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As life has come to a standstill this past year and we’ve been forced to forgo events, offices, restaurants, activities, and even time spent with family and friends, many of us have felt sad, anxious, uncertain and insecure. Perhaps angry, too, which is a normal response to such unique circumstances. Yet anger is not only harmful to our physical and emotional health; it can also manifest itself in harmful verbal or physical aggression.
Nonviolence, the first principle in the practice of yoga, gives us a healthy way to handle anger and thrive in trying times such as the present. Known as “ahimsa,” the Sanskrit word for noninjury, the concept of nonviolence as a way of life was codified in the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text compiled by the Indian philosopher Patanjali thousands of years ago from even older traditions.
In principle, nonviolence means an absence or lack of violence. But in practice, it means consciously avoiding or abstaining from causing physical and psychological pain to any living being. Or, to look at it as the renowned leader most associated with the practice — Mahatma Gandhi — did, observing nonviolence requires actively choosing peaceful behavior in the midst of conflict.
In fact, Gandhi made ahimsa famous when he followed it in practice, not only employing nonviolent resistance for freedom from British domination and social justice but also making it a way of life in everything he did — right down to following a vegetarian diet.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who was inspired and deeply influenced by Gandhi, gave voice to the concept when he noted, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
Nonviolence as a Way of Life
Being nonviolent means cultivating qualities such as compassion, empathy and kindness within yourself and with the people you interact with daily. This makes nonviolence a way of life.
It means engaging in practices that support you when negative emotions get the better of you or escalate to violence. These include various forms of yoga, meditation and nonviolent communication, a way of listening to hear your own deeper needs as well as those of others and reacting compassionately through speech. It focuses on solving disagreements rather than merely ending them, and like yoga and meditation, it is a technique to decrease anger.
Decreasing anger and embracing nonviolence is especially important for anyone who is a business leader, especially in creative fields dependent on collaboration and innovation. While traditional leadership theories typically don’t focus on nonviolence, many leaders — from business ethicists to executive coaches for major companies to CEOs — believe practicing this approach can boost collaboration, productivity, innovation, focus and job satisfaction.
Perhaps the most famous case in point is Satya Nadella. When he took over as Microsoft’s CEO in 2018, he passed out copies of the 2003 book Nonviolent Communication by groundbreaking psychologist Marshall Rosenberg to his entire senior leadership team — with instructions to read it. Many believed this helped him transform Microsoft’s culture from “cutthroat to creative.”
Of course, every leader wants their company to be a place where innovation and collaboration will thrive. Getting there means conquering anger, the emotion that underlies hostility and outrage. It can not only lead to violent behavior, but it’s also bad for our health and overall demeanor because anger can make us physically sick. It sends stress hormones throughout our bodies that can do significant damage to our immune systems over time.
But there is a solution: Instead of denying or ignoring anger, it should be dealt with immediately. As a yoga teacher and therapist, I’ve taught many clients in creative fields how to neutralize inner hostilities, break through their anger and move on. Below is one of the most expedient and effective practices I’ve developed to help anyone — creatives and business leaders included — transform anger into healthy emotional growth and practice nonviolence as a way of life.
Choosing Nonviolence and Growth
One of the skills that distinguishes star performers in every field — from entry-level workers to leaders in executive positions — is the ability to be self-aware. Research in the Harvard Business Review suggests that people who see themselves clearly are not only more confident and creative but also have a wide range of positive qualities that make them better leaders. This includes making sounder decisions, building stronger relationships and communicating more effectively.
Yet senior executives often don’t give self-awareness the credit it deserves, psychologist Daniel Goleman maintains. His groundbreaking classic Emotional Intelligence showed that people who are self-aware can assess their emotions honestly and are well suited to do the same for the organizations they run.
Being able to neutralize negative emotions and transform them into positive ones is a quality that drives good leadership. I’ve found this simple anger management practice an easy way to start:
• Sit down, and be silent. Tune in to your body, and focus your attention on your breath.
• Take a minute to observe any sensations in your body. Emotions cause physiological changes, so focus on your body, and look for any feelings of agitation or tension.
• Think about what you’re feeling, and label it.
• Consider if it’s something you don’t like feeling or thinking.
• Once you identify your feelings, clarify them further by asking yourself why you’re uncomfortable, unhappy or angry at the moment.
• Investigate these feelings. Recognize why you feel the way you do, and acknowledge your anger.
• Then ask yourself if anger is the best emotion for you to feel.
• Once you discover the root causes of your anger, you can consider a way to redirect these negative feelings and make a choice to find a better way to feel.
By letting yourself fully feel your negative or angry feelings, you can make a choice to transform them into positive, affirming emotions. Properly channeled, they can become the power behind your emotional growth.