Mindfulness Isn't Just for the Yoga Studio

For many, the notion of “mindfulness” conjures up images of yoga teachers, Tibetan monks and eccentric celebrities.

But the concept also has close ties with the business world.

Business leaders are starting to blend the rich tradition of spirituality with the research of psychology and neuroscience to create a simple, yet powerful way for business leaders to enhance their effectiveness.

Some top business schools, including Columbia Business School, have integrated the teaching of mindfulness into their curriculum. Hitendra Wadhwa, a professor of practice at the school and founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership, says that before you can master your business, you need to first master yourself and mindfulness is a path to such mastery.

At its essence, mindfulness is the art and practice of being fully present and focused on the moment. Mindfulness begins by cultivating awareness of your thoughts, feelings, values and motivations, to help bring clarity to your thinking. Some of the more popular forms of mindfulness include meditation and focused-breathing exercises. Typically, these techniques are designed to clear the mind and help you stay focused in the present.

Wadhwa explains that even though the inner-life issues that drive who you are tend get lost in the shuffle during a busy work day, they always play a role in our decisions and interactions. The challenge is being aware of these beliefs and emotions so as to harness them for positive purpose.

From a scientific perspective Dr. Romie Mushtaq, a neurologist with expertise in mind-body medicine, explains that “advances in neuroimaging techniques have taught us how these mindfulness-based techniques affect neuroplasticity.” In other words, the practice of mindfulness can enhance our ability to learn as well as how we manage stress.

Here’s how mindfulness can benefit the business world:

Enhanced Focus

The true enemy of focus is multitasking. According to Mushtaq, multitasking “depresses the brain’s memory and analytical functions, and it reduces blood flow to the part of the right temporal lobe, which contributes to our creative thinking.”

She goes on to explain that “in today’s marketplace, creativity is critical to innovation, sustainability and leadership.” Mindful meditation can be a great way to enhance focus and resist the temptation of mindless multitasking that plagues us all.

Fuel for the Brain

Focused deep breathing can actually provide physiological benefits. By nature, humans tend to be shallow breathers, which means we aren’t doing all we can to get as much oxygen to our brains as we really need.

More oxygen brings neurological benefits. Mushtaq purports that the practice of mindfulness “has been shown to alter the structure and function of the brain, which is what allows us to learn, acquire new abilities, and improve memory.” An optimally-functioning brain can be a strategic advantage for any business leader.

Reduced Stress

Stress is about perceived control (or the lack thereof). When we feel we are out of control, we get anxious--and that anxiety ultimately manifests as stress. Organizational leaders must do what they can to create environments that allow for some level of autonomy in how employees prioritize and conduct their work.

When priorities are unclear, employees fall into multitasking at a frenetic pace without any real thought about what they are doing in an attempt to get everything done. Integrating the practice of mindfulness into the work day can help keep employees grounded and feeling in control.

According to Mushtaq “even if a company doesn’t make it part of the culture, employees and managers can substitute their multitasking habits with mindfulness in order to reduce stress and increase productivity.”

Great leaders “see themselves as a work in progress, and they sculpt themselves to get progressively closer to their ideal form” says Wadhwa. The practice of mindfulness is certainly a powerful tool that can be applied towards meeting this end.