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Kind Ambition

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One September morning in the middle of a yoga class, Yvonne Simon dropped into Child’s Pose. On the face of it, this would seem unremarkable. But for Simon, who’s 45 and lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, the moment was nothing less than stunning.

The class started like many others in Simon’s decades of practice. She entered class with high expectations. If the person practicing next to her could manage to do a full Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), so would she, no matter how much her wrist hurt. In fact, in most classes, she found herself playing a private little game: She’d look around the room, identify the most experienced yogi and the newest—and then assign herself a score somewhere in between. She usually rated herself a 7.

Sometimes she tried to check her ambition at the studio door, but it always seemed to follow her in. This tendency wasn’t confined to yoga class. A competitive swimmer and straight-A student when she was young, she grew into an industrious adult, moving through careers in teaching and publishing. In 1996, she became an entrepreneur, cofounding a software company, Six Red Marbles, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Whatever the task, Simon set herself exacting standards. “I can’t remember being any other way,” she says. “My parents were very ambitious, and it was part of my upbringing: You do as much as you can, and you do it all the time. You’re always supposed to be striving.”

She’d flirted with burnout more than once over the years and would periodically try to temper her ambition. At one point she left teaching and went to work at Crate and Barrel, a job she thought would consume her less. “In six months, I was made floor manager,” she says, laughing. “I couldn’t get away from my ambition. It was always there.”

So in yoga class that September day, it was no surprise that Simon was pushing herself—even though she’d recently had abdominal surgery. Then, about midway through the class, she started to struggle. “I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest,” she says. “And I thought, this is not what we’re supposed to be doing here. It’s time to let yourself off the speedway.”

As the others continued their vigorous practice, Simon sank into Child’s Pose. To her surprise, the world didn’t end. She didn’t even feel embarrassed. “It was a huge relief,” she says. “And I thought, Wow, I’ve been doing this all wrong all these years.” She wasn’t referring only to yoga class. The insight changed the way she handled the rest of her life.

At first glance, the idea that yoga can offer practical lessons for coping with ambition might seem dubious. After all, the world of goals and careers and striving can seem remote from the atmosphere of quiet self-acceptance that’s encouraged on the mat. For many people, like Courtney Davis, 27, a media relations manager in Boston, bringing ambition under yoga’s influence is a foreign concept. “When I do yoga, it is my time just to be, and when I’m at work, I’m going a thousand miles an hour and it is not my time just to be,” she says. “It’s just not how I think in my career. I’m thinking about progress and moving forward. It’s apples and oranges.”

Yet yoga and ambition are not polar opposites and can in fact be quite compatible. “Ambition is not bad,” says Bo Forbes, a yoga teacher and psychologist in Boston. When it becomes distorted, however, it can be negative, giving rise to jealousy or ruthlessness. And it’s equally true—though perhaps surprising—that yoga is not a valid excuse for failing to meet your highest potential.

What yoga can do, experts say, is help point the way toward a healthy, balanced ambition, both for people with lots of drive and for people who feel they lack it. “Yoga is about uniting your inner self with your outer self,” says Forbes, “and that’s the key to healthy ambition. Yoga doesn’t ask you to give up on a goal, but to go after it in a different way.”

Dream Better

The first step is to consider this question: What are you ambitious for? Healthy ambition depends on properly set goals.

A few years ago, Arnie Herz, now 44, had a big idea. A business attorney with a thriving Wall Street practice, Herz was doing well. But he wanted more. He’s a firm believer in mediation as a way of settling disputes, and while he looks for opportunities to use it in his legal practice, he thought if he could teach it to other lawyers, he’d have a far greater impact. “If I kept doing what I was doing,” he says, “I could make a difference in the lives of about a thousand people over the next 10 years. But if I could teach a thousand lawyers, and each one had a thousand clients, I could affect a million people!”

It’s easy to see how such an ambition might get away from him: causing him, for instance, to neglect his wife and three kids or to cut corners with existing clients. But Herz, who has been practicing yoga for 23 years, has learned to look closely at the goals he sets. So he checked in with himself about why he wanted to pursue this particular dream.

To attain a balanced ambition, your goal should not run afoul of the yama, or principle, of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Interpreted literally, this means your goals shouldn’t harm other living beings. But it also has a broader meaning, Forbes says. It means not running over other people in an attempt to get ahead and not harming or neglecting yourself when you’re trying to accomplish things.

So you may have to change the way you go about pursuing your goal, perhaps by shifting the time frame for accomplishing it. As Herz considered his dream, he realized that establishing his name and brand would involve a heavy speaking schedule and take him away from his family. “I don’t want to be an absentee father,” he says. So he set a more modest schedule, limiting his speaking engagements to one or two nights a month. He’s still serious about achieving his goal, but it’s unfolding more slowly than it might have. Herz started working on his plan in 1999. Since September of 2001, he has spoken to almost 2,500 lawyers and business owners. He’s well on his way to achieving a big dream without tipping out of balance.

If you’re practicing ahimsa, it might look as though not pursuing goals at all would be the wisest course: If you’re not going after a dream, you have little opportunity to cause harm, either to yourself or to others. But following yogic principles doesn’t give you carte blanche to slack off, says Forbes. The principle known as tapas emphasizes stamina, perseverance, and will power. To exercise tapas, you need to work toward a goal that’s challenging for you. “People with too little tapas often sell themselves short,” she explains. A goal that’s too easy won’t help you see what you’re made of.

Often, as Herz found, easing off from full-out pursuit of a goal serves the cause of nonviolence. But not always. For David Walsh, a 32-year-old comic in Boston, ahimsa demands that he work even harder to fulfill his dreams. On most nights of the week, he and his brother perform their act in clubs throughout the Northeast. But what he would really like to do is direct and write movies.

He hopes his nightclub gigs will lead to television work, and from there to movies. It won’t be easy. Walsh estimates it can take thousands of hours to hone six minutes of good material. This can take a toll, and the strain leads some entertainers to try to wring more out of their bodies with drugs and alcohol. Walsh’s yoga practice serves as a reminder that he should not do himself harm—and that there are no shortcuts to achieving his ambitions. “Yoga reminds me that my body is not exactly a temple, but it’s the only thing I have,” he says. That means he has to stay focused on getting enough sleep each night, making it to yoga class, doing his work, and avoiding the worst of the unhealthy nightclub lifestyle.

Cultivate Contentment

Samtosha, or contentment, is another element to think about when you’re setting goals. It can keep you from reaching for unattainable ones. For instance, every time Walsh performs onstage, there’s always one guy who’s not laughing. So I start thinking, What’s wrong with me? How do I get this guy to laugh? Walsh still wants every person in the room to laugh when they’re supposed to, but he’s less worried about it than he used to be.

A few simple techniques can help you set realistic but challenging goals, says Steven Danish, a psychologist and the director of the Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. First, you must state the goal positively. If you set a goal of never eating dessert again, you’ll only find yourself obsessing about dessert. Instead, vow to eat more healthful desserts. Second, the goal should be specific. “You have to know when you reach it,” Danish says. “A lot of people, when they get close to their goal, always move the bar a little further, so they’re never there.” It’s important to be able to say, “Hey, I did it.” And then you can set a new goal. Third, the goal must be important to you—not to your friends, your boss, your wife, or your father.

Finally, the goal must be something you can control. A goal that aims to change another person’s behavior violates this principle. So, too, does an ambition to land a specific new job. You can only control whether you apply, how well you present yourself, and how well you interview, Danish says. You don’t control whether you get the job or not.

Enjoy the Process

The key to balanced ambition is to focus on the process, not the outcome of your actions. In yoga terms, this is detachment, or nongrasping. For ambitious people this can be tough to integrate, Forbes acknowledges. But any goal you set your sights on—whether it’s being the first female vice president of your corporation, winning a marathon, or losing 50 pounds—involves many factors outside your control. And even when a goal does depend mostly on your own actions, you can never perform perfectly at all times. So it’s important to focus on your behaviors—and get real about what you can and can’t control.

Not only is this more realistic, but it also helps you maintain balance. You stay focused on the present instead of on some future that may never become reality. It’s tempting to say, “I’ll be happy when I get to my goal.” But if fate intervenes and you don’t reach it, you’ll be more than disappointed—you’ll be bitter about the time you spent getting there.

Ironically, the reward for achieving this state of nongrasping is not only balance: It’s also often success. When we release our iron grip on the results, we make it more likely that we’ll be able to accomplish what we want to do, says Rita Costick, an executive leadership coach and a registered yoga teacher who is the co-owner of Not Simply Yoga, a company in Phoenix, Arizona, that provides coaching. “The irony is that if you are genuinely able to take a break from pursuing goals and take yourself to a place of calm, new ideas and new ways of looking at difficulties will come to you,” Costick says. “It’s a risk to just sit and be and breathe, but it’s a risk worth taking.”

Gaze Inward

To get to that relaxed state, though, you have to find a way to get in touch with what is happening inside you. Often, ambition severs the connection between the conscious mind, the body, and the whole lie—you keep pushing until you’re way past your limit. (See “Playing on the Edge.) The remedy is pratayahara, or drawing your awareness inward, Forbes says. This means tuning in to your own thoughts and physical sensations, instead of brushing them aside in order to focus on your goals.

John Dulmage, 57, spent 17 years in sales at the Xerox Corporation. The competition was intense. “The mindset was, you’ve got to make the goal, you’ve got to get that next order in,” says Dulmage, who lives in Londonderry, New Hampshire. To make sure he wasn’t tipping out of balance, he maintained a regular yoga and meditation practice before and after work. “I could start the day clear and focused, and be extremely aggressive in the use of my energies, knowing I would have another period of meditation at the end of the day,” he says. In fact, his sales managers told him he was one of the most intense people on the team. His practice of turning inward, though, allowed the hard work to take less of a toll on his mind and body.

Of course, a good long inner gaze may reveal what you might not like to see. “There is the risk you’ll find that what you’re doing is not feeding you,” Forbes says. One of her clients, a successful lawyer, “was conquering case after case after case. But when she stopped to reflect, she realized she wasn’t doing what she wanted.” The lawyer ultimately became an artist.

Yet even if a major shift doesn’t happen, simply contemplating a more balanced approach to ambition can be frightening, Forbes says, as ambition is so tied in with our concept of self-worth. You may worry that taking a more measured approach will make you a slacker or that you will no longer be you. Such fears are generally unfounded, Costick says, because “you cannot change people. You cannot take ambition out of a person.”

Still, the transition can be difficult. “It is a little nerve-racking,” admits Simon, as she reflects on her new relationship with her ambition. “But my practice has enabled me to pull back and ask, Is what I’m doing going to take me where I need to go? Is this something I believe in? Do I really want to put the time and energy into it?” By following that approach, she says, “I’m convinced that the company will succeed in a way that I’m happier with ultimately.”

Simon is still ambitious, and she knows she always will be. “I don’t need to squelch that energy,” she says. But now she’s better able to balance it: “When I find myself panting at the computer, I take five minutes, and stretch, and give myself a good talking to. I say, ‘This is just a project. I feel like it’s a part of me, but it’s not me.'”

In these brief pauses that she creates throughout her day—pauses much like the moment she dropped into Child’s Pose in yoga class that morning—Simon feels grounded. With her practice in place, she can start each day with enthusiasm, knowing her ambition won’t sweep her away.