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This 5-Minute Exercise Will Make You a Better Leader

Struggling with too much stress? Take a few minutes to focus your mind.
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We've all had moments like these. You're facing stress, frustration, and what seems like an insurmountable business problem. You feel overwhelmed, and you don't know what to do. The ancient practice of yoga can help--even if you never do a single pose or even get up from your desk.

"Yoga is much more than physical postures," explains Brad Willis, a.k.a. Bhava Ram, founder of the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. "We think we're going to become more balanced, lose weight, and become more flexible and stronger. Yoga will do all those, but it's the complete science of how to be a human being. The fundamental underlying principle is mastering our minds."

Bhava Ram knows something about facing insurmountable problems and learning to master one's mind. As a war correspondent for NBC, he worked to help children who had been burned and maimed in the wars that ravaged Afghanistan. His mantra (which might sound familiar) was "I'm going to work longer and harder than anyone else." It served him well, and his career flourished. But for seven of those years, he was dosing himself with painkillers, muscle relaxants, and increasing amounts of alcohol, to fight the pain of an untreated spinal injury. That injury eventually led to a failed surgery that landed him in a back brace and ended his career. Then doctors told him he had throat cancer and that he had two years to live.

The downward spiral ended when his son, then 2, looked at him and said, "Get up, Daddy!" Inspired by these words, he decided he would die with dignity by eliminating the painkillers, alcohol, and other drugs he had been using. He detoxed cold turkey--"All the demons in Dante's Inferno are real," he says. After that, he was offered the chance to join an experimental program using yoga and other Eastern modalities to manage the pain, and threw himself into the practices of yoga, meditation, veganism, and fasting with the same diligence he had once brought to reporting.

"Two years later, I was healed and whole and never looked back," he says. He took the Sanskrit name Bhava Ram, which he translates as "purest state of being in the heart." And he detailed his experiences in his new memoir Warrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved my Life, which is soon to become a motion picture. "If someone as dark and broken as I was can get up, I think anyone can," Ram says.

These days, he teaches these ancient modalities, especially mental calm. "We live in a culture that is incredibly overstimulated, and as a result we often have fragmented and busy minds," he says. "Through a single point of concentration and a practice that develops our capacity to master our minds, we can be much more focused."

The good news, he says, is that you can increase your calm and mental focus anytime, even sitting at a desk, by taking five minutes to follow these eight steps:

1. Close your eyes.

Bring your attention inward, and notice that you are moving to internalized awareness. Set aside the distractions and stimulations of the day for the moment.

2. Listen to your breath.

Really listen, Ram advises. "Make it deeper, slower, smoother, and fuller," he says.

3. Feel your body.

Follow your breath as it reaches all of your body's outer edges.

4. Feel the support beneath you.

That's the chair you're sitting on and the floor under your feet, but ultimately, it's the planet itself. "Feel the support of the earth," Ram says.

5. Think "I" as you inhale and "am" as you exhale.

Continue repeating these thoughts as you breathe. This will deepen your calm and inner focus. "It's implementing a yoga pose for the mind," says Ram.

6. Bring your awareness to your heart center.

The "heart center," which is the fourth chakra, or energy point in your body, is a spot right behind your breastbone. Focus your attention there, says Ram, "as though it were the light of a candle flame." 

7. Stay in the moment.

Remember that you are here in the present moment and that you have everything you need to solve the problems before you.

8. Remember that we are all connected.

"All of us are connected with all that is," Ram says. "And in this state of awareness, begin to contemplate the task at hand."

This brief exercise will help you stay focused and in the moment, and help you make wiser decisions, he explains. And you can tap into that state quickly whenever you need to, he adds. "Anytime during your day, if you're feeling stressed in the workplace, all you need to do is close your eyes and take 10 deep 'I am' breaths," he says. "That will bring you back to focus."

Though these exercises are built on the ancient principles of yoga, they work directly on our brain chemistry, Ram says. "When we are in a stressful state, which is often our work state, we are in the sympathetic nervous system," he says. "When we're stressed, we produce adrenaline and cortisol, and if we're over-amped on these in our regular work environment, it diminishes our immune systems, our ability to take in nourishment from food, and to act skillfully." The sympathetic nervous system is what stimulates the fight-or-flight response.

"If we close our eyes and take 10 fuller breaths and anchor ourselves with this mantra, we move into the parasympathetic nervous system," Ram adds. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates rest-and-digest functions, and releases the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin. "This is where everything reharmonizes," he says. "Our thoughts create healing chemicals."

That leads us to make better decisions. "A peaceful and calm response to the challenges of our day is always more productive than a stressed-out response," he says. "When we become more balanced and centered, we're more apt to act skillfully."

Like this post? Sign up here for Minda's weekly email and you'll never miss her columns. Next time: Why you should commit to doing something nice for yourself every day for the next month.

 

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Last updated: Jun 5, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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