Yoga principles can help us realign the business world

All together now.
All together now.
Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

At the end of my favorite Sunday morning “flow” yoga class, stretched out on my mat and melting toward savasana, my body began to relax but my brain continued to fret about the week ahead: Will people like the keynote I’m giving on Thursday? What about that pending advisory role? How might I be more productive, period?

Wait a second! Wasn’t our instructor just saying that the yoga principle of brahmacharya, or moderation, is an antidote to modern society’s turbo-charged focus on productivity? And last week, didn’t we learn that asteya (non-stealing) can include stealing precious time from our own selves—just as I was doing right then?

In that moment, it hit me. The worlds of yoga and work ought to be—perhaps urgently, desperately need to be—in touch with one another. Yoga isn’t just about personal well-being and flexibility. If we dig deeper, we find that yoga philosophy offers profound insights for how business itself could be built better, for a world in which the goal of profit maximization suddenly looks very small against the challenges of climate change, inequality, and loss of trust.

Prana, yin, and downward-facing dog are a different language than OKRs, KPIs, and CXOs. Yet, as I kept exploring and excavating—picking up my yoga teacher certification in the process, so I could translate legitimately—I continued to find overlaps and stunning foresight for both what ails society today and how we might regrind our lens on the solutions.

What’s a yama?

Figuratively speaking, the yamas represent the insight jackpot. They are the first of the eight limbs of yoga, a step-by-step path for purifying the body and mind. The goal of this path, developed more than 2,000 years ago, is “to still the fluctuations of the mind,” so that we can achieve bliss (and, one may assume, our greatest potential).

The yamas set us on course with five ethical principles that guide how we relate to other people and how we take care of ourselves—and they offer new utility in the in the 21st century, where how we relate to other people includes how we do business, and how we take care of ourselves includes how we approach our professional paths. It’s all connected. Consider each yama and how it applies to the modern business world:

1. Ahimsa: “non-harming” or “non-violence.” Ahimsa seeks to cultivate a sense of peace and harmony with ourselves and the world. This goes far beyond physical harm or violence. It asks us to consider our moral compass. In what ways are my actions and choices harmful to myself? To others? To the earth?

It doesn’t take long to see how this shows up in the business world. Harm is lurking in myriad corporate corners, from environmental degradation to overworked employees. Negative externalities are perhaps the epitome of being blind to ahimsa: damaging side effects of a commercial activity that are not reflected in the cost of what’s sold. For any business person reading this, I would encourage you to do this exercise: Tally a list of harms, whether generated by your company or a company of your choosing. If you know of any company that truly does no harm, please let me know, as I’m still very much looking for one.

2. Satya: “truth,” “honesty” or “not lying.” Satya includes truth in our words, choices, and actions, and honesty with both ourselves and others. It also includes living with an honest heart and ethos. Consider this akin to following our true north, our deeper purpose, that which we were put on this earth to contribute..

I don’t know about you, but I tend to meet (many) more people who despise their jobs and yearn to follow their true calling than who feel truly fulfilled. The reasons are manifold, from corporate environments that prioritize profit over people, to hyper-consumerist marketing machines that both profess to tell the “truth” (Trust us: your data is safe! Trust us: we make ethically sourced products! If you just spend $19.99, you’ll be perfect!) while at the same time co-opting our sense of competence and agency.

At the macro level, GDP is a glaring untruth: While it was a useful metric decades ago to help countries transition from a wartime to peacetime, today it is dangerously outdated. Its holy grail is economic output and production. It leaves no space for societal well-being beyond dollars.

Again, an easy exercise: Think of the ways in which business today falls short of the truth. Write them down. I’d love to hear from you.

3. Asteya: “non-stealing,” not taking from yourself, others, or the environment what is not yours. Asteya includes not only obvious candidates like stealing someone’s purse, but also stealing natural resources from their habitat, or stealing time from oneself or another. These actions keep people from reaching their full potential, and the world from maintaining its essential balance.

Here, too, the ways in which business has strayed from this principle are abundant. Companies that extract more than they contribute—for example, stripping minerals or trees from the environment, albeit it perhaps in the quest to produce useful products—are but the tip of the iceberg. What might it look like if companies were to act from a place of abundance, not scarcity? We would see more collaboration than competition, and a net result nudging us toward equality.

4. Aparigraha: “non-possessiveness,” “non-grasping” or “non-hoarding.” In yoga, this can mean grasping for happiness which is inherently fleeting, wishing we had someone else’s life, or wanting to hold a challenging balance pose forever. The lesson is: let it go, and focus on the present moment.

In the business world, this message has been long lost. Perhaps the most glaring cases are when free-market capitalism leads to extraordinary inequalities (CEOs earning 312 times as much as their workers is now the norm) and privatization of common resources such as water. (What is privatization, if not some form of possessiveness?) But this can happen in more subtle ways as well, from grasping for a competitor’s market share to hoarding investment capital that could be deployed to help millions of entrepreneurs—especially women and people of color who have been excluded throughout history. (I can’t help but imagine there will be a women-led impact investment fund soon, incubated at a yoga studio.)

We do see some new business models that embody aparigraha, such as platform cooperatives. What else do you think qualifies?

5. Brahmacharya: moderation and balance, as a means to maintain one’s energy. (The term’s traditional meaning of celibacy was ditched a while back.) On the yoga mat, this shows up as the balance of “ease vs. effort” in holding a pose, or as prana (breath), matching deep inhales with deep exhales.

Think of the many ways in which business and capitalism are out of balance today: More is good, bigger is better, growth as the goal. But have we paused to ask ourselves why? Why is “more” better than “enough,” especially given today’s ecological overshoot? Why are burnout and exhaustion worn as a badge of honor, rather than a symbol of unsustainable living?

There is a rising tide of individuals, not least millennials, who see these imbalances and are opting for a different work-life balance. But the system is deeply entrenched, and we have long way to go to reach a healthier equilibrium in society. Yoga philosophy can guide this journey, far beyond poses to rethinking what we do and how we do it, from the ground up.