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‘A different sort of CEO’

March 1, 2015

The creep, creep, creep of meditation, mindfulness et al continues. The latest sign? Aetna. Specifically its CEO. From the New York Times:

In case there was any doubt, Mr. Bertolini, who runs one of America’s 100 largest companies by revenue, wants to make it clear he is a different sort of C.E.O.

In recent years, following a near-death experience, Mr. Bertolini set about overhauling his own health regimen, as well reshaping the culture of Aetna with a series of eyebrow-raising moves. He has offered free yoga and meditation classes to Aetna employees; more than 13,000 workers have participated. He began selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance. And in January, after reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the treatise on inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Mr. Bertolini gave his lowest-paid employees a 33 percent raise.

Taken together, these moves have transformed a stodgy insurance company into one of the most progressive actors in corporate America. Most health insurance companies are thriving, largely because of increased enrollment. Aetna’s stock has increased threefold since Mr. Bertolini took over as chief executive in 2010, and recently hit a record high. It’s a decidedly groovy moment for the company, and Mr. Bertolini is reveling in his role as an idealistic, unconventional corporate chieftain.

“We program C.E.O.s to be certain kinds of people. We expect C.E.O.s to be on message all the time,” he said. “The grand experiment here has been how much of that do you really need to do?”

On a February day in Aetna’s Hartford headquarters, there were experiments all around. In a conference room downstairs, a meditation class had just concluded, and employees were returning to their desks. Nearby, preparations were underway for a new yoga class, starting in a week. And in his corner office — where a golden statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha was arranged next to an antique grandfather clock — Mr. Bertolini eagerly shared the most recent data from Aetna’s meditation and yoga programs.

There is the requisite “hang on a second”:

But not everyone believes that meditation and yoga are appropriate in the workplace. A recent article in The Harvard Business Review cautioned that “mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world,” and it enumerated ways that a meditative disposition could backfire in the office. Stress can be a useful prompt to engage in critical thinking, noted the author, David Brendel, and is not something to retreat from through meditation. And even as Aetna and others chart what they say are the health benefits of mindfulness and yoga, not all researchers are convinced.

The piece in the Times is adapted from an upcoming book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From the Inside Out, by David Gelles.

Posted by Steve

Another new (old) talk by Richard Freeman goes online

February 28, 2015

Curl yourself up for an hour. There’s a new Richard Freeman talk up on the Yoga Workshop site. Link is here, and a super quick description:

Practicing Yoga in the Face of Adversity

Whether it’s a personal difficulty, or a political travesty or even a war, life seems often to toss adversity our way. This talk was recorded on October 20, 2013.

Yes, it’s from a while back, but as best as I can tell it’s just gone up here.

Posted by Steve

Colorado won’t license yoga teachers (plus Pat Robertson and an Irish priest)

February 27, 2015

I’ve decided to start this post with: Pat Robertson and an Irish priest walk into a bar…

Sadly, the punchline ain’t funny. Before we get to it, though, some “good” news. As we highlighted last month, Colorado was looking closely at a law that ostensibly regulated yoga teacher training programs. The new focus freaked people out, and in response the state’s Legislature is now moving through a bill that would exempt yoga teacher training programs from state regulations.

And a state lawmaker did crow pose at his desk! More from the Denver Post (including a picture of said pose):

They said yoga teacher training isn’t the same as programs that train students to be dog groomers or truck drivers.

“For most, yoga isn’t a profession; it’s a passion,” agreed state Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada. “For years, the yoga teacher training schools have been operating without government intervention. In all those years, we do not know of a single complaint against the yoga teacher training schools.”

Now, the bad punch line. Yes, Pat Robertson said doing yoga tricks you into praying in “Hindu.” And, yes, a Catholic priest in Northern Ireland — which means I’m pushing it calling him an “Irish priest,” I know — equated yoga with Satanism.

Posted by Steve

Practice vs. practicing

February 26, 2015
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With Bobbie heading down the crazy road that is Third Series, my ego is taking a bruising as she arm balances with one leg this way, back bends that and altogether makes my puny, mostly Primary practice, look pathetic.

Or, at least, pretty easy by comparison.

And so I haven’t been able to resist adding something a little more challenging in, usually at the end, and not every time. Pincha Mayurasana here, maybe, some Second Series-type headstands there.

Yes, it’s “officially wrong,” whatever “officially” means. But it’s also fun — and I think “fun” seems to get a little lost too often with so many people seemingly so serious about their practice, or sadhana. (And how often do I say something about Ashtanga is “fun”? Next to never.)

A challenging pose, especially I think near the end of practice, also is a nice microcosm or synecdoche for the full practice, which is a challenge and a task itself. Something that ought to feel like a bit of an undertaking. In that sense, the specific focus, the hard work, the thought (perhaps just 1% of what you’re doing, of course) involved mirrors how one ought to approach the full 75 or 90 minutes of practice.

It’s a nice little reinforcement of what you ought to be doing. A moment captured for greater use.

It also feels pretty good, on a purely physical level, to challenge your body in different ways. While Ashtanga’s asana sequence is wonderfully wide and varied, it still is limited somewhat (at least until one’s doing Second and Third, too). So an arm balance, for instance, is a nice counter — or maybe addition — to what’s going on.

On the downside, working on one pose repeatedly — one you haven’t “mastered,” so to speak — takes away from some fundamentals of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice — i.e. breathing. It’s hard to keep that deep, even breathing going when the main thought in your head is, well, to make sure that head doesn’t slam into the floor. Drishti’s gone, of course.

But those can be recaptured the next time on the mat, and perhaps some of the focus and the “I managed to do that” — from “practicing” — can come along to help deepen the full Ashtanga practice.

Posted by Steve

Sleep tight — with a little help from meditation

February 25, 2015

In what’s being called a “rigorous study,” researchers have determined that mindfulness meditation helped older adults sleep better and, as a result, have fewer problems related to sleeping problems — aka a better quality of life.

Link to the JAMA study is here. And here’s an online New York Times story:

In one group, the adults learned behaviors that could help them develop good sleep hygiene, like establishing a regular bedtime routine and avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed. The other group underwent a six-week program on mindfulness meditation — the nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through one’s mind — led by a certified teacher.

At the end of the yearlong study, the people who learned the mindfulness approach had greater improvements in sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression and fatigue than those who received standard care.

The lead author of the study, David S. Black, said mindfulness meditation probably helped settle the brain’s arousal systems. And unlike widely used sleep drugs, it does not have potentially severe side effects, said Dr. Black, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.

Our important disclaimer, of course: Ignore that stuff about “avoiding caffeine.”

I also think the final quote in the Times story is relevant to an Ashtanga practice: “As compared to attempting mindfulness practice for the first time on your own,” he said, “you are likely to gain the most benefit from a standardized course with an experienced teacher.”

Posted by Steve

The importance of lineage in Ashtanga

February 24, 2015

We already passed on an “introductory” video to Kate O’Donnell via Down Under School of Yoga, and now here’s another:

I also want to highlight the intro video to another of our fellow Yatris, Rich Ray:

With all the talk that blogs are dying, it’s possible videos are officially rising.

Posted by Steve

The focus again lands on Bikram

February 23, 2015

We’ve touched on Bikram Choudhury’s troubles a few times — and it seems this story may be nearing its denouement.

Bikram, you probably know, faces several rape charges, including a new one filed this month. There is now an August court date — soon enough that the New York Times just posted a story suggesting that “cracks show” in his empire:

But a day of legal reckoning is drawing closer for the guru, Bikram Choudhury. He is facing six civil lawsuits from women accusing him of rape or assault. The most recent was filed on Feb. 13 by a Canadian yogi, Jill Lawler, who said she was raped by Mr. Choudhury during a teacher-training in the spring of 2010.

This month, a Los Angeles judge cleared away several challenges to a lawsuit from a former student who said Mr. Choudhury raped her during another 2010 teacher-training.

A statement issued by lawyers for Mr. Choudhury and his yoga college, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said that “Mr. Choudhury did not sexually assault any of the plaintiffs” and that the women were “unjustly” exploiting the legal system for financial gain.

“Their claims are false and dishonor Bikram yoga and the health and spiritual benefits it has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world,” the statement said. “After a thorough investigation, the Los Angeles County district attorney declined to file any sexual assault charges against Mr. Choudhury or the college for lack of evidence.”

An August trial date has been set in Ms. Baughn’s case. In her complaint, she said that Mr. Choudhury pursued her starting with a teacher-training she attended in 2005, when she was 20. She said he whispered sexual advances during classes, and assaulted and groped her in a hotel room and at his home.

I suppose there’s the possibility it will get settled before the trial — but if it goes to trial, I’d guess the details will be pretty salacious and get a ton of media attention.

Posted by Steve