Applying the benefits of Yoga to product development and vice versa
The physiological benefits of exercise are well known, and regular exercise can also bring benefit to your work. Any exercise will do of course, starting with just walking as often as possible. The summer brings with it opportunities for broad ranges of outdoor activities. Almost all health studies point to the need for rigorous exercise to be a regular part of your routine in order to achieve the maximum benefit for health and work productivity.
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Yoga is an especially good exercise for those that value a routine (or require a routine to better stick to a program). Rain or shine, hot or cold, day or night, yoga is always there. Centuries old, the health benefits of yoga are highly regarded by practitioners around the world and many religions, psychologists and biologists agree that taking time to rest, focus and center is an important part of human productivity. In the US, a variety of styles of yoga performed in room heated anywhere from 90 to 105+ degrees F has become increasingly popular. The heat provides additional benefits and an extra level of challenge as well. If you value routine, Bikram yoga is especially good since it is precisely the same every class.
Yoga’s history is rooted in meditation and ritual and for many today the spiritual aspect is the high order bit. For others, the spiritual side of yoga is appreciated in the context of other beliefs or just your daily personal life. Even the aum (om) sign or chant carries with it a deep ritual meaning for some as well as a more personally defined spiritual meaning for others.
I was asked about practicing yoga at the All Things D conference by Katie Boehret and she captured a few seconds on the KatieCam. I wanted to elaborate on the benefits by using 5 sayings/expressions that I’ve learned from many of the wonderful yoga instructors I’ve had over the years.
- Be present. At the start of most yoga classes, instructors will remind everyone to “be present”. That means to set aside all that is going on outside the class and to spend the next 90 minutes present in the room, on your mat, and in the practice–no electronics or distractions. How often at work do things outside the context of what you’re working on interfere with the work—did you bring the challenges from the previous meeting into the next meeting or is something going on outside work showing through how you are at work? Take the time at the start of a day, as a meeting starts, or while coding to be present in what you’re doing.
- All that matters is on your mat. Yoga is not a competitive sport.* Yoga is not a race—you can’t finish first, you can’t be faster or lift more. Yoga is about making sure you are focused on what you can do best and that you are doing your best at that. So when practicing, making sure you’re focused on what you are supposed to be focused on is a path to success. The workplace isn’t a competitive sport either. In the workplace, this can mean doing the work you’re supposed to be doing and assuming those around you are doing the same.
- Drishti. Focus is a big part of Yoga. If you lose focus during some balancing pose you probably just fall over. Or if you lose focus on your breathing you very quickly hyperventilate and get exhausted or just turn blue! Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means focus, but a distinct form of focus. You focus but not so intensely that you lose sight of all around you. Rather it is the opposite, where you focus but with a full awareness of the rest of your mat and body. So rather than staring at a dot on the wall in front of you, you gaze at the dot but focus on breathing, your balance, and more. In software projects it is important to be focused—but if you’re too head’s down you miss important connections to what is going on around you or around the code. The full definition of drishti means vision, point of view, or even intelligence and wisdom. It also means being equal in all directions you look and maintaining self-control. A lot of collaboration in product development can be summed up in drishti.
- Yoga practice is not yoga perfect. Many “Type A” personalities find a way to compete in exercise—running times, weight lifted, miles biked and so on. Yoga is designed for life long exercise. There’s always more to do or a way to connect one pose to another you never thought of. Any yogi who has browsed the advanced videos online is quickly humbled by what they cannot do. During those difficult postures, yoga instructors always remind the class that yoga is a practice and it is not called yoga perfect. You do the best you can with the body you have that day, and you commit to practicing the next day. Product development is like this as well—we often say the enemy of the good is the perfect. No product is perfect, but the least perfect product is one that doesn’t ship. Shipping gives you the right to come back the time with improvements and a better product based on what you learned as a team.
- How you do anything is how you do everything. In class, especially when it is hot, you can easily find a way to slack off or find a way to do a pose that might look like you’re posing but in reality you are missing the benefits. Of course you’re just cheating yourself. When an instructor sees this you might hear the most gentle of reminders, “how you do anything is how you do everything”. Put simply this just means that if you are willing to take a shortcut on one pose then where else in life (or in your product) are you willing to take a shortcut. If you’re willing to cheat yourself out of your best efforts, then won’t you cheat others? Always put forth your best efforts, even when you’re pushed to the point of thinking you can’t possibly continue.
That’s a yoga perspective on exercise and well-being that are critical parts of contributing to your work, your project, and your team. While yoga has been my personal approach, what is really important is that you find your approach to physical and mental well-being. Whatever that might be is sure to be a critical tool in your own success.
What do you do to maintain your physical as well as spiritual health in the workplace? What lessons do you bring back to the workplace from your avocation?
*While controversial there do exist yoga competitions — check this out.