Yogis must be morning people, or maybe they just have a lot of energy at all hours of the day. It was at least with some hesitation that I agreed to meet up with yoga teacher Michael Fong at 7:30 in the morning to have an hour of conversation about creativity and wellbeing before 75 minutes of Vinyasa Yoga at Yoga Shala in Sacramento. Despite two months of experience as a yoga practitioner I am still not very skilled at sitting without moving. As we were talking on the yoga mat I was impressed with Michael’s ability to sit calmly, while I kept trying to negotiate a good position for my sore thighs and inflexible hamstrings.
Working in three yoga centers in Sacramento and teaching at international yoga retreats, Michael is one of the few yoga teachers able to support himself through yoga. In addition to teaching he also consults to businesses about increasing their wellbeing through the practice of mindfulness. I was curious to hear Michael’s perspective on how he creates wellbeing for himself and how he helps others do the same.
Mindful Being in Business
Even though the business world is abuzz with mindfulness it is still worth asking whether this Buddhist discipline and its ethical philosophy can coexist with corporate culture? My main questions for Michael were how he manages to navigate within these opposing traditions and what results he has observed in his work.
Michael teaches yoga in the yoga studio and consults business clients about mindfulness. It seems to me that these presumably similar practices provide the same results, yet they have slightly different narratives. The business world is just more open towards embracing a relatively new term like mindfulness than yoga, which some associate with hippies sitting in a circle. Mindfulness is easier to associate with hard values - I imagine CEO’s saying that mindfulness can make their employees’ minds more full and can increase employee productivity.
Mindfulness and yoga are practices that make use of physical and mental exercises in order to connect with a higher purpose and expand consciousness to achieve a sense of wellbeing. When I ask Michael about mindfulness he tells me, it is about fostering concentration to find a focus, balancing your emotions, and integrating our daily actions and who we are. He describes mindfulness as an umbrella term for concentration, balance, and integration, each of which I will describe below.
Concentration is the process of maintaining a focus in order to move from possibility to achievement. In these ever-connected, digital times, we are constantly bombarded with new information, when social media compete with traditional media for our attention. We are constantly offered everything from spotless skin to business partnerships, and these opportunities are presented to us in ways that are designed to catch our attention. Concentration is a highly needed process to exclude irrelevant and distracting information and to identify the information needed to achieve our goal. Recently I was presented with a model of achievement that stated that the basis of achievement is a relationship or relatedness to people and issues. Out of relatedness arises new possibilities and we can grab opportunities to take action. Actions create results and with the right skills we might achieve our goals. This path from relatedness to achievement can easily be derailed if one does not maintain proper concentration and focus.
Balance is the process of creating calmness and equalising different aspects of our lives. Whether we differentiate between work and free time or working for others and working for ourselves, in either case the goal is to attend to the present while also learning what we need for the future. This balance reminds me of what bestselling author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey calls the Production/Production Capacity or simply P/PC balance. To explain this concept Covey refers to the fable of the goose with the golden eggs.
One day a man gets very excited to find an egg made of pure gold below his goose. The next day the same thing happens and he know he is going to be rich. After many days of getting an egg a day he decides to cut up the goose and get all the eggs, only to find that no eggs are inside the goose.
This is an example of concentrating too much on getting results rather than on the ability to produce these results. In the same way we sometimes work and work for weeks without taking time to relax, eat healthy food, exercise or hang out with friends. Then when we have finally passed the deadline we discover we have alienated our partner, have lowered our energy from eating fast food and are in danger of getting fired because we are ineffective in our job.
Integration is about aligning our sense of identity with what we do on a daily basis. It is about intentionally seeing the connection between our daily actions and what we aspire to be and holding ourselves accountable to try to live up to this. Integrity obviously has the same root of the word, and it is often explained as “walking the talk”. This is not only about career goals. The point is that if in our free time we are passionate about healthy and organic food we will likely never be happy dedicating our work time to selling burgers as the Executive Director of Marketing at McDonald's. In such a case, our values and our actions at work are simply not integrated enough to support us in achieving a sense of wellbeing.
One of the reasons the business world has not fully embraced a practice like meditation is that it is a very personal practice. So I asked Michael if he his counselling had affecting others than his clients. He then told me about one of his clients:
Michael’s client wanted to get promoted. Michael suggested to him that he start to acknowledge his colleagues every day. After a year of saying “Good morning”, “How are you?” and “Have a nice day” Michael’s client was promoted and was celebrated by his colleagues, when one colleague asked to talk to him. The colleague said, she had been depressed and on the verge of taking her own life, but his daily greeting had made her day and had given her a reason to go to work every day.
The practice of acknowledgement is one technique that Michael advises his clients to practice. While this example does not show us how it affects the whole company it does testify to how powerful a simple consistent action can become. The main benefits of mindfulness from an employer perspective can be found within the three terms, concentration, balance and integration. It is not only a personal problem that we sometimes get distracted by facebook updates and irrelevant emails at our job. The constant information overload contributes to the stress epidemic, low employee effectiveness and thus lost profit. The practice of mindfulness is surely is promising if it can deliver focus and achievement in the board room as well as on the factory floor.
The practice of acknowledgement is one exercise that I suggest trying out and online there is plenty of inspiration for practices that can give inspiration for a more mindful being. Below I have described an exercise that Michael mentioned at the end of our conversation.
Exercise: From Doing to Being
In talking about what one can do to cultivate mindfulness in an easy way Michael made an insightful remark,
"There is a reason why we are called human beings and not human doings.”
Often we get so caught up in checking off the to-do list of unimportant but often urgent tasks like sending emails, attending informational meetings, updating social media, etc. that we forget to be what we aspire to be, e.g. a good boyfriend, a good listener, an active and happy friend, a helpful leader, etc. To change this Michael suggested a to-be list to replace the old to-do list. I suggest trying it as an experiment for a week. Mindfulness, and thus concentration, balance and integration, is about connecting what we want to be with our day-to-day actions in search of wellbeing, purpose and meaning.