3 Steps to a Yoga-infused Innovation Practice
Courtney Lawrence is insight manager, Whitespace, at lululemon athletica.
At the intersection of two of my greatest passions lies a rich territory for learning. Being both a yoga teacher and an anthropologist in an innovation strategy and experience design firm, I’ve realized how significantly the two disciplines complement one another. What I continue to learn on the yoga mat has amazing value in the boardroom or project space, which is interesting given that a tradition that is thousands of years old can contribute so deeply to the growth of business processes and practices today.
The following is a reflection on three key qualities that I’ve cultivated in yoga, and which have supported me in working more effectively in my insight and innovation projects. Practicing these skills will almost certainly inspire a more centered and productive orientation to any creative or innovative business.
1/ TOLERATING DISCOMFORT + Finding your edge
In yin yoga, a practice that focuses on targeting the deep tissues of the body by maintain poses for 5-10 minutes each, yogis look for the space where we feel on the edge of discomfort. This is the sweet spot where you immediately feel intense physical stretch but not stress. The goal at the edge is not to push the body beyond its limits into pain, but to encourage it to go into unknown and slightly uncomfortable territory.
Once there, the intention is to sink into that discomfort and become present to the sensations. Over time, the discomfort can also seep into the mind and emotions. Often I find students getting irritated, agitated and angry about being stuck in one place for a long period of time. The urge to fidget, zone out, or pull out of the pose can be very strong.
This is a perfect analogy for how we react in moments of discomfort in business. How many times do we find ourselves in meetings, brainstorming sessions, or interactions with colleagues where we feel stretched or uncomfortable? Perhaps you and someone else are not meeting eye to eye or perhaps your ideas are going nowhere and you’re on a deadline. And do you react by giving up, or spacing out, or pulling back? Conversely, do you recklessly push yourself so hard, beyond your limits to make sure things get resolved, possibly to the detriment of the original goal or to your work relationship?
The key that I’ve learned from my yoga practice is not to react immediately, fight or resist being in an uncomfortable situation but instead to sit with it and be present to everything that is going on. In business a context, by learning to tolerate discomfort by being more aware of my reactionary tendencies, I can more thoughtfully navigate the obstacles and eventually reach more satisfying outcomes.
2/ NON JUDGEMENT + Getting rid of the “shoulds”
Anyone who has practiced yoga has almost inevitably faced a moment in their practice where they feel disappointed by what their body is or is not able to do– for example, not being able to lunge as far as wanted, falling out of a balancing pose, or not being able to touch their toes. Self-judgment and making comparisons are not unnatural in yoga and are in fact opportunities to practice compassion and non-judgment.
In moments where I have experienced my own judgment, for example in thinking “I’m not as flexible as the person on the mat next door”, I have been encouraged by my teachers to think of my body as my best friend. In dialogue with my body, I encourage it to try its best but not reprimand it for not living up to certain standards and expectations. In those moments I’m learning to replace critical thought patterns with ones of acceptance and acknowledgment that “this is where I am at today”. Non-judgment and being open to where you are at is at the core of any practice, and this takes practice.
In business, judgment and self-criticism are major roadblocks to creativity and innovation. Beating oneself up for not achieving or performing as well as desired or judging co-workers’ ideas can be a barrier to progress and lead to disappointment and stagnancy. Judgment does not generate energy. It has the opposite effect of potentially shutting someone down and discouraging future risk taking. I know that when I am critical of my own work it decreases confidence and doesn’t allow me to see the many talents and gifts that I bring to any project. Compassion and non-judgment, in yourself and others, allow for greater ideas to blossom and generates stronger and more cohesive teams.
3/ CURIOSITY + Being your own detective
I always teach my students that yoga is as much about learning various asanas, or physical postures, as it is about exploring the multi-faceted nature of the self. It’s an opportunity to become your own detective. As a teacher, I facilitate in my students’ an investigation of their unique body and it’s needs, day by day. I do not teach a dogmatic approach that demands each person do each pose in the exact same way. If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it.
More importantly, yoga is about creating connection with your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual body in that moment. To do that, one has to ask questions and be mindful about what they are experiencing each time. Assuming your body is in the same state it was last time you practiced sets you up for disappointment.
By approaching the mat in a state of wonder, I ask questions like, “How am I feeling today?” “What’s happening in my leg or arm that’s different from last time?” “How might I alter this pose to get a better stretch?” “In what ways could I change my breathing to enhance how I feel?” The best moments of discovery and development of connection with my body happen in this place of exploration. By not taking for granted that I know where I’m at or by not approaching my practice on autopilot, I gain a much richer and more insightful experience.
Similarly, the number of times I come to a business meeting or ideation session where individuals in the room don’t seem to approach a problem or situation with curiosity and instead go about the process automatically based on how they have done things in the past is astounding.
Approaching problems with curiosity leads to unexpected and exciting opportunities for fresh insights, positive disruption and new direction. Questioning basic assumptions is a must in order to make headway in innovation. It is about approaching a situation or problem as you would approach a yoga session with your body. It’s invaluable to step back, pause and ask, “How could we do this differently today?” “Where is this current assertion stemming from and in what other ways could we look at this problem?” “Where might we look to for unexpected inspiration?” Curiosity is as much an art as a muscle that needs to be practiced in order to gain deeper, richer insights to drive a business forward.
*Courtney Lawrence Courtney Lawrence is insight manager, Whitespace, at lululemon athletica.
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