PITCHING PRANAYAMA IN THE MAJORS

On the pitcher’s mound, you prepare to hurl a fastball that could change the trajectory of the baseball game. Thousands of fans look on, hoping for a strikeout (or a home run). Millions more are watching on TV. How do you focus in the face of such pressure?

Matt Harvey takes a mindful breath before throwing the ball. 

Matt Harvey takes a mindful breath before throwing the ball. 

Matt Harvey, a rookie pitcher with the NY Mets, takes a mindful breath.  

Harvey is starting for the National League in the July 16 All-Star Game at Citi Field, the Mets home stadium. During every game, before every pitch, he practices pranayama. He describes it to  Kevin Kernan in this New York Post story:

The last thing you want to do is get the ball back and not think about what you are doing and just go. Then you find yourself rushing, you don’t take enough time, your muscles are tense. You breathe, visualize the pitch, then you can let go and execute to the best of your ability….I get the sign and take my breath. When you have that breath you have that time to say, ‘OK, fastball away.’

Such breathing techniques are called pranayama, which is the fourth of eight limbs of yoga. Prana means energy or life force, and ayama means control. Learning to harness your breath mindfully can create focus, calm, and sanity — no matter what your work is.

We will add Matt Harvey to our collection of stories about the power of mindful breathing. In Yoga Wisdom at Work we wrote about Steve, development officer at a major medical university, who uses pranayama to establish deep connections and understanding in his conversations. Steve inhales and exhales deeply before he speaks to anyone and says doing this is “positively disarming.”

A police officer —who also teaches yoga — told us pranayama is a life-saving practice. She means it literally. In one case, her gun jammed during a shoot-out. Panic set in as she watched “my mind running away from me.” She ducked behind a wall for a few seconds of mindful breathing, which gave her time to take control of her mind, fix her weapon and continue the chase.

Developing a pranayama practice is as simple as one, two, three:

  1. Recognize that breathing has four parts: Inhale. The space before exhale. Exhale. The space before inhale.
  2. Attend to all four parts. Inhale for three counts, pause for three counts, exhale for three counts, pause for three counts. (Any count that feels natural to you works. The point is to develop a cadence that can be repeated without interruption.)
  3. Doing this for even a minute or two helps snaps your mind to attention. When your mind wanders, come back to the breathing technique.

By identifying aspects of your work life that are stressful, make you anxious, or take a toll on your sanity, they can become prompts for practicing pranayama. Smiling while silently sayingwords such as “calm” or “peace” or “contentment” is even more powerful — it trains your brain to view the situation differently.

If you try this at work, we’d love to hear what changes for you. If you have a story about breathing at work, please share.

 

3 YOGA TIPS FOR GOOD, CLEAN LIVING

Mahatma Gandhi said that purity is “an inherent attribute of the soul.” On the yoga mat, the postures and breathing are said to purify the body.

Purity (saucha) is the first practice called out in yoga’s Second Limb, which provides a guide to personal conduct. But this precept goes beyond hygiene — developing habits around purity can contribute to better health, a calm mind, and an aesthetically pleasing environment.

Here are three “purifying” practices that you could do at work:

Just for today, avoid the donut.  

Just for today, avoid the donut. 

For your body: We only get one body in this life — being mindful about what goes into it only makes sense. No doubt it can be difficult to choose fresh, nutrient-rich foods in the face of demanding work schedules and working lunches of cheap, convenient fast-food. (Not to mention those donuts in the break room!) But science is now revealing the true cost of a steady diet of processed, engineered, and sugary foods. It isn’t pretty.

How to create a “cleaner” food habit? Consider keeping a food journal for a few days. In addition to notes about what you eat, describe how it makes you feel. How do foods affect your energy levels, the clarity of your thinking, and your moods? If you get motivated to change, start small. If your body is your temple, begin purifying one day a week by eating only fresh, healthy foods. Or vow to forgo one unhealthy habit completely — say no to that soda, or fried foods or, yes, that last donut in the break room. Expand your practice from there.

Clean the cluttered mind.  

Clean the cluttered mind. 

For your mind: Is your mind polluted with unchecked mental chatter? How often do you simmer in the sewer of your thoughts, stewing about what is wrong rather than what’s working well? Getting rid of the clutter in your mind enhances your ability to process information, focus intently, and think creatively. One friend of ours told us about her morning ritual of "emptying the garbage in her mind" with a short meditation. If lists work for you, consider keeping them short and realistic. Setting a timer also can help create short bursts of “pure focus.”

For your environment: I have had coworkers whose system of towering stacks of scattered folders worked for them. But clutter and disorganization is usually distracting and inefficient. How much time gets lost when you can’t find what you need in the mess?

One pile at a time.

One pile at a time.

Purifying your space doesn't have to be an all-day project. Consider starting with one shelf, one drawer, or one file cabinet. As you go through the papers and desk detritus, ask yourself "When is the last time I used this? Do I have a plan for it? Might someone else have a use for it? Is this something I really need, or something I am attached to for other reasons?" Soon you’ll have a clean, organized workspace.

 

CEoga PHIL JACKSON'S MAGIC: SURRENDER

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.  



WHY BEING PRESENT WORKS BETTER

We’ve been working with a client for several weeks now, using an appreciative inquiry, strengths-based approach to organizational change. As we were going over a feedback report with a group of managers recently, I asked them if it reflected the organization. At first, silence. Then some quiet buzzing among the group.

meetings_clipart_450.jpg

Finally someone spoke up: “This report reflects the questions you asked during our last meetings. You asked for stories about when things were going well and people felt connected to their work. This report captures that, but it doesn’t accurately reflect the organization. We don’t always have a “we’re-in-this-together” feeling, especially across the organization as a whole.”

Without hesitating, I asked them to break up into small groups and talk about what was missing from the report — what needed to be added to create a more accurate picture?  As they began conversing, Maren pulled me aside and asked, “Where are we going with this? I thought we were doing appreciative inquiry, and you are asking them to identify problems.” My answer of "I don't know" didn’t satisfy her. Panic began to set in. Why had I asked them to do that? Had I derailed things? And how would we get back on track? Maren pressed the issue, saying, “I don’t know how to participate if I don’t know what the plan is.” I got edgy in my responses, and she felt attacked.

The incident was a good reminder of the benefits of staying present, and how "off-the-mat" yoga practices can help. Often I feel trapped by what has already happened (the past) and what might happen (the future). If I had managed to stay fully present, I would have been open to Maren's questions instead of becoming defensive and edgy.

For example, a few slow, conscious breaths (pranayama) creates space to slow down the runaway voices in my head. Breathing helps me get in touch with my source and ask the most important question: "Who do I want to be in this moment? And what actions can I take to help me be that person?"

Another useful practice is surrender (ishvara-pranidhana). The panic I felt in the face of Maren's questions was related to vulnerability — I wanted to be right, and I did not want to look stupid.  Surrendering my ego makes it easier to engage in curiousity, humility, humor, and creativity, which would have been far more useful in that moment. Surrendering also means letting go of my emotional attachment to the outcome, which is acknowledging what is true — I am not in charge of how things turn out. Doing my best to serve clients is always my intention. Even so, I recognized that how things unfold is out of my control.

Finally, I could have been kinder in my response to Maren, employing the practice of ahimsa (do no harm) so that she did not feel attacked.

In the end, the questions I asked the client group to talk about sparked a rich, useful discussion that did not derail the meeting at all. Everything turned out the way it was supposed to — it was fine. And the reflections prompted by the incident with Maren reminds us both that yoga is a practice. As our work together continues, we will have many more opportunities for that.