Stretch targets

Yoga MSD 2

What lessons does yoga have for the business world, and for everyday life?

Mention the word “yoga” and you’ll get a range of responses. Some people associate it with ashrams and ascetics, a discarding of the modern way of life in favour of a quest for the more spiritual. Incense and chanting come to mind. Others think more of its physical manifestations, and of extremely flexible practitioners contorting themselves into unlikely or even dangerous poses – feet arranged behind the head, for instance.

Dominique Santana from the Australian Yoga Academy says when yoga is taught authentically it is a mental, physical, and spiritual workout.

“Yoga literally means union – of mind, body and soul,” Santana says. “It is the state of harmony achieved when all aspects of yourself are in balance.”

It might seem counterintuitive for a practice that has such seemingly lofty aspirations, but yoga and business are inextricably linked. At its heart yoga preaches the virtues of accountability, focus, stillness of mind, calmness, dedication – all practices espoused by and even necessary for business success in an era of corporate social responsibility.

Yoga’s physical benefits are undeniable, and many in the corporate world have embraced its practice as a way to unwind and relax from workaday stress.

Along with masseurs and healthier food in the canteen, you’re quite likely these days to see a yoga teacher guiding corporate types through breathing and stretching exercises on site. Managers have worked out it actually makes their staff more productive.

And there is an even more obvious connection: yoga is big business worth serious coin to those spiritual gurus not afraid of making money.

In its many and varied manifestations, yoga has been practised for thousands of years.

Yet the type most frequently practised in the West, and the most exercise-oriented, is hatha yoga, whose foundations were laid by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sri T. Krishnamacharya and B.K.S Iyengar in India in the 1930s.

Yoga participation in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years to become the 13th-most-popular physical activity, not including walking, according to figures from the Australian Sports Commission.

Practised by 2.9 per cent of the population, it ranks ahead of Australian rules football, dancing, fishing, and martial arts.

All sorts of reasons are given for participating in yoga.

“Why you would practise yoga is because it improves the quality of your life,” says Cairns-based Nicky Knoff, who has been teaching and practising for 38 years. “You breathe correctly, it improves concentration and focus, it clears your mental landscape, it increases muscle tone and range of movement so health is improved. It improves flexibility and enhances balance.

“It helps you to connect with yourself, so you’re tuned in when anger arises, so you have to time to act rather than react. It helps you build strength, fortitude, courage, daring.”

She also says it strengthens the immune system, normalises weight, helps release emotional blockages, improves self-esteem, and assists in overcoming injury.

Stephen Penman is the president of the Yoga Teachers Association of Australia, and a teacher of wellness, health enhancement and lifestyle management at RMIT and Monash Universities in Melbourne. He helped conduct a national survey of yoga in Australia in 2006, interviewing 4,000 yogis (or yoga practitioners).

The reasons most commonly given for starting yoga were to improve health/fitness and flexibility/muscle tone and to reduce stress or anxiety.

Although relatively few respondents mentioned “spirituality” or “personal development” for why they began doing yoga, many cited these as a reason for continuing.

“Yoga teachers will tell you that this is no surprise,” Penman says. “People come to yoga for the physical but stay for the spiritual.”

Santana is all for enhancing and mastering “the physical vehicle” (that’s “the body” to you and me) but believes practising yoga serves a much higher purpose.

“To me the most important benefit is a sense of responsibility and empowerment that comes from really understanding the psychology and philosophy of the yoga tradition – and that is that we are all responsible for the lives we create for ourselves,” Santana says. “And what we do – the actions we take, the words that we say – have a carry-on effect to those around us.”

It’s something that Knoff is also passionate about.

“That’s why we teach yoga, because we want to have a better world,” she says. “That’s how we find we can reach people. When they look after themselves, they start looking after other people, animals, the environment. Imagine if George Bush was a yoga practitioner. He never would have gone to Iraq – no way!”

Ask yoga teachers about the connection between yoga and business and their first instinct is to talk about the anxiety-ridden suits who come to class wanting to learn how to relax.

“Let’s just take for example pranayama, or the awareness of your breath,” Santana says. “There are so many engaged in the rat-race that miss out on so much health purely because they’re not breathing properly.

“One of the things that we do with our corporate yoga training is to get people to become more aware of their breath, to stop regularly at work and take a few deep breaths. And that practice of breath awareness can completely change your life.”

James Bryan, who teaches alongside Knoff in Cairns, says corporate clients often attend with the goal of discovering how to switch off from work.

“We have one stressed-out, high-powered businesswoman who comes to class and says the one time when her brain is not whirling at a million miles an hour is in yoga,” Bryan says.

According to the result of the Yoga in Australia survey, yoga has the capacity to change one’s outlook on life.

“Generally, I am a much happier, emotionally stable person, which is a change from how I was before yoga,” commented one survey participant.

Said another: “Practising yoga increases my quality of life ten-fold. I am calmer, more balanced and more in tune with my physical and spiritual self, making me a better friend, lover and mother.”

Don’t even get yoga teachers started on how our sedentary desk-bound lifestyle is damaging our postural alignment and health. Better just to step away from the desk for a couple of minutes, stretch in the opposite direction, refocus. It could make a huge difference.

Perhaps the apotheosis of yoga and business is Bikram Yoga, a form of the practice invented by Bikram Choudhury – a self-styled millionaire, “bad boy of yoga” and Beverly Hills guru – and performed in hot rooms around the world.

Arriving in the US from Calcutta in 1976, Bikram, as he is known, opened his first studios in California and Hawaii, combining the 26 postures in his series with two breathing exercises – all done in a superheated studio (up to 40°C) in a 90-minute sequence.

Though adherents swear by its health benefits, others in the yoga community aren’t so convinced.

“It’s not yoga,” says one teacher. “It’s aerobics in a sauna.”

Bikram was Knoff’s first teacher. She first encountered him in Japan in 1970. Then when she visited him again five years later in Hawaii, Bikram sent her to the airport in his chauffeur-driven convertible.

Yet Knoff is no fan of the style, either.

“I don’t agree with it all,” she says. “I think it’s downright unhealthy.”

That hasn’t stopped Bikram Yoga becoming the style of choice for many seeking the toughest of workouts.

Mili Crncevic owns and manages The Yoga Tree in Melbourne, which teaches Bikram Yoga classes.

The advantage of the hot room, she says, is that most activities have a warming-up and cooling-down period but only 30 minutes of action. In a Bikram studio you are hot straight away; muscles are more supple and there is less chance of injury.

“That’s the way it’s done in India,” Crncevic says. “If Indians can do it, there’s no reason Westerners can’t do it, too.”

Like all Bikram Yoga teachers, Crncevic completed a nine-week course taught by the guru himself in Los Angeles and costing US$5,500. Accommodation and food were extra. In order to continue teaching she must recertify every three years, which also carries a fee.

“He’s making a mint,” she says of Bikram. “He’s a very clever businessman.”

Bikram is also extremely protective of his empire. Having trademarked his series of poses, he threatens to sue anyone he sees infringing on his yogic territory.

“I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each,” Bikram told Business 2.0. “Nobody f*cks with me.”

There isn’t a lot of philosophy in Bikram Yoga, Crncevic admits. Rather, there is a set script that Bikram insists be narrated by class teachers. The idea is that wherever you go in the world to do Bikram Yoga, you’ll have exactly the same experience.

For this reason, some have labelled it, not insultingly, as the “Starbucks of yoga”: a brilliant business model.

Yet classes at the Australian Yoga Academy and places like it can frequently change depending on the experience of participants, the season, or the mood of the teacher. Early in the new year, Santana dedicated one class to the cultivation of consciously creating new beginnings. The message, derived from Buddhist teaching, was that each single moment is an opportunity to start anew, to reinvent oneself.

The goal is for participants to experience a physical workout, but also to have the opportunity to become more flexible in their hearts and minds. One class staple is the final salutation, a Hindu word meaning “the divine in me greets the divine in you.” Namaste.

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 edition of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Knight moves

Knight moves imageFrom the chess board to the board room, what can business learn from chess?

There is an Indian proverb that says chess is a sea from which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.

What may appear to some to be a board game, albeit a rather complicated one, is to others a confounding obsession, a deeply personal challenge, an intellectual battle, a psychological arm wrestle. To succeed at the game requires tremendous dedication – often many years of full-time specialised training – and also the ability to strategise, to mobilise forces, to make sound decisions but also audacious, unpredictable moves. You must understand your own strengths and have the ability to read those of others, and anticipate them.

Which, when you think about it, sounds a lot like the qualities required for success in business: focus, strategy, structure, discipline, expertise.

And, indeed, some have made the connection between the two demanding disciplines. David Cordover is a former Australian junior chess champion and a partner in Chessworld, a franchise chess equipment business operating in several Australian states.

“Business is just a game,” he says. “And knowing a couple of strategies absolutely helps you. The more I learn about business, the more I think it’s so, so simple – and it’s so like chess.

“The key thing in business is to focus and to have a plan. Chess is exactly the same thing.”

Though many countries claim to have invented chess, it’s commonly thought to have begun in India, evolving from the sixth-century Sanskrit game chaturanga.

The modern version of chess emerged in the 19th century. Today it is one of the world’s most popular board games, played recreationally and competitively either online or at social, club and tournament level.

The governing body is the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, which presides over tournaments, titles and rankings.

“To my mind there are two sorts of chess players,” says Gary Bekker, FIDE’s representative in Australia. “The first group are players I would describe as chess bums. They are very good chess players, but not so good at anything else.

“The other group are made up of those who are brilliant at everything. They have an excellent memory and a flair for anything that involves mathematical puzzles and problem-solving skills. They are not only chess masters but also successful in their business pursuits. They can be excellent sharemarket investors and have a head for managing businesses, for foreseeing problems and how they might be overcome.

“The problem is that usually you have to be either very dedicated to business or to chess,” Bekker says. “There are very few who are excellent at both.”

Those that excel in either discipline talk about the importance of establishing a blueprint for success, but being prepared to deviate from it as the need arises.

Former world champion Garry Kasparov achieved the highest FIDE rating of all time (2,500 is required for grandmaster status), and since retiring from the game has written extensively about chess, politics and business.

He says at the elite levels of chess it’s as important to consider your rival’s actions as it is your own. “In business, too, successful strategists think not just about their own new products, pricing and marketing, but also about how their rivals will respond – and how to respond to them,” Kasparov wrote in Fast Company.

“Smart executives … must understand that their competitors are at least as smart as they are. In chess, I know that my rival sees everything I see. Even if I do the unthinkable – a bold unprecedented move designed to leave him gasping – I must assume he has anticipated it and will have an equally daring answer. Call it the courage to accept humility.”

Guy West, 48, is an international master (a FIDE rating between 2,300 to 2,400), a former Australian chess champion, six-time Victorian champion and has represented Australia at 10 chess Olympiads. He also has enjoyed success as a share trader and is now a partner in West attributes his achievements in both domains to “determination rather than inspiration”.

“In chess, perseverance is extremely important, and shouldn’t be underestimated,” says West, who in the lead-up to his Australian championship win in 1996 devoted four hours a day to chess study – in addition to the many hours he spent playing.

“Many people in business will tell you the same thing – that if you survive the first five years you’ve got a very good chance of being successful. In chess and business, it’s certainly not enough just to be talented.”

Bruce Pandolfini is a world-renowned chess teacher (he was portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer) and the author of Every Move Must Have a Purpose, a tome offering guidance to applying the principles of chess to other endeavours such as business.

He says most great chess players think only as far ahead as they need to, usually just a few moves. “Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time,” Pandolfini says. “The information is uncertain. The situation is ambiguous. Chess is about controlling the situation at hand. You want to determine your own future. You certainly don’t want your opponent to determine it for you.”

The real issue, he says, is not how far ahead you think, but how well you think at the moment it is required. Good thinking, Pandolfini says, is all about making comparisons. If you see a good idea, think of a better one. Weigh them up.

FIDE’s Bekker says it’s important to note the difference between tactics and strategy.

“Tactics is all about what’s happening in the next two moves,” he explains. “Strategy is present in the overall position of the pieces on the board. Good chess players pay attention to both, correctly balancing immediate concerns with long-term strategy.

“It’s the same in the business world for a manager. What’s happening in the office and the day-to-day affairs of the company [its tactics] might all be going extremely well. Meanwhile, strategically, the company might be incredibly unprofitable. But a good manager will be able to modify as changes come along.

“And of course, the two affect each other,” Bekker says. “How your company performs day to day – the attention it pays to customer service and to details – impacts on its strategic direction, and vice versa.”

Says Kasparov: “Great chess players cannot lose sight of the mundane details. In business you might call this … the everyday operations that, if left untended, will undermine your organisation.

“One ill-considered move, or non-move, seemingly inconsequential at the time, can leave you hopelessly behind.”

The Melbourne Chess Club, established in 1886 and now located in inner-suburban Fitzroy, seems about as far from the business world as it is possible to get.

On a Monday night, the nondescript building, home to one of the oldest chess clubs in the world, is busy but quiet. It is tournament night. In one room there are several tables of players earnestly hunched over chess tables and punching clocks when they’ve completed their moves. In another, much larger room, the weekly tournament is taking place, and there is no talk at all.

This is clearly a male domain. There are no women anywhere, and the males present, ranging in age from perhaps early 20s to late 60s, seem not overly interested in socialising. Fashion, for most, is an afterthought.

Because chess has been around for so long, many of its manoeuvres have been codified. So, the moves I see players making – especially at the start of games – have been executed many times before, and are even allocated names, such as the Sicilian, Slav or French Winawer openings. There are many of these, and when chess aficionados talk about strategy and homework, they are often referring to the study of past contests: openings, endgames and technique.

Chess strategy has been analysed and refined since the 15th century, so its study can represent a lifetime’s work – and sometimes there is a fine line between passion and addiction.

“You tell yourself that it’s just a game,” jokes club member Scott Stewart. “But then you find yourself playing four tournaments a week. There should be a Chessaholics Anonymous.”

Another club member, Marcus Raine, loves studying old games – he can speak with authority about contests that took place in the 1930s – and talks about the beautiful aesthetics evident during great contests.

“Chess clubs,” he says, “are a bit of a sanctuary from the world.”

Chess in Australia operates very much under the radar.

In Russia, where chess has been played since the 11th century, the prohibitively cold climate lends itself to indoor pursuits. Chess teaching, learning and culture has a considerably more prominent place in wider society.

Kasparov, for instance, began learning under grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik from the age of eight, his towering chess talent eventually making him famous and wealthy.

“When chess is taught in Europe it’s done so as something that enhances academic results in terms of improving problem solving, pattern recognition and memory,” FIDE’s Bekker says. “And all those skills are handy in a business sense.”

Gerrit Hartland from Canterbury (Victoria) Chess Club, where Australian grandmaster Darryl Johansen teaches, says chess also helps with concentration and logical thinking.

“You see the development of a young player who comes to us at the age of seven,” he says. “Bit by bit they learn to concentrate. They learn patience, which is one of the toughest things to teach a small kid.”

Whether or not youngsters adroit at chess harness their skills to later forge a successful professional life away from the chess board is another question.

“It’s a matter of time,” says international master West. “Most people who are successful in chess devote a whole life to it.”

Yet some do master both. Joop van Oosterom, for instance, is a billionaire Dutch businessman and chess enthusiast who became the world correspondence chess champion.

Dato Tan Chin Nam is the main owner for horse trainer Bart Cummings, and a chess enthusiast who sponsors tournaments. He frequently names horses after chess nomenclature.

There are many others, though, who find those forces on the board to which Hartland refers as irresistibly mesmerising, and from which it’s difficult to break free.

As eclectically talented as these players are, to them chess as a metaphor for business is therefore something of a moot point.

“Chess is chess,” Hartland says. “That’s the end of it.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

10 films to watch in lockdown

Every year I rate my favourite films from the previous 12 months. It’s a way of cataloguing the year’s viewing and revisiting those movies that for one reason or another stayed in my consciousness. It gives the films a longer life, a resonance, beyond the initial viewing. And then because I always compare the list with my good friend Derek Agnew’s best, I find out about those I‘d let slip by. Or if there are films that are highly rated by the cognoscenti that I find myself avoiding, I get an insight into my changing preferences and prejudices. For instance, the more I heard about Parasite and the louder the commendations, the less I wanted to see the thriller/comedy/drama/social commentary by the Korean iconoclast Bong Joon-Ho. Given that it earned best film honours at the Oscars, I may have missed out on one there. But the 10 I rated the most enjoyable were my own personal pantheon for the year. And I finally got around to listing them, roughly in order.

Apollo 11
What an astonishing viewing experience. Ideally, you’re watching this documentary about the 1969 lunar landing on a big screen to truly appreciate the epic scope of the mission, the team and infrastructure behind it, and the ambition of those who put everything on the line to get there. Made entirely from archival footage pieced together with tremendous deftness by director Todd Douglas Miller, the film charts the Apollo program’s most celebrated mission. This was a transportive, mesmerising experience in no small part due to the soundtrack, created entirely with a 1969-era Moog synthesiser by Matt Morton.

Sometimes, Always, Never
I didn’t notice this film on any of the year’s best lists, which is surprising, really. I left the cinema thinking I’d seen something unique, quirky and uplifting, despite a sadness at its core. Bill Nighy plays a natty retired tailor searching still for a son lost now for many years while struggling to connect with the son left behind, and his family. Scrabble is involved.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Assassin deluxe John Wick has been made “incommunicado” for his actions in the second Wick outing. In this one he dispatches with lethal aplomb legions of fellow hitmen trying to take him out in order to earn the generous bounty on Wick’s head. In this cross-cultural celebration of the art of elimination, somehow Wick survives the depredations of the High Table, its underlings and henchmen, losing a digit and introducing us to horse fu and dog fu along the way.

True, 1917 represents an impressive technical achievement in editing and cinematography, and one can’t help but be impressed by the fluid, seemingly seamless movement of the camera, and the manner in which the film hangs together. But it is also a thrilling, visceral and tremendously emotional depiction of Britain in the First World War, and a moving cinema experience. I wasn’t expecting that.

Avengers: Endgame
There is a lot going on in this epic closing chapter (for now) superhero saga but somehow all the threads in the story are tied together with skill, tact, excitement and sensitivity.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has famously declared that he will make an even 10 films and then never again call “action” on a feature-length film. But with Once Upon the Time in Hollywood seemingly the most Tarantinoesque film yet – featuring the director’s obsessions, conventions, excessive dialogue, gratuitous violence and generous running time – it’s been suggested this outing – his ninth – should conclude the canon. Brad Pitt (doing his best Billy Jack impression) and Leonardo DiCaprio both shine, but it might just be the costuming and production design evoking 1969 so convincingly that provide the film’s most compelling performance. Leave a bit more of Margot Robbie’s performance on the cutting room floor and this could really have been something extraordinary.

The King
Mendo (Ben Mendelsohn as Henry IV) and Edgo (Joel Edgerton as Falstaff) are standouts in this pared-down retelling of the band of brothers, the happy few, who fought and defeated an upstart contemptuous (what else?) French army.

Diego Maradona
It’s easy to forget how big and how good the little Argentinian soccer superstar was. In this narrator-less (seems to be the style these days) docco, the best example of “big” might be the scene where 60,000 Napoli fans turn up to watch Maradona ink his contract with the Italian giant. So, that’s just to put pen to paper, in his street clothes. And the “good”? Perhaps the footage of the maestro against the English at the 1986 World Cup and the two goals he tallied in the 2-0 triumph. The first was the famous “hand of God” score, but the second sees Maradona take possession and seemingly dodge and weave past every single Brit on the pitch to score and secure the win.

Ford v Ferrari
You don’t have to be a huge gearhead to appreciate this movie, but it probably helps to have an appreciation for cars (Fords and Ferraris in particular). That said, I’m not by any means an autophile, yet this biopic has enough narrative juice to power a V12, lively performances, cracking production design and a moving father-son story. It’s cinema that’s the winner at the falling of the chequered flag.

Amazing Grace
Technical difficulties and contract imbroglios meant footage from this concert, filmed at a church in Los Angeles in 1972 when a 29-year-old Aretha Franklin was at the apex of her considerable powers, sat in cans for about 40 years. This despite the fact that the album made from performances over two nights had been a huge success. Backed by the buoyant Southern California Community Choir and its effervescent conductor, and with the support of the Reverend James Cleveland, the docco provides a transcendent experience.