No Mat Required: A Yogic Shift in the Office

Finding Alignment and Trust: Applying Asana Lessons to Workplace Communication - By Marisol Trowbridge

Reading time: 5 minutes

How lessons from my Asana practice helped me facilitate communication and trust between coworkers. 

A colleague sidled up to me in our bright corporate kitchen, glancing around before speaking, as if nervous. My shoulders tensed. “Our division president asked me to research how our competitors structure their teams,” she said, keeping her voice low. I blinked, surprised. She leaned in, whispering, “I heard you recently finished doing the exact same research.”

I nodded and my friend frowned. “I don’t know why she didn’t tell me. Can you send me what you have?”

Unease roiled in my stomach. Why hadn’t the president shared my work? When I presented findings to her and her VPs, I’d made a recommendation to improve our division’s structure. Everyone had been positive. It seemed bizarre she would ask my friend to redo the work. Was the president sidelining me? Had her VPs only been pretending to like my work? I started to overheat.

But as my thoughts swirled, my Yoga training kicked in. I started to breathe through my feelings, accepting my discomfort while letting go of the mental chatter. I went back to my desk to send files to my friend and examine why this situation bothered me.

Professional Growth through Yoga

When we apply the lessons of Yoga to leadership, we have the opportunity to make our workplaces a “laboratory of living, sensing, and connected beings,” says leadership development expert Susan S. Freeman, whose coaching practice brings Yogic philosophy to leaders.

Over the five years prior to that moment, I’d rapidly been promoted from consultant to manager at a boutique consulting firm, then to director of corporate strategy at a Fortune 500 company. My responsibilities had grown rapidly, along with my stress.

I started spending Saturday mornings journaling, followed by a Yoga class. My reflections helped me integrate my experiences and grow as a leader, while Yoga taught the value of dropping into my body to recenter.

My Asana practice had revealed how my body contains both moment-to-moment fear responses (which might trick me into thinking a particular pose is too hard), but also a deeper well of calm I can breathe into in order to keep going, even when I don’t think I can.

In Freeman’s book, The Inner Switch: 7 Principles to Transform Modern Leadership, she teaches us to apply this kind of yogic mind-body connection in order to lead more effectively. From any level or role we can influence people by managing our interior landscape, focusing on how we show up instead of how to change others. In a business environment in which only one in five of us feel seen, heard, and supported, these tools are priceless.

My Shift to Leading from Within

As I contemplated the possibility that the president of our division was going behind my back, I got quiet and turned inward.

Yes, I felt lied to, as if the leadership team hadn’t given me honest feedback. Yet I had no specific evidence. My fears were based on past experiences. There was no reason to apply that fear now. This idea opened up space to consider alternatives.

Freeman explains this shift: “When leaders make a habit of focusing inward on themselves and their internal state… they become more open and receptive. They leave the defended structure of their reactive ego mind… to disengage from fearful narratives derived from past experiences, as well as from their anxieties about the future.”

Later that day, as I practiced letting go— with moderate success— my friend asked if I could walk her through the materials I’d emailed.

“The team structure you recommended doesn’t have my job title in it,” she said. “Do you think the president didn’t want me to see your work because she doesn’t want me to realize my job might get cut?” My heart went out to her.

As I felt her fear, which was far stronger than mine, I made the final shift beyond myself and my ego mind. I saw that by sharing my materials with her, without addressing the president’s actions directly, I had contributed to a communication breakdown that in turn led my friend to feel isolated and afraid.

“Why don’t we go talk to the president?” I suggested.

Breathing Through Discomfort to Find Alignment

My nerves jangled as we walked to the president’s desk. Yet as Freeman explains, Vedic philosophy states that, “to lead effectively, we must remove our own darkness… so that we can help others step into the light." I had to breathe through what I’d thought were my limits.

When the president saw us, she gave a rueful smile, as if she knew why we were there. I explained we’d talked, adding that we had questions.

“Was I not supposed to know about her recommendations?” My friend’s words tumbled out, her hands twisting.

The president paused, glancing between us. Finally, she spoke.

“Your team works differently from the rest of our division,” she said to my friend. “I want you to design a structure that works for your team. Now that you’ve seen the existing research, take anything that fits, but don’t feel you have to use recommendations that are meant for rest of the organization.”

“My job title isn’t in there.” My friend’s voice was still tight.

“Don’t worry,” the president said. “Many job titles will change. Your own team design will determine whether or not yours does too.”

My friend’s face cleared, and a weight lifted off my chest. Our leader sat back, her lips pursed. “I should have connected you two up front. I’m sorry if I created confusion.”

Leading Like a Yogi

Releasing reactivity and dropping into a mindful posture created the emotional space to see where alignment was necessary. Breathing through my discomfort helped me take the steps to create clarity and connection in this tricky situation. In the process of becoming aware, dropping in, and holding space for honest communication, I’d found a way to remove my own fears and allow two others to shift as well.

Marisol Trowbridge

Marisol is a strategist and speaker on a mission to humanize work, and creator of The Messy Human, a newsletter.