Last week I made a start on my reading list for my yoga training. I’m currently reading a borrowed copy of Pantanjali’s* commentary on the Yoga Sutras, ‘Four Chapters on Freedom’. The copy is 3 years older than me and was printed in India, so it certainly turned a few heads on the tube! (Unfortunately, Pantanjali hasn’t published a kindle edition yet!) My initial reaction was I’ve read this before because whilst the Sanskrit translation can, at times, be quite wordy and complicated, the basic principles are akin to that of the self-improvement movement and modern day mindfulness. Knowledge that dresses itself as new and groundbreaking has in fact been influenced by a practice that is over 5,000 years old. In this article I am going to discuss the similarities between yoga and life coaching. I am by no means trying to undercut the role of a life coach but simply paint a clearer picture of the role of a yoga teacher, which is often misunderstood. Due to its rather frantic commercialisation, a lot of classes have undermined the primary principles of yoga, by practicing only as an exercise class for aesthetic gain. Yoga is- and should always be- a workout for the mind and body. Just like a life coach, a yoga teacher should aim to bring focus, discipline and contentment into the lives of their students.
Here are some of some of the key parallels between coaching and yoga:
One of the key skills to being a good coach is the ability to listen. Research shows that the average adult properly listens to a conversation for an average of 2-11 seconds, before thinking about how that experience relates to them (“Yes I know what you mean…” or “I had the same thing happen to me…”) By listening fully, a coach is then able to ask open questions that help people to help themselves (e.g. “what do you think you could do differently” or “What would you change?”) They allow their client to find their own solutions by only asking questions and crucially, never offering advice. This is where yoga and coaching aligns because they are both based around the premise that 'the answer lies within.’ I am a big fan of this way of thinking because your advice is only your map of the world and it can actually de-rail other people: what might work for you might not work for someone else because you’ve never walked a mile in their shoes. This includes family members, spouses and best friends. Never assume that everyone thinks the same as you. For example, the definition of ‘success’ will be different for everyone.
To listen is to be silent and interestingly these words are anagrams of each other. In yoga, a student is often encouraged to practice in silence and sometimes with their eyes closed. This is to encourage them to listen ‘within’, to find out how they are feeling in both body and mind. We rarely stop to ask ourselves how we are feeling, which is why sudden breakdowns and panic attacks are becoming all too common in metropolitan life. People often seek out a life coach because they feel lost and without a purpose. The problem is that most people don’t know what they actually want. They know what they don’t want but more often than not they end up doing more of this. Even though people hate their job/relationship/etc... they tend to go looking for more of the same and the pattern cycles (e.g. “I hate my job in banking, maybe if I move to another bank things will improve”). We feel safer with learnt behaviours, doing what we know instead of what we want to do. This is where a life coach comes in: instead of offering answers they offer a safe space where clients can discover for themselves what they truly want and need. Yoga offers a similar kind of 'service’, providing a space for people to ‘check-in’ with themselves so that they can listen to their innermost thoughts and feelings.
We all have good intentions, take for example New Year’s resolutions. On the first of January we set out with a self-improvement goal, but more often than not we fail to keep it. Usually because the intention is unrealistic, nonspecific or at odds with another intention. Goal setting is commonplace in coaching, giving people specific targets to work towards within a given time frame. What might seem like a huge challenge is broken down into manageable chunks, creating a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ approach. Likewise, Yoga is never general: it is a precise discipline that requires strength and control over the body and mind. For example, when you first try to rock up in yoga (aka. Pawanmuktasana for all you yogis out there!) using only the strength of your core (so not using legs, arms, head etc… for momentum) you may find yourself initially frustrated. The aim of this exercise is to isolate and build strength in the core muscles, so at first you might find that you are barely moving (let alone rocking): this is where you might need to re-evaluate your intention. Was your intention to create huge rocking movements? Or was it to isolate and work the core muscles? The answer should be the latter because this move is not about making huge rocking movements (or showing off!) it’s about isolating a precise muscle group. Unfortunately the ego- along with past experience and learnt behaviour- has a habit of adding in unhelpful intentions. Yoga helps you to focus on specific goals, enabling you to achieve more in your practice (and in you day-to-day life), as it frees you from self-sabotaging intentions.
A coach facilitates a self-interrogation so that no stone is left unturned. It’s far too easy to have a bad week at work but not know why. By using questions a coach helps you to find out things about yourself that you’ve either forgotten or never before asked. There is no room for sweeping statements with a life coach because they will always encourage you to dig deeper. This is particularly effective with regards to a client’s values in life. They may say they are unhappy because they aren’t a home owner yet, but when one considers their top priories in life (e.g. career, family, friends, socialising, health) it might become apparent that owning a home isn’t going to positively effect many (if any) of their key priorities. We might think we are unhappy because we haven’t got a Ferrari/6-pack/longer hair/etc… but in reality these will have very little influence on improving the areas of our life that we value most highly. By working through the things we want to be/do/have and relating them to our priorities, we can work out what will truly make us happy and where to focus our energy. Yoga also helps people to ‘prioritise priorities’ because it encourages you to interrogate your thought process. When attempting to do the splits you might find your mind wandering to "oh my god I’m in so much pain" or "I will never be able to do this" or “this is as far as I can go.” Often it is a case of mind over matter, as the mind chooses to give up way before you have reached your full potential. Instead of engaging with these self-sabotaging thoughts, yoga encourages you to go deeper and interrogate the pain. It’s not just a wall of fire; it’s specific and ever changing. When you locate the source of pain- perhaps it is a tight hamstring or groin- then it somewhat loses its power; it is no longer an all-consuming pain, but a specific tightness in the body which you can breath into and release. This mind control can help people fight disease, keep calm in a crisis, or run a marathon. (I can personally vouch for the latter as there is no way I would have managed the last 5 miles of the London Marathon without a controlled mind!) Most importantly, it helps to improve everyday life because it enables people to make a choice. You rule your emotions.
Whilst there are certainly differences between yoga and life coaching, I recommend that you approach your next yoga class as a type of coaching in its own right: coaching for the mind, body and soul. It’s not only about mastering a headstand: your yoga class could help you conquer an ironman or apply for a new job!
*As there are so many different translations of the original Sanskrit, it is important to read around, in order to make an informed judgement on what yoga is for you. I am just at the start of my journey but I am already starting to see discrepancies between translations, which have a huge impact on the meaning of the text. So be inquisitive- don’t just accept what you first read!