Is it sleep? No, though it may look like a group nap to the casual observer. But it's actually a deliberate part of the practice—one that makes you feel like you got a workout and a massage all in one tidy package.
According to Yoga Art and Science, "After the exertions of the practice, Shavasana allows the body a chance to regroup and reset itself. After a balanced practice, the entire body will have been stretched, contracted, twisted and inverted. These means that even the deepest muscles will have the opportunity to let go and shed their regular habits, if only for a few minutes."
The same principle holds true in the world of work. It's critical to let each project inform the next—to take the time to debrief, process, and learn from what you've just accomplished. This process goes by many names: retrospective, sunset review, and post-mortem among them. But it's all about letting the work you've just done settle in—evaluating it, celebrating it, learning from it, and letting it guide where you go next. However busy you may be, don't give in to the temptation to wrap up one project at 3:00 and kick off the next by 4:00. Taking a little time in between can make that grueling race to the finish line worth it.
In the end, yoga is all about pushing through, finding your edge, adapting in the moment, and taking pride in a simple task done with precision and intent. Foo foo? Perhaps. But there's a reason for the fact that yoga has gone from a fringe practice to a $27 billion industry in forty short years. Because there's something powerful in what it teaches us—not only about fitness and strength, but about living and being, in general. So whether you adopt the physical practice or not, there's a lot to gain by implementing yogic principles into the way you manage work. As yoga instructors often say when a class ends, "Take this feeling off the mat and into the world." Namaste.