Yoga & Self Leadership: Why corporate tools won’t help us

This October, I’m launching the first go-around of a 5 class series on self-leadership. It generally feels that it makes most sense to engage topics about the self in the spring, perhaps with the beginning of Aries season that encourages us to notice how we emerge into the world. The Libra focus on others is another beginning, though – that of how we begin to relate to others, how we frame the idea of ‘other’, and what that relationship looks like. 

Why self-leadership?

Different from management, which is oriented towards the completion of tasks or projects, often in a particular way to meet a certain specification, leadership is more concerned with the aims, vision, mission, and values that inform what a given action should be to begin with. When we do not have a sense of self-leadership, we are necessarily defaulting to being led by other, often anonymous forces, in order to align ourselves with potentially unknown agendas. These agendas may even be working against our own interests, or have led to various hurts and harm, but still we participate. For this Libra season, I am engaging the idea of self-leadership from this perspective of our impact on others around us. Unless and until we know that we are strong in our sense of self-leadership, we are almost certainly playing into systemic and institutional harms that have spent centuries embedding themselves into social contract to the point where they are not only normalized but invisible. 

This is heavy, and can bring about all kinds of feelings on top of those that we are already having in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the amplified movements against police violence and racialized injustice, and the uncertainty of what our day to day lives might look like as the domestic economy and employment are unsteady and a presidential election looms just weeks away. 

So, how do we begin to lead ourselves towards a vision that promotes harm reduction for ourselves and others, or goes even further to a vision that promotes equity, or liberation? Each of us is on our own journey and born into lives that offer different privilege, power, and influence, but also that position us differently in terms of oppression, distresses, and traumas that we’ve experienced, both primary and secondary. As such, there can be no prescriptive ‘checklist’ approach to the work – it has to emerge organically, one step at a time, beginning from a continuously deepening sense of self-awareness. 

Emotional Intelligence Won’t Liberate Us

I do not mean self-awareness in the emotional intelligence sense of the work, which is more oriented to our being aware of ourselves in the context of other people. Since studying emotional intelligence in my graduate work a few years ago, I’ve come to the conclusion that emotional intelligence is just another system that promotes white dominant culture and corporate capitalist supremacy.

For example, self-awareness in this sense might be demonstrated by my noticing when something offered by a supervisor agitates me, or when I disagree strongly with a policy that is rolled out, and to manage it accordingly. This means finding the appropriately sensitive way to bring up to individuals who have positional power over me that I am struggling with their decision, or that I feel harmed by them. I’m expected immediately to move from my emotional state (anger, frustration, despair, etc.) to frame this in a way that aims to not trigger any such emotional responses from the person who made me feel these things to begin with. Doing otherwise would be seen as being antagonizing, overreacting, not having command over my feelings, etc. The ability to successfully manage my emotions and reasonably maintain comfort while working collaboratively towards a resolution that reduces the harm that I experience is held as a high standard of emotional intelligence. 

I am not suggesting that the ability to do this well is a bad thing, but I am suggesting that it is inequitable to the subject who was harmed. Not only were they hurt, but they then also have to undertake the emotional labor for them to practice harm reduction in response to the leadership or individual who was the actual catalyst.

If we introduce racial and class components and recognize that the majority of senior leadership deciding what the work experience of others is are white upper-middle class or higher, and that the majority of workers who are affected are middle-class or lower, and that the majority of people of color fall into this group, it makes it a bit more clear how we can understand the idea of emotional intelligence as largely supporting white comfort and reinforcing white dominant cultures.

This kind of approach will not lead us out of oppression or towards liberation, and so we need a different kind of approach for building awareness of the parts of ourselves that determine our actions, decisions, and reactions to the world around us.

If you’re interested in using your yoga practice to build self-awareness and self-leadership in a way that is directed towards liberation, please check out one of my sliding scale classes. This is a journey we need to take on together.