Last year, I spent a month in a yoga ashram in the North of India. The bell went off every morning at 5 a.m. Half an hour of meditation in the bitter cold was followed by two hours of yoga and then breakfast, which was consumed in silence looking out at the mountains. Yoga students spent six days a week in classes on philosophy, anatomy, and teaching methodology, did homework in the evenings and were asleep by 9:30 p.m. No alcohol, no meat, no caffeine, no screen time, no chairs. I've rarely been happier.
As a researcher and a software developer, I was trained in the mental tools of analysis and logic. Yoga convinced me that those tools, while useful, are limited. After India I started to teach yoga to software developers and startup founders, most of whom were beginners. Yoga helped to ease the physical problems caused by sitting behind a keyboard all day—back pain, tight hips and shoulders, disordered breathing, stress—but it also seemed gave them something more, a few moments of calm amid the chaos of the startup world.
Coders and yogis actually have a lot in common. They are both curious and they want to know how the world works, but yogis aim to become master craftsmen of life rather than of code. Here are five things I have learnt from yoga which are especially relevant to developers.
Developers are very attached to their giant brains, often to the extent that they will ignore everything from the neck down. This isn’t surprising given that competence is their main currency. Yoga philosophy doesn’t make a strict separation between the mind and the body, but rather it maintains that the mind is the most subtle part of the body and vice versa. Therefore, everything that happens in your body affects the mind. The latest research seems to confirm this whether it is that exercise makes you smarter or Alzheimer’s is the ultimate food scare.
Many yogic techniques try to induce a psychological state from a physical state; Forward bends are calming while backward bends are energizing. Psychological states like chronic stress can lead to shallow breathing, shortened muscles and digestive problems. So whether you are drinking too much cola or typing twelve hours a day, making some time to take care of the body is also an investment in your mind.
James Bryan Graves runs Hackers and Founders Amsterdam. "The startup team I worked with in the U.S. was very much the stereotypical, overweight, frumpy dudes. After a successful release, we would have a pizza party, and that’s how we celebrated our success. We would reward our developers with crappy food," Graves muses. "One guy had back surgery because his back had gotten so weak from doing development for 10 years that he literally couldn’t walk one day. Every time I go to yoga, I think about this particular individual and how I don’t want to end up like that."
As a logic-loving software developer, I was the kind of person who made decisions by compiling lists of exhaustively researched pros and cons, and didn’t have much time for wooly ideas like "gut feeling" or "intuition." Developers mostly live in their heads, but rarely question what goes on in there. Yoga teaches you that your thoughts, however well ordered, are often just stories that you tell yourself. As such they are usually opinions, not facts, and are often even rationalizations of whatever it is that you are doing. Maybe you hate confrontation so instead of arguing with your boss or your co-founder, you accommodate yourself to a decision. Maybe you tell yourself you have forgiven someone, when you really haven't.
While the mind lies all the time, the body never lies. When you are upset or angry, even if you are trying to ignore it, your body tenses up, your breathing gets faster. So if you really want to know how you feel about something, check in with the body. Practicing yoga helps you to tune into those signals and detect the ones which matter, and it does take practice when you haven’t been trained to be aware of them.
Developers love the future. It’s where they spend most of their mental time. What we can do with a new technology is always more exciting than what we could do with the last one. The first word of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the seminal yogic texts, is "Now". Now means being truly present rather than always half in and half out of the current moment, scrolling through an endlessly expanding To Do list. Technology offers us limitless avenues out of our current physical and mental space, into the fifth dimension of virtual space. Check your messages or plug in your headphones rather than talking to the person beside you or just looking around. Those of us who work in the technology world need "now" more than most.
When you concentrate on your inhale or exhale in a yoga posture, or on the sounds of a mantra in meditation, you are fully in the here and now. It’s only by slowing down that you can observe things as they really are, including yourself. Being in the now is hard work, but it also helps to give you some detachment and perspective on the dramas of your daily work and life.
"I would be interested in seeing studies conducted on the physical and psychological well-being of anyone trying to start up a company," says Poikos CEO Nell Watson. "It’s easy to lose your grip on stuff, physically and mentally. Yoga is a powerful way of re-centering oneself and putting oneself back in the body and also in the current situation that you are in and not in the situation that you are worrying about."
The tech startup world is obsessed with goals and results and productivity. We measure ourselves in metrics. So one of the most radical notions for me in yoga philosophy was karma yoga, the yoga of action. Karma yoga means taking action in the world towards achieving a particular goal but accepting that you don’t control the result, and are therefore not defined by it. I’ve been writing about startups for long enough to know that luck and timing play a significant part in the success of a company. Most startups, and many development projects, fail. Why measure yourself entirely by the outcome?
"Ten years ago, running my first company, I would get completed immersed and have to drink myself out of it," says Oscar Kneppers, founder of the Rockstart startup accelerator. "Now I can fully engage and fully commit, but the moment I turn around and walk away, it’s out of my head. Yoga helps you to look at what you are doing from a distance, to have the intention to go in a specific direction without attaching yourself to the end result."
Like most developers, I love cleverness, and now I write about it, but one of the things which I have learnt from yoga is that wisdom goes beyond cleverness. Wisdom is easier to recognize than to define but it seems to involve skills like empathy and intuition, which don’t typically form part of a technical education as much as logic and analysis. Wisdom takes a wider view and recognizes what we don’t know, as much as what we do.
When I asked my yoga teacher in India what single thing he would change about the way people live in the West, he said food. Many clever people contributed to the processed food industry by inventing new technology and devising ingenious business models, but the unintended result was an epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases. We have an abundance of creativity in the modern world, and especially the technology world, but sometimes a paucity of well-being. Maybe it’s about time that we put some more emphasis on the latter.
[Image: Flickr user Lululemon Athletica]