Bringing Yoga to Schools: An Afternoon With the Non-Profit Organization Headstand

I spent the afternoon today in San Lorenzo visiting KIPP Summit Academy, where the non-profit organization Headstand has implemented a yoga program for its students.

Headstand aims to combat toxic stress in disadvantaged K-12 schools, through yoga, meditation, and character education. They do this by offering a training program for teachers who want to teach yoga in schools. The program includes a curriculum that offers a framework and toolset for teachers while giving them flexibility to adapt to the needs of the class.

San Lorenzo schools in general get a rating of 5 out of 10 on GreatSchools. But KIPP Summit Academy gets a rating of 10 out of 10, and when visiting the school, you can appreciate the gem that this school is. The students are well mannered, calm, and respectful. They walk from class to class in single file quietly. While it might sound like a military school, the environment is actually warm, supportive, and creative. The school’s support of the Headstand program is a reflection of how open-minded and innovative the adminstration is.

All students at this school attend yoga class at least once a week, and some attend twice a week, alternating with their Physical Education class. In addition to teaching mindfulness and yoga, Headstand’s curriculum also focuses on character education. I observed a fifth grade class in which the theme for the day was grit. The teacher opened the class by recounting two contrasting tales of people going through challenges: one who gave up and another who demonstrated grit. Throughout the class, the teacher returned to the intention for students to contemplate.

After the opening discussion about grit, the teacher led them through several movement exercises: first, a listening exercise in which they moved between child’s pose to tabletop to downward-facing dog; second, through a flow sequence and basic stretches; and third, with a game called “Yoga Benders” in which a classmate prompts the rest of the class with the name and number of body parts that are allowed to touch the floor (e.g. “two hands and two feet”, “one foot only”, “butt only”). The kids were engaged, happy, and had fun.

The class closed with simple floor stretches, followed by several rounds of long slow deep breaths, savasana, and meditation. Each student keeps a journal and was asked to write a few sentences describing what grit means to them.

The students took this intention to heart. Some referred to grit in the context of climbing a mountain, and that attending college was the highest mountain of all.

Headstand has gathered some compelling data that supports the success of the program: 98% of the entire student body reports feeling less stressed, less distracted, and more calm as a result of their regular yoga practice, and the detentions have dropped by over 60% since introducing yoga at the school. Researchers at UCSF recently received a grant to study the effects of this program on the students and school more deeply.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend time with founder/director Katherine Priore and observe Headstand in action. Learn more about this inspiring program and how to get involved at http://www.headstand.org

"Not everything that counts can be counted"

In a test score- / metrics-obsessed world, remember some of the most important qualities cannot be measured:

  • Compassion 
  • Courage 
  • Creativity 
  • Critical thinking 
  • Curiosity 
  • Empathy
  • Endurance
  • Enthusiasm
  • Humility
  • Humor
  • Leadership
  • Motivation 
  • Persistence
  • Reliability
  • Resilience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Discipline 
  • Sense of Beauty 
  • Sense of Wonder 
  • Spontaneity 

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

Want a job? Act as if you already have the job.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me about landing an internship for her daughter in product design.  
What I told her, and what I’d like to tell all high school students aspiring to be a young Jony Ive, is this:

Even if you don’t get an internship working as a product designer, I highly recommend spending your summer engaging in endeavors as if you already have the job. For example, invent your own project in which you observe human behavior and try to design a solution that meets people’s needs. Learn how to code so you can build prototypes of your concepts.  Or, for physical products, hang out at a maker studio so you can start prototyping or building stuff with your hands. This experience helps you build a portfolio of projects that you can later show potential employers; it’s a great way to demonstrate your passion for learning and for this area of work. Going through such an experience will also be a good indicator to you as to whether this is truly something you want to do for your career — if you love it, that will be reassuring, and if you hate it, you’ll know early before you invest more energy in it.

Want a job?  Act as if you already have the job.  Invent projects for yourself, start making, start tinkering.

Recently I spent an afternoon mentoring a group of high school girls who are working on their Technovation Challenge.  In 10 weeks, they are tasked with understanding user needs, assessing market fit, sketching, designing, and building a prototype of a product idea for the identified need.  It’s an amazing experience that will help them gain tangible, employable skills and build a portfolio of project work.  From the perspective of an employer (like Google) who has their choice of candidates, students with straight-A transcripts from elite schools are easy to come by; what helps them identify great candidates worth hiring ultimately comes down to the portfolio.
As a hiring manager, I always look for passion in a candidate’s portfolio.  Where there is passion, creativity and grit come much more easily; passion is what we do when it’s inconvenient.  A high school student who actually has a portfolio demonstrates their willingness to learn on their own and their fearlessness in trying new things and iterating.
Towards the end of my graduate studies I applied for and interviewed for several jobs with high tech companies.  I sat through many interviews where hiring managers asked broad, high level questions that didn’t seem to help reveal whether I had what it took to do the job.  Interviewing students with no work experience is especially hard for managers because there isn’t prior work experience to ask about.  It was only when I pulled out my project work related to my master’s thesis that helped turn my fate around the corner.  As I walked interviewers through my work, they could assess how I solved problems, the tradeoffs I made, the determination I had to go through many iterations to find the best solution given the constraints and requirements.  Showing my project work is what helped me land my first dream job at Netscape.
Throughout my career as I’ve interviewed, hired, and rejected hundreds of design, research, and web developer candidates,  I always give candidates a chance to show their work.  Beyond asking for a link to their portfolio, I ask them to walk me through it, because hearing their story reveals so much more:  what was the opportunity they saw, how they framed the problem, how they approached solving the problem, the iterations they tried (or whether they iterated at all), the feedback they got and how they responded to it.  If they’ve thought further about how they would improve the project if they had more time, it’s a good sign that there is some self-awareness and introspection going on.
As I began teaching yoga, I found this advice “Act as if you already have the job” to be especially true.  You can’t get a job teaching at a yoga studio unless you have experience teaching.  How does one get experience teaching yoga if one cannot teach at a studio?  You have to invent reasons to teach.  My mentors talked about how they would offer free yoga in the park (on a donation basis) just to give themselves an opportunity to teach.  They would offer discounted private instruction to friends and family and build a network from there.  They would offer to substitute for absent teachers and assist teachers (for free) in their classes.
Want a job?  Act as if you already have the job.

Designer seeking advice…

Earlier this week I received a message from a young designer asking for advice on how to land her dream job.  With her permission, I’m reprinting it here (with some editing to not reveal her identity):


Hi Irene, How are you? Hope you are well 🙂 Sorry for the direct approach. My name is V. and I’m a Visual/UI/UX designer currently based in [city].  I’m a young designer in my mid-twentys [sic] aspiring to become a good UX designer. During the mean time I’m having a difficult time just to get started. It would be amazing if I could get some help on some career advise. I discovered [an opportunity] I really want to be part of, but as I’m not experienced enough for the highly skilled small team, I was not a great fit. The team lead has kindly given me some advise on what skills I need for the role.  Two years later, I’ve found myself not gaining the skills I wish to gain through my job. While working, I’m constantly reading blogs, books, and more in order try and improve my skills. I’m starting to get frustrated, since I’m not quite sure how to take my skills to the next level through work. Like most mid-twenty year olds trying to figure out ‘life’, I find myself so hungry for something, but I can’t quite pin point it out exactly. What I do know is that I do want to work on something meaningful, have contribution to the world through my skills. This is exactly why I find [this organization] so appealing, or you could say it was like love at first sight and the flame is still burning strong two years after. I strive for creating great user experiences through strategy, research and design. The only problem is, I have no idea on how to get there. Just yesterday I came across a design worksop that is going to be held at Google Headquarters – Mountain View. On the application it asks the applicant to explain one project that is in their portfolio that they are proud of. And I realised that I haven’t done any UX work that I’m proud of nor came across any major problem solving matters. I do love being a designer and I’m grateful that I have a design job in this economy. Thank you so much for reading this letter and I do apologise if this letter came across a little strong or intense. Have a lovely day! Best wishes, V.


A few years ago I would have responded with a reply naming my favorite UX books, authors, and consultants.  I would have given more blogs to read, specific workshops to take, and conferences to attend.  What I have observed over many years of mentoring and employing hundreds of designers is that it’s often not lack of skill but lack of an internal resource that limits them.  This is what I wrote to her:

Hi V., 

Since you asked for my advice, I will share my perspective with you, which has largely been shaped by my own career and studying and practicing the spiritual teachings of yoga. 

First, start where you are.  Stop worrying about the skills or expertise that you don’t have.  You already have a foundation and basket of skills to draw from.  When you worry about not having the skills or knowledge you need, you lose confidence, which undermines your ability to learn and be effective. 

Second, the best way to learn is by doing.  Get involved in projects that interest or inspire you. Maybe you will be lucky enough to engage in such projects that happen to also bring you income.  If not, find the time to engage in such projects on your own time.  Seek collaborators, or go on your own.  Make stuff, design stuff.  Invent projects for yourself to do that allow you to exercise your skills; you will learn a lot by practicing.  You will learn even more by seeking feedback, from mentors and users.  From the feedback, you will discover how you need to grow.  In your desire to make your product better, you will orient your energy toward activities that will help you grow. 

Third, notice and follow what brings you joy and energy.  If you are truly interested and passionate about the endeavors, your interests will guide you toward what you need to learn, and you will invest the time and energy into learning it.  You will also build a portfolio/body of work that you can later show to potential clients or employers; the joy you bring to your work will shine through and you will be able to see yourself more clearly — and people you talk to about hiring you will see that too.

 […]

Best, 

Irene 

This advice was inspired by three basic rules for practicing Hatha Yoga, which I wrote about last year.  In fact, these rules are relevant to almost any endeavor, whether starting a yoga practice or exercise regimen, advancing one’s career or beginning a new one, entering a new relationship, or creating a new product:

  1. Start where you are.  Stop worrying about what you don’t know or that others are further ahead than you.  Stop worrying about what the future holds.  Be in the present moment, and start with what you have, where you are, right now.
  2. Join movement and breath.  In other words, just do it.  Fear nothing.  The best way to learn is by doing and getting into it.
  3. Observe yourself.   Through self-study and observation we gain awareness and presence of mind.  We notice changes over time, understand cause-effect, and use that feedback to inform the future.
Hatha Yoga rules = Rules for Life

Udacity seeks to solve our greatest education and employment challenges

It’s no secret that higher education as we know it today is not sustainable.  The cost of going to college is only increasing, and the nation now has nearly a trillion dollars in college debt.  And yet, the unemployment rate in the US is around 8%.  People are paying sky high prices for college, only to not find a job.

At the same time, here in the SF Bay Area / Silicon Valley, the demand for talent has never been higher.  Employers like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and countless startups compete for engineering and design talent.  It seems the country’s system of higher education is failing employers and prospective employees.

It is because Udacity seeks to help address this problem that I am so excited to be working with them.  The CEO, Sebastian Thrun, who is perhaps best known for his involvement in directing the development of Google’s self driving cars and augmented reality glasses, gave up his tenured position at Stanford to found Udacity.  His vision and ideals are directly aligned with mine:  use the internet to democratize education and make it freely accessible to all; offer a teaching environment in which students can explore their passions and learn about the things they love, while taking responsibility for their own learning; and help connect employers with people who have the skills and passion needed for the job.  

There is much work to be done with the site. It wouldn’t be a fun endeavor if things were already figured out and perfect!  We’re looking to hire a designer to join the team.  If you’re passionate about working on these problems, have a great portfolio and would enjoy working in a scrappy startup environment, please contact me.  

Contemplating non-attachment

Book I, Sutra 15, “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
Drstanusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikara samjna vairagyam
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.


This sutra asserts that non-attachment is essential to the practice of yoga.  Attachment is derived from the things the mind is attracted to through the body’s senses (drishta = seen; anursravika = heard), a metaphorical way to describe worldly things that we perceive.  Rather than go for things the mind wants, one should be able to discriminate whether the things we perceive are actually good for the self or not.

When the mind is attached to worldly things, the practice of yoga cannot be fulfilled because the mind is distracted.  When the mind is distracted by desires, the mind cannot rest and be at peace.  Meditation is only possible when the mind is free from attachment.  

The absence of attachment is related to the lack of expectation of outcomes.  When one is free from expectation, one cannot experience disappointment no matter what the result.  When we remove attachment and expectation from any endeavor, the pursuit of that endeavor becomes intrinsically rewarding, as opposed to extrinsically rewarding.  Thus we are more able to enjoy the journey (e.g. the process), rather than be focused on the outcome itself (e.g. the product).  When the mind is free from personal interest, we do our work well and feel joyful, because we are enjoying the work for experience itself, not the outcome.

Attachment and lack thereof has considerable impact on creativity and innovation, beyond meditation and yogic practice.  Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that we are the most creative when we’re focused on the process and being in the present, and least when we’re focused on the product or outcome1.  “When we are concerned about the product, we worry about how it will be judged, evaluated, accepted, and rejected.  Our ego is put on the line.  Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, and new products.”  One who is process-oriented is intrinsically motivated, engaged in the creative endeavor for the joy of doing it, while a product-orientation is by definition extrinsically motivated.

Outside of creative and artistic endeavors, the absence of non-attachment in the business world has perhaps had dire consequences.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted experiments in which he looked at the performance of subjects in situations where their compensation was directly tied to how well they performed on a variety of cognitive skills and mechanical tasks.  By connecting compensation to performance, he created conditions in which subjects became extrinsically motivated instead of intrinsically motivated.  Higher bonuses successfully motivated subjects to perform better on mechanical tasks, but actually led to poorer performance on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skills. Ariely and his team found similar results from experiments conducted in the U.S., Britain, and India.  “If our tests mimic the real world, then massive bonuses clearly don’t work. They may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their abilities. The financial crisis, perhaps, didn’t happen in spite of the bonuses, but because of them.”2

In the context of education, the emphasis on grades and testing introduces unhealthy attachment and creates an environment that is antithetical to the point of education:  learning for the pursuit of understanding and knowledge and then wisdom.  The consequences of our test-oriented education system is devastating for our children:  less interest in learning for learning’s sake, less interest in taking on challenging tasks (since they are motivated to get good results, not to take intellectual risks), and more superficial thinking.  Research by Eric Anderman and his colleagues have found in a 1998 study of middle school students, those who “perceived that their schools emphasized performance [as opposed to learning] goals were more likely to report engaging in cheating behaviors.”3

Zimbardo, Ariely, and Anderman’s research are evidence that non-attachment is essential for creativity, performance, happiness, and intellectual well being.  Interpreted broadly, Sutra 15 Book I has significant implications for every aspect of our lives.




References

1 Zimbardo, P. and Boyd, J.  The Time Paradox (Free Press, 2008), p. 122.

2 “Dan Ariely:  Bonuses boost activity, not quality”, Wired.co.uk (1 Feb 2010), http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2010/03/start/dan-ariely-bonuses-boost-activity-but-not-quality

3 Eric M. Anderman, Tripp Griesinger, and Gloria Westerfield, “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93; and Eric M. Anderman and Carol Midgley, “Changes in Self-Reported Academic Cheating Across the Transition from Middle School to High School,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 29 (2004): 499-517.

Contemplating the 3 C’s

I’ve been taking a yoga teacher training class (PURE) through Equinox with Michelle Myhre and Keith Erickson. Both are passionate and inspiring teachers and practitioners; in fact, when I signed up, my intention was not to become a yoga teacher but rather, I was motivated because I wanted to learn all Keith and Michelle could offer about yoga. Although this training has been a huge commitment that has required a lot of time, money, and energy (160 hours of classes plus 40 hours of practice, observation, and assisting in class required), I’m extremely grateful I took the time to learn the skills to do healthy things for the body and soul and be able to share them with others.

I opened this past weekend’s class with this dharma talk I wrote, a derivative of the commencement speech I gave at the College of Engineering at my alma mater last month:

Come into a comfortable seated position with your spine erect. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils. Take notice of your body… what’s happening within you today? Take notice of your mind… how is your spirit today?

We are near the end of our eighth week of our yoga teacher training; only two more weeks to go. We’ve devoted our weekends, and weekday mornings and evenings to this journey. Along the way, we’ve bonded as a community and have grown to know each other’s souls and bodies. What brought each of us here, and what will we take away as this training comes to an end?

For today’s opening, we will contemplate the lifecyle of learning and growth. I call them the three C’s: curiosity, courage, and confidence. Let’s meditate on these three C’s.

First, curiosity.

We all wanted to be part of this yoga teacher training because we are curious about yoga and are interested in learning more. Curiosity is the basis of learning and creativity. It’s more about asking the right questions than the answers themselves. On the yoga mat, being curious opens ourselves to discovering and connecting with our minds and bodies. Off the mat, our curiosity allows us to discover and fuel our passion. Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Now let’s talk about courage.

How many of us know someone who has said to us, “I don’t want to try yoga because I’m not that flexible?” Or “I don’t want to try do X because I’m afraid of Y?” Maybe we have felt that way at times too, when we had to make something out of nothing, or when we engaged in an activity even though we didn’t really know what we were doing.

On the mat, we summon our courage to go into poses that may be new, or seem awkward or unnatural. Whether on or off the mat, courage is the willingness to face whatever is in front of us. Maybe it’s fear of failure. Maybe it’s a fear of the unknown. Maybe it’s a fear of rejection. Whatever it is, when we gather the courage to face whatever is in front of us, we emerge stronger, more resilient, more flexible, and those qualities will withstand whatever failure, rejection, and uncertainties we encounter in life. Courage gives us the strength to take risks, and where there is risk there is opportunity.

The last C is about the value of challenge and adversity and the confidence gained from it.

Each of us made sacrifices to be part of this yoga teacher training. We devoted significant time, energy, and money to be here. Along the way, we had doubts about our ability to fulfill all the commitments required of this training. How could we possibly complete all the reading, writing, and practice hours while juggling work, family, and other responsibilities and commitments? And yet here we are all still here. We are doing this!

On the yoga mat, as we practice asana, we are physically and mentally challenged. Sometimes we don’t know if we can get into the pose, or stay in it long enough. But when we do, we feel awesome!

Adverse conditions help toughen us mentally and build confidence. We can choose to blame failures on factors we cannot control, or we can believe we have the ability to shape events and circumstances by making the most of what we can control. When we take on new challenges, a little at a time, we build our confidence to take on more ambitious endeavors. And thus the cycle of learning and growth begins again, with curiosity.

Let’s bring our hands together and offer our salutations to Brahma, for curiosity which cultivates passion and creation; to Vishnu, for courage through which we persist through whatever we face in front of us with optimism, and to Shiva, for adversity and the confidence and joy gained after we overcome challenges.

Guru Brahma
Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshath Parambrahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha

(tr: Guru is the creator Brahma, Guru is the preserver Vishnu, Guru is the destroyer Siva. Guru is directly the supreme spirit — I offer my salutations to this Guru.)