The Lazy Bodhisattva

I discovered this lovely poem by my friend Chade-Meng Tan, in his book Search Inside Yourself:

The Lazy Bodhisattva

With deep inner peace,
And great compassion,
Aspire daily to save the world.
But do not strive to achieve it.
Just do whatever comes naturally.
Because when aspiration is strong
And compassion blossoms,
Whatever comes most naturally,
Is also the right thing to do.
Thus you,
The wise compassionate being,
Save the world while having fun.

Tales from the trenches: Lessons learned from Netscape, Yahoo!, and Google

Note: This is a transcript of my opening keynote speech for the 2014 IA Summit.  #ias14

There has never been a better time to be in the UX profession. Design jobs are on the rise. Companies, large and small, can’t hire designers fast enough. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the job outlook for web design and development to be 20% through 2022.

Even though more people than ever are trying to enter the UX profession, hiring managers will tell you how incredibly hard it is to hire great designers these days.

On the flip side, I get asked a lot by people for career advice. A lot of the questions center around getting to some destination, such as “How do I get promoted to the next level?” or “What kinds of career paths are available for designers?” In other words,

“Where am I going, and how do I level up?”

As a yoga teacher, to me “path” refers to a way of being in the world, like a code of conduct. In this sense, the way you are in the world informs how you do your work. In turn, through your work you can learn some of life’s greatest lessons. So it’s no surprise that when I get asked for career advice the conversation inevitably turns to how we deal with our own internal challenges in the face of adversity. For example, if you don’t have the right skills, what is keeping you from learning the skills you need? If you have the skills but don’t get the job, why do you keep getting rejected? If you have been in the same job for years but want to get promoted, why do you feel so stuck?

I’d like to share the story of my career with you and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. By sharing my own challenges and lessons learned, I hope to give you insight into how you can face your own challenges. I’ll share one story each from Netscape, Yahoo, and Google.


In 1996, I landed my first full-time job, at Netscape as an interaction designer. That time during Netscape was so intoxicating. We were making the viewfinder to the internet and bringing the web to everyone! The engineers were the most amazing, opinionated, passionate, talented engineers I would ever encounter in my life, only to see many of them again later at Google.

I remember one engineer in particular, I’ll call him John. John had few friends and a strong opinion about everything, most of which was negative. One day he got particularly upset by a spec I had published; he was so livid he went to my team lead to complain about me.

I was a 23 year old woman going head to head with a much more experienced former Apple engineer twice my age, so this was a pretty scary experience for me. I wasn’t used to people complaining about me to my bosses so I wasn’t sure if I was going to get fired. I felt like a failure for coming up with a spec that was worth complaining about.

This wasn’t even a spec that required incredible engineering cooperation to execute. It was a spec for the design of the menu structures for the client software. Most of the lead engineers were happy to have a designer make decisions about the front end. I considered my next steps. I fantasized about telling the engineer that since I didn’t tell him how to code, he didn’t need to tell me how to design. Or alternatively I could deny him power over the spec by ignoring him.

Instead, I sat down with him for a couple of hours as we worked through the design spec together. To show my good faith in him, I put him in the driver’s seat; I let him edit the document. I made sure he knew I heard him. In the end, we ended up with exactly what I had originally spec’ed out. But, we both got what we wanted: I got the design I wanted, and he felt heard, and he got the design he thought he wanted.

That experience taught me how to listen and negotiate and practice compassion for others. Sometimes, what’s important is not the arguments or the content of the discussion or who is right, but the feeling one is left with at the end of an interaction.

After this experience, John became a great ally, and one of my biggest advocates. I started to build a reputation for dealing with difficult situations so much that Netscape gave me the “Jump Into the Fire” award. Eventually, I was named to lead the design of Netscape 5.0 because of the strength of the relationships I had formed with my engineering colleagues.
Netscape “Jump Into the Fire Award”

Lesson 1: Form bridges and connections with people, even if they don’t like you. Cultivate the capacity to develop relationships with people who are very different from you.

As a designer, your ability to get anything done rests crucially on how much decision makers trust you. The more you can build relationships, especially amongst those who are different from you, the better able you are to make design decisions that stick, to convince others on the right process, and to make people want to cooperate with you in achieving a shared goal. Moreover, the more relationships you have with diverse networks of people, the more connected to the world you will be, and will be more likely to receive important information about ideas, threats, and opportunities in time to respond to them.


When Netscape decided to open source the browser code and form Mozilla, I decided to leave the company. I felt that the most interesting design challenges of the time were emerging around content, and not the viewfinder in which it was displayed. Among many options, I chose to go to Yahoo! This was in 1998 when the site was entirely blue underlined text against the browser’s default background color.

My colleagues at Netscape, who were much more experienced than I, snickered

“Why would you want to go to Yahoo? What kind of design is happening there?”

These colleagues were designers with a capital D. They had amazing portfolios and would never dream of being associated with anything visually ugly; they felt like it was a career killer.

At that time, Yahoo! was largely text based and by most standards ugly. It was mostly a directory with little interaction design. Most designers chided at the opportunity to work on a website that looked like this:

Yahoo! circa 1998

Their reaction left a lot of doubt in my mind about whether I had a viable career there and what it would do for my future.

I saw a little more beyond this directory. My Yahoo! had just launched, and Yahoo! had just acquired Four11 which developed RocketMail which meant Yahoo! would soon offer web based email. Yahoo! was just starting to develop interactive products. My background in Human-Computer Interaction would allow me to help shape the way products were designed and developed at Yahoo! (or any other web company) completely differently than they had been. I knew that I could contribute in a meaningful way and that it would be a lot of fun. Where other designers saw Yahoo! as ugly, I saw a blank slate that I could make great.

As much as my boss embraced what I had to offer, it was not an easy ride at Yahoo! My entry into the team created a sort of existential crisis among the producers, who were used to defining the product and designing the user experience, and the graphic designers, who were used to designing the UI. They didn’t understand what interaction designers or user researchers did; usability studies were referred to as “focus groups”. I hired a team of three people, and we strategically chose to work on a few projects where we believed the conditions were ripe for us to add value without much of an uphill battle. Over time, we bootstrapped off the success of the projects we worked on which created more demand for our expertise. Instead of spreading ourselves thin across too many projects, we went deep into a smaller set of projects and did those really well. With that strategy, we were able to create a high quality internal brand for the team, which led to further investment in the team and enthusiastic stakeholders ready to work with us. What started out as an odd, non-obvious place for designers to work at has become one of the largest employers of UX talent in Silicon Valley to this day.

Lesson 2: Instead of being heads-down and going with what’s been done before, be willing to see around corners. If it’s not great, make it great. Shape your future, instead of just reacting to it.

Too often we go through life with a plan, a fixed idea of where we want to be and how to get there. When we’re heads down going forth on our plan, we don’t leave a lot of room for serendipity and flexibility. Instead, when we are present, we are more able to see opportunities when they arise. Moreover, when we are present, we are more able to trust our gut instincts and seize opportunities when we see them.

Eight years after I first joined Yahoo!, Google came knocking on my door, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Even though it was basically the same role I had at Yahoo, I knew it would challenge me and push me to grow in ways that I needed to grow.

The challenges of running design at Google were pretty well known in the industry at the time. I remember telling a former colleague at Yahoo! that I was taking the top design job at Google, she laughed and said,

“Oh, you took that job!”

as if to say,

“You are stupid and crazy enough to take that job!”

That laugh was a foreboding warning of what I was to face.

I could not have imagined what I would encounter at Google at that time in 2006. By this time, I thought I knew how to do the job. I knew the culture was different, but I had enough experience under my belt to have a strong vision for what needed to be done and how to do it. But, there were all kinds of factors I had not accounted for. Managers at Google typically had 50-100 direct reports so that they were burdened with so much people management responsibilities they couldn’t actually get involved with any projects and lead anything. When I joined Google, I had 60 direct reports, and had to write performance reviews for all of them within my first three months on the job. With its bottom-up, engineering dominated culture, and everything run by committee, I found myself in a role that seemed impossible. As a manager at Google, you couldn’t tell anyone what to do; as a designer at Google, you really couldn’t tell anyone what to do.

It was rumored that all designers who were being hired for design roles at Google were required by Larry Page to have computer science degrees or at least know how to code. When I started to hire designers with capital D’s who did not have CS degrees, in an effort to make Google more beautiful, Larry would not allow me to hire them, and rejected the offers we wanted to extend.

For the first couple of years there I resisted the environment I was in, wanting to change it. I thought that’s what leadership was all about: leading change and not accepting the status quo. Eventually I realized that in order for me to lead effectively I needed to be a better follower.

I ended up starting over from scratch. I embraced Larry’s coding requirements for designers. I introduced a code interview for designers who had coding skills, to help bring in more designers who could code, and to show that I was listening to Larry. Interestingly, by bringing in more designers who could code, I then gained more latitude to hire designers who didn’t code.

When I left Yahoo! for Google, everything I thought I knew about running a large design team inside a large consumer internet company wasn’t relevant anymore. I had to abandon prior experience and knowledge, and start over.

Lesson 3: Find the courage to abandon practices that made you successful in the past. What is familiar and comfortable may not work for you anymore. Keep a beginner’s mind, so that everything is always new. This is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin.

Our tendency as people is to feel like we know the answers once we’ve learned or experienced something. We think, “I have achieved this.” When we feel like we’ve achieved something, we have a “been there, done that” attitude. We have an inflated sense of self-importance. We then experience life with a skewed focus and look at things with an ever-present bias. We all do this.

With a beginner’s mind, you don’t think “I have achieved this.” You free yourself from any notion of success or failure. Instead, you are curious about the world with no preconceived notions about anything. “With a beginner’s mind, we see many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Leaving Google

In 2011, when Larry became CEO, he suddenly embraced beautiful design. He started talking about how important beauty was in company all-hands meetings. Many of us wondered if this was the same Larry Page we had been working with for many years before. After years of insisting that all designers at Google have computer science degrees, he now wanted great visual design. Around the same time, Larry decided to decentralize all functions, which left me without a clear role. For me, this was infuriating and hurtful. I felt betrayed, discarded, and disrespected.
It took a while for me to embrace the realization that the only reason why decentralizing the UX team at Google was viable was because of how far the organization had come over the years I was there. After the reorg, I had the option to invent a new role for myself or join a team. Instead, I chose to spend the following year reflecting and exploring instead of eagerly jumping back into the fray. I took the time to deepen my yoga practice which enriched my life beyond my imagination. From that experience, I emerged completely transformed. I learned how to not attach my happiness to final outcomes; to be happy in spite of things that were beyond my control; to let go of my anger, bitterness, and grief; and to shed my sense of identity and worth from the professional role I had before. I became grateful for being unencumbered with any role or responsibilities, because it meant I was free to explore whatever my heart desired.

My yoga practice helped me understand my best path forward. Yoga gave me the courage to do what my heart wanted. Yoga has allowed me to find myself as I enter my 40s, and allows me to bring my best self to the table with a calm and focused mind.

The decision to leave Google was one of the hardest choices I’ve made. Google is an amazing company that many people would love to be part of. The prestige of being part of Google, the mental stimulation, the amazing people, the ambitious projects, the benefits, the food are trappings that are hard to let go. To this day, I still get questions from people about leaving Google. Even the TSA guy who processed by Global Entry application asked me
“Why would you ever leave Google for another job at a place no one has ever heard of?”

Entering the market as a yoga teacher is another journey onto itself. After a long career in design I once again find myself in the beginner’s seat, with no opportunity that can be taken for granted.

In this world, I am reminded of the sum of the lessons I had learned during my design career: What you know matters a lot less than how you do your work. Whether it’s design or yoga, everyone learns the same skills and curriculum; the attitude means so much more. Careers are made by how you deal with your challenging job situations and make it work for you.

Adversity and Listening

Looking back at my career, the most pivotal, significant moments of growth were all borne out of adversity: the cranky engineer at Netscape who hated my spec; the designers with capital Ds who snickered at the ugliness of Yahoo!; the engineering-driven culture at Google that was adverse to design; and eventually, my own struggle with leaving Google and the corporate world.

In each instance, what got me through the adversity I faced was the ability to listen deeply. I listened and built relationships with people who were against me, such as John. I saw something great in Yahoo! and listened to my gut instinct. I listened to Larry and adopted a beginner’s mind. And then I listened to myself and honored what would bring me true, meaningful happiness.

With that, take a moment to pause and tune in to the world. Close the eyes, take a deep breath, and just be with yourself for a moment. Maybe reflect on something related to your work or personal life that you are struggling with, or want to improve on, or are trying to move forward. What is needed in this moment from you?

Putting it into practice

Since this is the opening keynote for the IA Summit, let’s put these lessons into practice at this conference. Here are three things you can do:

1. Make at least three connections each day at this conference. Not as if you’re trying to collect people so you can use them later, but truly make a connection and listen to each other.

2. For the whole day, realize that you are a lucky person, and hold onto that feeling all day long. Open your mind to opportunities and be free of restricted thinking. Listen to your gut instincts and be bold, ready to seize a good opportunity when you see it.

3. Approach something old and tired with a beginner’s mind. Be willing to listen and receive feedback. Don’t fear failure and don’t get discouraged by it. And never lose your sense of humor and playfulness.

A career path is not about getting to a particular destination. It’s not about leveling up or getting some job title or managing a bunch of people. It’s about the journey you take, the lessons you learn along the way, and connecting with yourself to find true happiness.

Take a moment every day to listen to yourself and the world around you. That’s the key to the path ahead.

Check out these awesome sketchnotes from the conference (thank you Melinda, Nathan, Jason, and Veronica):

Sketchnotes by Melinda Miller
Sketchnotes by Nathan Rogers
Sketchnotes by Jason Alderman
Sketchnotes by Veronica Erb

"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

Mindful Design: What the UX World Can Learn from Yoga

This article is reprinted from the September 2013 issue of UXPA Magazine.

“Yoga will change your life.” I will never forget these words that my husband, who has practiced a tradition of meditation for 25 years, said to me when I told him I was signing up for yoga teacher training. My intention was not to become a yoga teacher, but to deepen my practice. I had practiced yoga at various times since I was a teenager, but it was only after I sought refuge from my hectic stressful life as an executive at Google and mother of two that I realized the benefits of yoga extended well beyond gaining flexibility and avoiding injury. Indeed, deepening my understanding of yogic philosophy and adopting a daily mindfulness practice were transformative in ways beyond my expectations. Most importantly, I gained a perspective that guides my ability to tend to what is ahead of me. Soon, I started to appreciate how this perspective permeates into everything I do in life. In this article, I will describe how mindfulness practices benefit designers, based on my firsthand experience as a design executive, mentor and yoga teacher.

Mindfulness Defined

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives. The attention paid is purposeful, in the moment, without judgment. To those unfamiliar with mindfulness practices, consider what it feels like to be “not present,” perhaps when you’re on autopilot or multitasking. When we are “not present”, we fail to notice the good things about our lives, fail to hear what our bodies are telling us, or we poison ourselves with toxic criticism. Mindfulness is the opposite of that: it’s about having the time and space to attend to what is ahead of us, in spite of distractions competing for our attention and our past history that shapes how we think and perceive the world. This focused attention is a tremendous asset to designers throughout the design process and all its activities: from inspiration and ideation, to design and implementation.

Being Mindful When Seeking Inspiration

Design is for people; if you cannot understand people you cannot design. During early stages of design, designers often seek inspiration and stimulate innovation by building empathy with users. The act of combining empathy to understand a problem with creativity during the generation of insights and solutions is at the core of “design thinking.” By uncovering people’s latent needs, we can gain insight into ways our interactions with objects or surroundings can be made joyful.

The methods used to gain empathy in user experience work are by now well established. Field research, contextual inquiry, and usability studies are frequently used to bring attention and awareness to the actions we otherwise take for granted. These unconscious but ordinary acts reveal subtle but crucial ways we adapt to a world not perfectly tailored for our needs. The designer’s work as observer, not participant or judge, epitomizes the work of an empathic mind, not an analytical mind.

Empathic thinking is often easier said than done. Anthony Jack of Case Western University found that analytical thinking suppresses empathic thinking, and vice versa.  There is a brain divide, so to speak, that prevents us from invoking the analytical mind and the empathic mind at the same time. As we are constantly surrounded by computers and immersed in company cultures increasingly focused on making decisions based on data, empathic thinking can become even harder to come by. Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation, which have been shown to increase empathy for others, offer a practical way for designers and team members to boost their ability to delve deeper into the mind, body, intuition, and feelings and integrate them into a creative expression that can be shared with the world.  While mindfulness practices can be effective when engaging in design research and interacting with users, the best outcomes arise when there is a regular practice, as empathic thinking becomes a muscle that can be flexed when needed.

Being Mindful When Ideating

During the ideation phase, designers must embrace a divergent thinking mindset. The main goal during this phase is to generate as many ideas as possible, and we give ourselves permission to come up with a lot of bad ideas in order to generate a few good ones. Mindful design during this phase is about abandoning judgment and fear: letting go of judging ideas as “good” or “bad” while brainstorming, and letting go of the need to achieve the One Big Idea.

Yoga teaches us a lot about how to be playful and abandon judgment and fear, and illustrates how mindfulness practices impact outcomes in the physical body. When we stay in the present moment, we stop comparing ourselves to others. Without the ego in the way, we are able to be with ourselves without judgment and can more effectively sink into the poses that stretch the body. When we allow ourselves to be playful and not worry about falling or reaching for a goal, we allow ourselves to experiment and try things we didn’t think we could do. When the mind is present, the shapes we make with our bodies are beautiful. If we stress ourselves to contort into various shapes, the shapes would not be beautiful, but alarming. Similarly with brainstorming, when we let go of our ego and let go of judgment and fear, we become more playful and creative.

Stanford psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd found that people with an orientation toward the process of making — that is, staying focused on the act of creating, rather than the end product — develop more creative outcomes. “When we are concerned about the product of the process in which we are engaged, we worry about how it will be evaluated, judged, 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, new products.”

Mindfulness practices help us focus on the present. When we’re not worried about judgment of ideas, which comes later in the process, we can more easily relax and the creative mind can flow. As ideation becomes fun, joyful, and playful, ideas generated are similarly creative and fun. Thus it’s extremely important for designers to recognize what kind of mindset is appropriate for the stage of design they’re in. During brainstorming and ideation, where divergent thinking dominates, designers should adopt a playful, non-judging mindset.

Being Mindful When Designing Solutions

The thinking mind is not the creative mind. When designers are co-located with cross-functional team members to collaborate on a project, the team benefits from increased camaraderie, rapport, and trust built through frequent informal interactions. Yet, when designers are interacting with team members, conversation and negotiation invoke the thinking mind. In addition to co-locating designers with development teams, providing separate studio space for designers is an ideal way for designers to achieve the quiet contemplation necessary to connect with their creative minds, which is equally important.

Designers need not only different physical space but also separate mental space to design. While engineering and marketing counterparts often seek ways to add more functionality and features into a product, designers need to strike the right balance between features and functionality without overwhelming the user. The secret of good design is knowing what to leave out. Thus mindful design during this phase is about achieving a Zen-like quality of not being particularly attached to anything, whether a feature, a specific design element or solution, or a desired outcome. Ironically, by distancing yourself from the outcome, it becomes more possible to create a great design. This notion of “non-attachment” is a fundamental yogic principle: it is a mindset where you do the best you can and what you think is right, but not allow your happiness to depend on the outcome. As a designer, when your happiness does not depend on whether a pet feature or design solution gets included or not, or whether it’s your idea or someone else’s idea that gets embraced, less is at stake, and the mind is free to be more creative, more open, and more apt to explore.

Once ideation is over and it’s time to design, convergent thinking replaces divergent thinking, and attention shifts towards prototyping a few ideas to test. Mindfulness practices give us the strength to let go of the need to be perfect. Striving for perfection, after all, is about ego: perfectionism comes from the need to avoid shame and blame from creating a less-than-perfect solution. The rise of agile development practices has proven that it’s far better to invest time and energy into prototyping, testing, and iterating, than to take a waterfall approach in which plenty of time is invested in planning and designing a solution that might not actually be what works best. Be OK with testing a less than perfect design, but commit to gathering feedback and iterating to continuously improve.

The Mind-Body Connection: Putting Into Practice

Practicing yoga teaches you to notice what is happening in the body and respond to those cues. Subtle shifts in the mind can lead to changes in posture, energy flow, and the way one carries oneself in the body. Conversely, physical postures impact the mind as well; specific poses can induce surges of hormones that increase confidence, joy, assertiveness, etc. The next time you run a design meeting, consider doing some yoga:

  • Help people shed their ego by having them be in the present moment. At the beginning of a design review or brainstorm, have everyone pause for a few moments to practice focusing their attention and awareness on the breath. It may seem daunting and odd to ask people to do this, but in my experience, having a few moments to pause and declutter the mind is always well received!
  • Movement and cognition are highly related. Get people to move during meetings. Have them stand and gather around to review design mockups. Give them pens to scribble on printouts when they give feedback.
  • When facilitating brainstorms, clearly delineate space for divergent thinking and allow all ideas to flow through, regardless of judgment. Help others overcome their fear of rejection by responding with “Yes” or “Yes, AND” instead of “Yes BUT” or “No”.
Adopting a regular personal practice can help boost your design skills:
  • Consider a daily practice of meditation to boost empathic thinking, adopt a playful attitude, and practice letting go of attachment and letting go of the fear of being judged by yourself and others. Meditation can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Choose to meditate anywhere from 2 minutes to 1 hour per day. You can do this while lying down, walking, or sitting upright with the hips elevated above the knees. To help focus the mind, you can employ a variety of techniques: bring the attention back to the breath when the mind wanders; stare at a mandala, candle, or object of meditation; repeat a mantra. With practice, it becomes easier to quiet the mind and reach a calm, centered state.
  • It is not uncommon for people to report increased creativity when they practice yoga. When there is more openness in the body, there is more openness in the mind. Do a few stretches to open the chest and shoulders at the beginning of design sprints or hackathons; this helps prime the body and mind for receiving new ideas. The hips and psoas are often tight from too much sitting and standing, resulting in having us in a constant “fight or flight” posture; open this part of the body to enter a playful state of mind. Forward folds are introspective poses that are helpful for getting to a place of quiet contemplation.
  • We are most creative when we achieve a “relaxed but alert state”. A daily mindfulness practice, whether yoga or meditation or both, helps us practice putting the body and mind into such a state.

Most important of all is to recognize that you can choose your intention and to actively make that choice. In yoga, we begin each practice by setting an intention for how we are “being” in the present moment. Set your intentions based on what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values. As you gain insight from meditation and reflection, your ability to act from your intentions blossoms.

Similarly with design, be clear about what your intentions are with your offering, whether a product or service. Internalize your mission and values and let design be the expression of your intent. When your intentions are clear, so too are the fruits of your labor.


1. Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061

2. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, et al. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise.PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(3):e1897.

3. Jennifer S. Mascaro, James K. Rilling, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Charles L. Raison. Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online September 5, 2012 doi:10.1093/scan/nss095

4. Zimbardo,P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (2008). The Time Paradox. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster.

The Nectar of Chanting

We just returned from a family trip to the ashram in upstate NY.  Our visit was profound, powerful, and uplifting, in ways that are too deep, personal, and difficult to explain with words.  As is typically the case when taking the kids to a new, unfamiliar place, they were uncomfortable at first, but by the end of the week they loved it.  Much to my surprise and delight, the kids have really taken to chanting.

Chanting at the ashram can be quite challenging.  We sit for almost two hours, chanting in Sansrkit, where the words can be as long as 30+ characters.  Sometimes the chants are repetitive, but the longest, most challenging chant is 183 verses, lasting 45 minutes, and is not repetitive at all, which is more difficult to chant than a repetitive chant because you have to stay focused and present.  The first time the girls went through it they thought it was immensely boring but politely sat through the entire program.  One or two days later, something clicked, and their whole attitude changed.  “Chanting makes me feel good,” said Charlotte.

Chanting can be wonderfully euphoric and grounding.  At the most basic, physiological level, chanting is about breath control.  Chanting requires a relatively short inhale followed by a long, sustained exhale during which the notes are vocalized.  It is yoga for the vocal chords and tongue!  The control of breathing is a useful tool for reducing anxiety and stress and increasing feelings of gratitude.  

Singing offers similar benefits as chanting but there are features unique to chanting that contribute further to one’s well-being.  Chanting features a highly regular cadence and has an even range of tone.  Thus, it is much simpler and more accessible than singing and more energizing than regular speech.  Not everyone can sing, but everyone can chant.  

When chanting is done in Sanskrit, most students only have a loose association with the words.  As a result, the words are said in a more emotional than analytical way.  Making sounds with feeling creates a release which helps people feel better and breathe in a more balanced way.  The repetitive chants at our ashram often progress through a range of cadences and tones, which results in a journey through varied moods and emotions.  

Since most of us don’t know Sanskrit, chanting also becomes an exercise in setting aside one’s ego and approaching an activity with a beginner’s mind.  In addition to the health benefits, chanting cultivates increased concentration and mindfulness.  

Watching a beautiful music or dance performance can be extremely moving.  The performers are  united, mindful, filled with love for what they do, and sharing it with the world.  Chanting provides a similar sense of unity, with the difference being that you are also a participant.  That unity is our yoga. 

"I’m not good at yoga."

Now that I’m teaching yoga, the topic of yoga comes up in conversation from time to time.  A comment I hear often is “I don’t do yoga.  I’m not good at it.”  The irony of this comment fascinates me.  How come one rarely says, “I don’t go to strength training classes, because I’m not strong,” yet people say they don’t do yoga because they’re not flexible?

Perhaps what lies behind that statement is the perception that yoga is pretzel poses that only contortionists can do.  In fact, such poses are not part of the ancient tradition of yoga, and if one wants to better understand the history of yoga and its relationship to Western women’s gymnastics, I highly recommend “Yoga Body” by Mark Singleton.  Ancient yogic texts actually refer to only a few postures, intended for people to build strength and stamina to sit and meditate for long periods of time.

The term “yoga” means different things to different people.  The physical practice (referred to as “asana” which means “seat”) is one of eight limbs of the spiritual practice of yoga.  And yet to many, the term “yoga” is commonly associated with the physical practice.  Now there is a growing community of teachers and practitioners specializing in the discipline of yoga therapy.  While the definition of yoga therapy continues to evolve, to me it represents the integration of traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical, physiological, and psychological knowledge.  In this emerging tradition, there is recognition of the human being as an integrated mind-body system, and yogic techniques are used both as preventative measures to keep the body functioning optimally as well as to treat spiritual, physical, or mental ailments.

With these perspectives, what exactly does it mean to be “good” at yoga?  There is no “good” or “bad”,  no judgment to be made.  In yoga, there are just three rules to guide the practice:

  1. Start where you are.  It doesn’t matter how flexible you are or whether you are or are not flexible.  If you can breathe, you can do yoga.  There is always something for everyone to do, and there is always somewhere to go, more to learn.
  2. Join movement and breath.  There is no posture without breath.
  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.
Ultimately the comment “I’m not good at yoga” comes down to ego.  Just making it to the mat requires surrender and letting go of the inner critic that judges oneself and worries about being judged by others.  And that is what yoga is about.  (As an aside, this is also a necessary step for any creative endeavor!)

Mindful Design in Japan

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference last February I spoke about Zen and Design and what it means to design mindfully.  While vacationing in Japan last week, I was delighted to see how public spaces there are full of examples of mindful design.  For example, consider something as mundane as manhole covers.  In the US we never give them much of a thought; they usually look like this:

In contrast, manhole covers in Japan are an opportunity to bring unexpected delight to pedestrians that pass:

Manhole covers aside, how often have you seen sidewalk railing that looks like a cage or bars in a jail?
In Tokyo and Kyoto, the railing along sidewalks and bridges are opportunities to bring delight to the public:

In yogic practice we try to cultivate mindfulness by bringing our awareness to the present moment, without judgment.  Mindful design is about bringing attention and awareness to the things we otherwise take for granted, and creating joyful experiences through our interactions with those objects or surroundings.  The manhole covers and railings illustrate how mindful design can be applied to the physical appearance of an ordinary object.  We also found examples of mindful design applied to the experience of public spaces.  For example, this time of year, cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, and pedestrian malls and major roads are lined with sakura:

Compare this scene with California Ave, the local business district for my neighborhood in Palo Alto, which sadly does not even have trees after the city decided to chop them all down:

California Ave, Palo Alto:  Before, with trees
California Ave, Palo Alto:  Without trees

Another example:  many creeks in the US are filled with concrete, motivated by cheaper maintenance costs and more efficient flow of water to its destination:

La Ballona Creek, Culver City, CA

… while all the creeks we encountered in Kyoto were beautiful pedestrian paths:

Mindful design is not just about aesthetics.  User experience practitioners advocate for understanding users’ latent, unmet needs.  Identifying these needs and creating an experience that goes beyond what is expected or required is also mindful design.  Consider the ticket counters at Tokyo subway stations:
That little blue strip of plastic is in front of almost every ticket counter and vending machine. It’s not pretty, but it serves as a resting spot for one’s umbrella or cane as owners purchase their tickets.  It’s unlikely the Japanese public requested this feature; whoever thought to offer this feature had a heightened awareness of users’ latent needs and, just as importantly, had the funding and support to provide this extra detail.  Great design does come with a cost, whether it is added expense or time.  Thus, mindful design has to come from not only the designer, but also those who enable or support the creation of experiences (e.g. sponsors, CEOs, supervisors).

How are you designing mindfully the products and experiences you create? 

The Friendly Letter

My soon-to-be 7 year-old daughter has been subjecting us to reenactments of her lessons from school lately, using the whiteboard in the girls’ playroom.  In the moment, these lessons are a mixed blessing; we get insight into what she is learning at school while being bossed around in the evening as we catch up on the day’s emails, finish dinner and clean up, and get ready for bedtime.  The lessons have ranged from “From Seed to Tree” to “The Works of Leonardo da Vinci” to “What is an Adjective?”, complete with lesson, review, Q&A, and homework.

Last week, we had a lesson on The Friendly Letter.  We learned about friendly letter structure, formatting, and proper greetings and closings.  For homework, we randomly drew names of another member of the household and were assigned to write a friendly letter addressed to that person, due in one week.  As if we weren’t busy enough!  We procrastinated, hoping Sophie would forget about the whole thing, but she never does.  She even made notebook paper for us by drawing blue lines on white paper, an orange line for the margin, and punched three holes along the side (I told her I had notebook paper, but she insisted on making it for me).

And then, we started to experience the magic of The Friendly Letter.  I received my letter shortly after the assignment was made, from my father, written in Google Docs and emailed to me.  It was brief, but I was moved by his expression of his love and the sense of permanence and sincerity from his written words.   Over the following few days, notes of love and appreciation trickled throughout the house from one person to another.  For the recipients and receivers of The Friendly Letter, it has been a moving experience, an opportunity to reflect on the goodness evident in our lives, to practice kindness, and to nourish our relationships with each other.

Thank you, Sophie, for the lesson on The Friendly Letter.

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.)