This post is part of a series on Cultivating Leadership Presence through Mindfulness. The series will culminate in a four-day mindful leadership retreat in New York in October 2013. For more information, visit http://www.mindfulleadership.com/.
I was reaching for the phone to return a professional call when I stopped and noticed what was happening in my body. My hand was shaky, my breath was rapid and shallow and my shoulders were higher than usual by a good inch. I knew that if I tried to speak, I would sound breathy and high-pitched, completely exposed as anxious, which was surely not how I wanted to present myself. I was a bit mystified. Why was my body reacting in fear when I knew, quite rationally, that there was nothing to fear? Were my physiological responses to be ignored, controlled or examined?
I have been practicing yoga for over 40 years and teaching for 18, and I have come to have great respect for the wisdom of my body. I know that sometimes my mind can get caught up in the idea of what is happening rather than the reality, but my body does not lie. So, for me, my body's responses are worthy of my attention. As I reached for the phone, my body was revealing an aspect of me to myself. It was providing me with important information that was not available to my conscious thinking mode. To be effective in the phone call, in business, and in all of life, it serves me well to have a working relationship with not the idea of myself, but the actual process of myself in that moment, i.e., an awareness of what is really going on, right now, physically, cognitively and emotionally. Obviously, some part of me was afraid when I was reaching for the phone. Examining the fear response that my body was offering and dealing with that response, even though I was busy, was a worthwhile investment of my time.
An important intention in the practice of yoga is the exploration of conditioned responses. Just as meditation reveals the contents of the mind, yoga postures reveal the patterns of the body. On the mat, we see the way we hold ourselves. We see, for example, how we collapse our chests, overarch our backs, jut our chins forward, tilt our pelvises and roll to the insides of our feet. It is only when something is made known to us that we can consciously relate to it. In the moment that we notice our misalignments, we can correct them.
So, how does this relate to your life? Every thought that moves through your mind creates a cascade of physiological responses in your body. The animal aspect of ourselves is continuously operating to maintain homeostasis, to process incoming data and above all else, to survive. Unless we consciously examine ourselves, many of our reactions will be based on conditioned responses that are the product of survival instincts or past experience. We may think that we are acting based on present data when, in fact, our survival mechanisms are creating internal reactions based on unexamined previous experiences. This not only impacts our behavior, but what others observe in us.
This is why it is so important to 1.) have an ongoing relationship with your body and 2.) check in periodically with your body. In any given moment, it is helpful to ask yourself, "What is happening now?" Information about breath, tension and physical reactions is invaluable. It reflects you to yourself so that you can notice, examine and choose how to deal with what is revealed. This literally makes your body your business, not just for reasons of health, but because your body impacts every decision you make, every action you take and what others see in you.
When you notice that you are not breathing fully, you can choose to breathe fully. When you notice your shoulders are tense, you can release your shoulders. When you notice your stomach is tight or your jaw is locked, you can choose to relax. But, perhaps, more importantly, you will learn something about your inner life. And to be effective in the world, both personally and professionally, we are wise to know what is going on around us and within us. How we react in any given moment contributes greatly to the outcome of our behavior. If we don't see ourselves fully and others do, at the very least, communication is impaired. Imagine this common but less than ideal scenario. Someone is looking at your red face, flaring nostrils and clenched fists, literally witnessing your anger, while you maintain that you are not upset.
Your body is precious, always with you and the vehicle for manifesting your mind. Whether you practice yoga or not, you are always holding postures. Imagine a snapshot of yourself when you are reprimanding someone, denying someone something, asking for something or appreciating someone. Visualize your body's pattern of holding. Enlightenment is the product of bringing to light any awareness that was previously in darkness. Close your eyes and explore the sensations of your body. What is vibrating with life? What is tight and defended? What is flowing with pleasure?
Befriend your body and it can be a great ally, aligned with your intentions. Deny your body and it can be a formidable opponent, at odds with your intentions.
So, to lead effectively and successfully, it is wise to make your body your business.