Yogi (ni?): Strong Women, and Handstands in the Boardroom

I like to think. I do a lot of musing about yoga and how my practice relates to all of the various facets of my life. It makes me curious.

My husband likes to think, too, but mostly on his own. I like to get the conversations rolling.

He fell into a doozy this past weekend.

I have recently read a number of articles in the New Yorker on strong women, along with some articles about powerful men. For the women, this strength was highlighted like an oddity, and for the men, it was more or less assumed as a part of their character.

Poor Tim could probably see the writing on the wall as we progressed through our Saturday lunch. I wanted to talk about it. An in-depth, let's-really-sort-it-out type of discussion about women, business, and women in business. And he might have been able to slip away from it, into the blissful world of MLB 2011 on the PS3, but then a news story on Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin came on CNN.

He was a goner. While these are two women in the public eye - arguably strong and influential - they are not exactly what I am looking for as far as empowerment.

I looked at him and asked: Who is the strongest woman in business?


Hillary Clinton? Tim suggested. She is pretty strong. 

Who else? - I countered - with a glance at the TV and then at him that said - let's try again, honey - I have enough politicians to look at. It is sort of cheating - they are on the news all the time. And don't - I said to Tim - tell me Oprah. Let's take Hillary and Oprah out of it.

What about female CEOs?

More silence. We couldn't really name any prominent female CEOs. We had to Google our answer.

Only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. I will do the math for you - that is 2%.

I am not naive. There are many factors that keep the numbers of women low in these ranks - not the least of which is simply the issue of relative timing. CEOs (regardless of gender) generally tend to be in a higher age bracket - and the realities of women in business were a lot different at pivotal career points for someone born in the 1950s, than they are for me now. Several high-ranking educational institutions in this country did not even allow women until just a few years prior to my birth.

So what on earth does this have to do with yoga? Am I on a quest to be the CEO of Yogaworks? (No...but are they looking??!?!)

More than a few people have asked me why I chose to use the more typical "masculine" form of yogi in my blog title. I could tell you any number of reasons, but I'll stick with the one that is true: when I started this blog I didn't really know what a yogini was. I had not spent much time focusing on how we label ourselves in yoga.

I believe that most anyone can do most anything. It is a guiding principle in my life.

Intellect, aptitude, emotional intelligence, and most importantly - the way that you treat people - do not stem directly from gender. Both science and sociology tell us that personality and ability come from a multitude of factors. The list could continue for days. We are shaped and created by everything around us. Of course we are shaped by our gender, but we don't have to be defined by it - or by the historical precedence that came before us.

I cherish the fact that I can dream in yoga about someday doing a handstand in the middle of the room, about rocking into scissors like it was nothing, and touching my ankles in camel pose. I love that these are totally accessible dreams. I have lots of practice ahead of me. I know I will get there.

As a woman in business, I want the same thing. I don't need to handstand in the boardroom, but I do want a seat at the table.

photo by Faern, Faernworks.com

What we learn in the yoga studio - and how we conduct ourselves in our practice - is a reminder of how we can approach our work life. We need to make sure that more people - women particularly - see their careers the same way that I see my practice - full of possibilities. 

There is room for more mats. Yoga teaches us this simple lesson every day when the class is crowded and we rearrange. We quickly move our mats in yoga. Do we do the same at work? If not - could we?

Calm leads to confidence. Women can tend to be deferential. For lots of reasons. We can be worriers and fretters and hopeless perfectionists. Our yoga practice reminds us of our strength. If we can be strong in the studio - we can take it out the door with us. The more confident you are in yoga - the more powerful your asana will be. You have to believe that you are capable. I can tell you from experience that it is the same in front of a podium or a large group. People want to be led from a place of strength. Do not be afraid to show them yours.

Goals are important. If we never pushed ourselves in our practice, we would never move from kicking up to actual handstand. We need short and long-term goals - in practice and in life. Success doesn't have to be measured in dollars, either. It can be measured in responsibility, satisfaction, and quality of life. What does your work handstand look like?

Hard work is part of the process. It takes practice to become good at something. It takes a certain number of falls to rock an arm balance. It is not always easy or fair - or even manageable. You have to keep putting your mat out. You have to show up. It is infinitely easier if you show up with a good attitude. 

Too much ambition can hurt you. Have you ever met a yogi nursing a wrist injury or a pulled ligament because they went at something too fast, without warm up or support? Ever felt that twinge that told your body that cobra might have been the wiser choice? The lesson is to keep ambition in check. Mistakes are part of life. Too much ambition can take out innocent bystanders as well (I have seen entire rows go down in class). Knowing when to push and when to back off is not just a recipe for success on the mat.

Support and Sponsorship matter. Have you ever been in a class when someone thinks they will never do a tough pose - like crow or forearm balance? Have you ever watched a teacher inspire confidence in that individual by saying- "you can do it!" - and then witness the breakthrough on the mat or at the wall? We don't hear that type of sponsorship and support nearly enough outside of our practice. Be a cheerleader off the mat and help someone rock into their corporate version of crow. 

When I ponder how to blend my life on the mat and off, I know that I have a lot of difference to make right where I am. Just like yoga, it is a journey.

And for the record - if I do ever break into the CEO ranks - I promise to handstand in the boardroom. If you get there first - do it for me.

Photo by Faern, faernworks.com

To learn more about blending life on and off the mat (including a post about my journey), you can visit The So-Hum Self Expression Through Yoga Project where lots of yogis are sharing the stories of where they meet life through their practice.