How many deep and conscious belly breaths do you take every day?
My bet is you take very few, if any. You are not alone. By failing to pause and take a deep breath, you are doing your body, mind and spirit a disservice and may even be contributing to poor health.
In the Western world, we live a mostly sedentary, plugged-in life punctuated by an incessant stream of stimuli demanding our attention at every turn – social media, email, text messages, television, traffic and hyper-competitiveness at work, to name a few. As a result, our mind and body are constantly and unconsciously pushed into “fight or flight” mode, an automatic body response regulated by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that is associated with a shallow, chest-level, high-frequency breathing pattern.
While our “fight or flight” response is a great latent gift we possess, problems arise when we spend most of our waking (and sometimes even sleeping) time in this mode.
By consistently staying in a heightened state of “fight or flight,” we create a biological imbalance and literally burnout our life force, or Prana, as we say in yoga. Have you ever felt so stressed, anxious and tired that you felt paralyzed? That’s your body response to a continuous injection of stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream at a great expense to our health, resulting in stress, anxiety and illnesses.
Neuroscience research over the last 10 years has brought to light the positive and lasting effects of mindfulness on mind, body and emotional response.
“A few hours of meditation can change the epigenetics of our brain,” says cognition scientist Richard Davidson.
Brain’s ability to rewire itself in relation to changes in behavior, environment and thinking patterns—or brain plasticity—is heavily impacted by mindfulness practices. Simultaneously, the discovery of the enteric nervous system (or the brain in the gut) has given an entirely new meaning to the mind/body relationship, shedding light on the mechanism by which mind wellbeing positively impacts the body and vice versa.
Business leaders seem to be catching on.
CEOs Mark Bertolini of Aetna and Jeff Weiner of Linkedin swear by the positive impact of yoga and mindfulness on themselves and their organizations. Programs like Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” are sprouting in and out of Silicon Valley. Global gatherings like Wisdom 2.0 are bringing senior executives from the high tech world together with wisdom teachers. Mindfulness is trending up in the Swiss Alps of Davos at the World Economic Forum. Harvard Business Review backs the hype with hard science in the recently published article, “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain.”
Yet, despite all of the above, the mainstream business culture still lingers in a feeling of unease about yoga and mindfulness.
Based on my own leadership experience, I suspect this feeling has roots in a common bias that paints wisdom practices for the meek. I still remember the quizzical stares I was getting from my team when I openly started practicing yoga and meditation on business trips and at corporate events. Eventually that initial reaction melted away when the realization dawned on everyone that the odd stuff I was doing wasn’t making me a weaker leader—actually, quite the opposite. The excellent top and bottom line numbers generated over a streak of four years were only matched by the increase in passion, engagement and accountability from the team.
I will start with a couple of necessary disclaimers: I am no football expert and do not intend to put anyone on a pedestal.
So, when I look at the Seahawks returning to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year by pulling off a stunning win against the Packers, I do it through the lens of karma yoga, the yoga of doing from a place of being.
Russell Wilson and Jermaine Kearse, who followed through a game-long awful performance by making key plays in clutch time, when all seemed lost, are highly paid professionals and humans beings like you and I, with their own shortcomings. So there’s no need to elevate them to semi-god status.
We can learn a lot from the behavior they both exhibited on the field under immense pressure.
Russell Wilson was a great example of staying with what is, including playing very poorly for almost the entire regular time. He kept showing up fully to the present moment with trust, discipline and commitment. Every professional athlete, not to mention an elite quarterback like Russell, is a competitor and trained “not to give up.” That is expected, it is a given at this level. The third chakra of these athletes is fully formed and fortified, sometimes even too much.