NBA Coach Phil Jackson

NBA Coach Phil Jackson

"When a player surrenders his self-interest for the greater good, his fullest gifts as an athlete are manifested."
~ Phil Jackson, Sacred Hoops


Employees and managers alike long to learn the magic of working better as a team. In this simple quote — from a coach who has achieved 13 National Basketball Association championships (two as a player) — the “magic” is revealed. It’s neither trick nor spell that creates the magic.  It is a kind of alchemy.

“Basketball is a sport that involves the subtle interweaving of players at full speed to the point where they are thinking and moving as one.”

Think of a time when you were part of a group working on a project or toward a goal where people felt completely connected. Recall an experience where everyone on your team knew deep in their bones that individual contributions were coalescing to create a greater good.

What was going on for you? What conditions existed? How did you feel about yourself, your partners, and the work?  

“The fact is, selflessness is the soul of teamwork.”

Jackson coaching philosophy has helped build phenomenal basketball teams. He blends the principles of Zen Buddhism and teachings from the Lakota Sioux. Like those wisdom traditions, yoga also has much to say about deepening individuals’ connections to themselves, improving relationships with others, and achieving results through superior teamwork. “Magic” happens when people are intentional about why they are working together and are willing to surrender ego to something larger than self. They are willing to give an effort all they have, and then surrender their attachment to the outcome as they stay fully present in the moment.  In yoga, such surrender is called ishvara-pranidhana, and translates as “offering the fruits of one’s efforts to the divine” (i.e. the greater good).

“If the 9, 10, 11, 12 players are unhappy . . . their negativity is going to undermine everything."

Surrendering personal wants at work is an experience anyone can create. You can choose to let go of your need to be right, your desire to win, your insistence on having  your way, your egotistical impulse to look good at the expense of others. All of these things distract from connecting with your best self and with others. Clinging to "me" in the face of "we" is a disservice to the magical experience that can emerge when you surrender to something greater than yourself.  


Yoga was among many unexpected gifts I got from my journalism career thanks to a yoga class sponsored by the Sun-Sentinel, a Florida newspaper where I worked for several years. On Tuesday nights, several coworkers and I would gather in an empty conference room and practice with a teacher who was paid by the paper. The class was simultaneously relaxing and energizing, and I’m convinced those classes helped me work better.

Employees at General Mills do yoga.

Employees at General Mills do yoga.

It’s heartening to hear about other companies that have discovered yoga’s workplace benefits. Free yoga and meditation classes are one of the perks Google offers to its employees, for example. Other large companies such as General Mills, Apple, Forbes, GE and Microsoft also have found ways to integrate yoga and meditation into the workplace.

Wish you had yoga at your workplace? Make a business case for it! Here are just a few selling points you could use to persuade your employer that it is a good investment to provide or subsidize yoga classes:

Yoga practices such as meditation enhance emotional intelligence. Chade Meng Tan, who developed a mindfulness meditation course at Google, says it has increased emotional intelligence in employees that practice. That helps people be more effective at work. After doing a story on meditation, Oprah Winfrey began practicing twice daily with a handful of colleagues, and soon everyone wanted in the action. In an interview with Dr. Mehmet Oz, she said the office benefited from improved relationships and more meaningful interactions.

Oprah Winfrey meditates at work

Oprah Winfrey meditates at work

The health benefits of yoga could lead to higher productivity and less absenteeism. Oprah also told Oz that after meditation, employees reported getting better sleep, making for more refreshed, alert employees. Some even said they stopped getting migraines. A study published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that after taking up yoga, military veterans with chronic low back pain reported a significant reduction in pain, along with improvements in mood, energy, and quality of life. And the Mayo Clinic website recommends yoga as a method of stress release, physical fitness, weight management, and managing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cancer, depression, and insomnia.

Employees improve their ability to handle stress. In an interview we did for Yoga Wisdom at Work, the Human Resources director at an internationally known U.S. health resort said that a meditation practice become the deciding factor for hiring a Technology Director. Although three finalists for the job were equally qualified, decision makers believed that meditation practice would help him better handle the demanding, high-stress job. He proved them right. “He is always smiling and serene, and made a big impact in a short time,” the HR director told us.

Developing the ability to “be present” leads to better focus and happiness: One of the precepts of yoga is dharana, or focus, a practice of training the mind to stay full present. Instead of encouraging multi-tasking — which scientific research has shown to be impossible and counterproductive  — yoga practice can help people learn to focus and stay on task. Research highlighted in a Tedx talk by Matthew Killingsworth shows that learning to control mind wandering is a key factor in reported happiness.

Happy, healthy, focused employees will affect profitability: Numerous research studies have linked health and happiness in employees to improved customer service, greater productivity and loyalty to the enterprise, lower healthcare costs and lower staff turnover — all of which improve the bottom line.



Yvon Chouinard, founder and former CEO of Patagonia. (Brandon Aroyan.)

Yvon Chouinard, founder and former CEO of Patagonia. (Brandon Aroyan.)

Patagonia founder and former CEO Yvon Chouinard, who describes himself as “kind of a Zen Buddhist,” is an accidental and reluctant businessman.

Chouinard bought a coal-fired forage from a junkyard in 1957, along with some blacksmithing tools. As an avid mountain climber, he was unhappy with the European-made pitons (spikes used to secure climbing rope) that were manufactured from soft iron. He wanted durable pitons he could use again and again. He made his own, shared with a few friends, and soon friends of friends were clamoring for the new pitons. He started selling them for $1.50 each.

From that humble beginning, Patagonia has become a company that generates nearly $500 million in sales and has expanded to include gear for many of Chouinard's other passions — fly-fishing, kayaking, skiing, and surfing.

After viewing a 2007 interview with Tom Brokaw, I bought and read his book Let My People Go Surfing, where I discovered the company truly is cut from a different corporate cloth. His organizing principles don't come from a by-the-book MBA. It struck me that they could have been taking from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

In the foreword to Yoga Wisdom at Work, lululemon athletica CEO Christine Day makes the point that "yoga is more a philosophy... than just another type of exercise. You do not have to be on a yoga mat to practice yoga." In fact, taking yoga off the mat and into the world offers far more opportunities to practice — something Chouinard does whether he is aware or not.

Chouinard's business philosophies contain many of the yogic precepts we write about in our book. For example:

Lead an examined life — educate yourself first, then act

  • This level of examination can be a "pain in the ass," says Chouinard, because you can never rest. In yoga, the practice of self-study (svadhyaya) is about consciously cultivating self-awareness. The practice asks for a continuous assessment of your beliefs, assumptions, habits and ways of engaging others.
  • Such assessment is aided by the practice of non-lying (satya), which calls for painstaking honesty with yourself and others.
  • Acting on this newly created self awareness requires discipline (tapas) to hang with the discomfort that accompanies growth and change.

Make a great product and do no harm

  • Ahimsa is the yogic practice of non-violence. One of the ways Patagonia tries to honor this precept is to ensure their products are not harming the environment. For example, the company invested four years to find a replacement for petroleum-based neoprene wetsuits, In 2012, Patagonia announced a partnership with Yulex to make wetsuits from a plant found in Arizona, which will smell better, keep the body warmer and dry faster without using petroleum. "Patagonia doesn't plan on making money on this initially, says Patagonia Surf Director Jason McCaffrey. But the company is committed to making business changes to "inspire change to the environmental crisis."
  • McCaffrey's statement illustrates the yogic precept of aparigraha, or non-greed. The company's values statement, authored by Chouinard, includes a statement that states the intention to make a profit — but that is not Patagonia's primary mission. "Growth and expansion are not values basic to this corporation."

Let go of attachment

  • Ishvara-pranidhana is a practice of surrendering yourself to a greater good. It also asks that you give you best efforts toward a goal without being attached to the outcome. In his book, Chouinard uses the Zen archer's lesson to illustrate surrender. The archer does not focus on the target, but instead stays present to the process of shooting the arrow — stance, placement of the arrow on the bow, breathing, etc.
  • Fostering contentment, no matter what the outcomes are, is a practice of santosha. Choice is a powerful component of contentment. No matter how disappointing or frustrating circumstances can be, people have a choice about whether to let those circumstances derail equanimity or to practice santosha and choose for contentment.

"How you climb the mountain is more important than reaching the top," Chouinard says. In my estimation, his philosophies make this accidental businessman and accidental yogi as well.