When the internet boom first started, it seemed as if all you needed was to slap a ".com" behind a novel idea and you'd instantly make millions. Faster than you can say "Amazon.com," that dream disappeared. Today, newspaper headlines regularly announce a dot-com's layoffs, a three-month-old Web site's shutdown, or a stock tanking because the company was unable to raise its next round of venture capital. "Nothing is as you think in the Internet world," says Marilyn Tam, president of Fasturn, Inc., a two-year-old business-to-business e-commerce site. "You have to constantly adjust." Tam compares working in today's dot-com world with kayaking Class V rapids. "You have to look for the next rock and avoid it, then get around the next curve and be ready to negotiate what lies beyond it, even though you're not sure what that is," she says. "You know you're going to get wet, but the most important thing is to get your head back above water."
Just about the only constant is the breathless, I-needed-that-yesterday pace; regardless of whether or not the Internet is booming, its execs move faster than the speed of a T3 line—constantly. "You've got to stay centered, otherwise you'll spin out," Tam says. Now, many dot-commers are turning to the centuries-old practice of yoga to keep afloat in the virtual Brave New World. "You can easily dry up from the inside out," observes Tam. "You can see it happening in people—too much coffee and junk food, too many flights and late nights. Yoga can reverse that process." Which is something Tam and fellow dot-com executives Liz Sickler and Kendall Lockhart all know: Because they have successfully integrated yoga into their hectic professional lives, when things seem out of control, they're able to draw regularly on their spiritual centers—something infinitely more valuable than any dot-com could offer.
Former President and COO, TripHub.com
Tight hamstrings and double mocha lattes are what originally led Liz Sickler to yoga. At the time she was vice president of new business development at Starbucks and a runner whose legs weren't getting the proper stretching they deserved after her workout. So, at the suggestion of a friend, she enrolled in the company's thrice-weekly yoga class. "My whole body felt so good after the class. I was much more peaceful," she remembers. Enamored with her reaction to yoga, she promised herself that if she were ever to start a company, she'd make Downward-Facing Dogs and Sun Salutations part of the company culture.
Fast forward one year to April 2000, when Sickler, 35, was hired by TripHub.com, a Seattle-based student travel site. Even though the company wasn't her own, she approached cofounder and CEO Mike Fridgen, 25, and CFO Andy Farsje, 27, with the idea of bringing Om to the workforce. Not only did they green-light the corporate yoga class, they joined in. In fact all of TripHub.com's 28 employees, with varying levels of physical fitness, trekked over to Seattle's Samadhi Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday to practice with Michelle Gantz, the woman who originally taught Sickler's Starbucks class. Gantz would lead them through one hour of Ashtanga Yoga, followed by half an hour of meditation and breathing practices. "When you see your coworkers upside-down, it quickly develops the feeling that everybody is part of one team," says Sickler.
Sickler's initial foray into yoga was so positive that in 1999 she went to the Sivananda Ashram in Grass Valley, California, for a month and attended an intensive Ashtanga Yoga Week with Tim Miller at Rancho La Puerta in Mexico. Those retreats helped her bring a stronger spiritual foundation to her practice. "I was raised a Catholic, but that never really made sense to me. The way that yoga connects the body, mind, and spirit—I understand that on a deep level," she says. More tangibly, the calm she learned to sustain in yoga, while working through the discomfort of challenging asanas, translates easily into her everyday life. "I'm able to focus much more easily now. I've trained my mind to concentrate on just one thing," she says.
Yoga has also enabled Sickler to cope with the uncertainty typical of her profession—as when TripHub.com, which began in 1997 as a bricks-and-mortar outfit selling student travel packages from a basement and morphed into a Web site in October 1999, was acquired in late 2000 and moved to the Boston offices of its new corporate parent. Some staffers made the move, but Sickler chose to stay in Seattle and is currently mulling over several professional and educational options. Because of her practice, she says, her "approach to dealing with conflict and pain is more grounded in inner peace. Yoga has helped me have a better perspective on what the important things in life are."
Chief Executive Officer, OneBody.com
About six years ago, while overseeing the creation of 56 interactive products, including Disney's first entertainment Web site, Kendall Lockhart, a former vice president and head of worldwide creative and product development for Disney Interactive, found time in his crazy schedule to pump some serious iron. "I was very into the gym scene," he remembers with a laugh. "I saw people doing their cute little Sun Salutations and thought, 'If you're going to come to the gym, you might as well get a real workout.'" But endless bicep curls and hours on the Stairmaster couldn't help relieve the stress of his self-described "pretty insane" life. So, casting his prejudice aside, he tried a two-hour introductory class at the Los Angeles Center for Yoga. "I remember lying there in Savasana," he says, "thinking to myself, 'I could do this for the rest of my life. This is what I've been waiting for.'"
Within five weeks, he was practicing daily. "I felt so in tune with my body that I knew I could help others get in touch with theirs," he says. A year later, he had graduated from the teaching certification program at the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara and subsequently completed teacher trainings with Rodney Yee and Erich Schiffmann. However, with the exception of passing on a few points to friends during classes, his knowledge went unshared—20-hour workdays (sometimes during seven-day work weeks) made any kind of regular commitment impossible. Even so, he managed to practice three to five times a week; an all-too-typical day would be to leave the office at 6 p.m., practice for 90 minutes, then head to a dinner meeting afterwards.
Lockhart, 43, left Disney in 1998 and the following year joined OneBody.com as president and chief operating officer. With services like Personal Assist, Your Health Concierge, and Health Match—which connects patients with professionals ranging from chiropractors to yoga instructors—and sections like Thoughtful Health News, the site, introduced in March 2000 and based in Emeryville, California, is dedicated, as Lockhart says, to "bringing the crazy, complicated world of health care and alternative health care down to a manageable form." Even though the subject and greater meaning of the site have more relevance to Lockhart's life, his responsibilities at OneBody.com aren't very different from what they were at Disney. "I run a company, so a typical day is 1,000 meetings and 1,000 phone calls," he says. He engages in very little water cooler chatter; instead, most of his conversations center around strategy: where the company is headed, what its immediate goals are. "It's fairly intellectual work. Definitely not physical and not necessarily emotional," he admits. "But it still can be exhausting." To keep his energy levels up, he tries to practice every day what he describes as a flow-style or energy yoga. "I like a very physical practice, but I'm not into the preformatted approach of Ashtanga," he says, "Before I begin, I listen to my body to see how it feels and adjust accordingly."
In addition to his solo practice at home, Lockhart teaches classes for OneBody.com employees twice a week and for people with disabilities once a week. Not surprisingly, the tranquil sensibility he has developed through yoga now pervades his life, from making business decisions—"I try to think, 'How should I respond to this?'"—to his overall perspective—"Yoga just helps me see things freshly."
Perhaps most importantly, yoga has helped Lockhart let go of his self-professed type-A personality, which, in addition to causing him to believe that everything happened because he had made it happen, had him entertaining false ideas of how emotions worked. "I used to think that if I worked harder and made more money, I'd be more successful, which would make me safe and loved and happy," he says. "Not only does yoga help me lose that attitude, but it helps me realize that God is primarily in charge and things just fall out from there. I'm not in charge of my own destiny."
When Lockhart falls out of practice, which is rare, those type-A neuroses come storming back. He knows that yoga's overarching tenets of equilibrium, tranquility, and acceptance are keys to a successful, fulfilling life. "My life is still as complex as it was at Disney," he admits, "but it has much more balance now."
President, Fasturn, Inc.
"It wasn't an immediate conversion," Marilyn Tam remembers of her reintroduction to yoga, a practice both her mother and grandmother exposed her to as a child. Tam, a former collegiate swimmer, pursued what she considered more athletic activities for most of her youth. Then her professional activities—including positions as CEO of Aveda Corporation, president of the apparel products and retail group at Reebok, and vice president at Nike—took up the majority of her time. Even so, when a couple of her friends mentioned taking private yoga sessions in their homes, she was curious to see what they were so excited about. So she arranged for their instructor, John Patrick Sullivan, to teach a small group in her home. "My friends were much more familiar with yoga than I was and got it immediately," she remembers. "While I can't say that first class was the best thing to happen to me, by the third class I could definitely tell it was making a difference."
In February 2000, when Tam was appointed president at Fasturn, Inc., a Century City, California-based business-to-business e-marketplace for the global apparel industry, she invited Sullivan, a former linebacker with the New York Jets who traded the gridiron for sticky mats, to teach a weekly class. "Because he's such a big guy—not what people would consider a traditional yoga practitioner—people can identify with him. His presence gives people permission to try this," says Tam.
"We start every class with the statement that we're letting go of our day, that we're now devoting ourselves to connecting our body, mind, and spirit," Tam adds. They then proceed through a flowing sequence that can be adapted to all levels and encourages concentration on being present. "Your mind can't wander," she notes. "You have to concentrate on the flow of the motion." That focus and calming connection has helped Tam more times than she can count. "I can get very tense if I'm in a frustrating discussion," she says. "And if I just go back to that center and concentrate on breathing, I'll be fine. It's usually not the situation that upsets us, but rather, not being in our center." And the benefits of the class spread beyond Fasturn's walls. On one recent night, Marion Kraft, Tam's assistant, couldn't sleep. "The next morning, she told me she went back to her center through breathing, as Sullivan had taught them to do. Before she knew it, she was asleep."
Having a class at Fasturn helps Tam both personally and practically. Monday through Friday, she stays in an apartment right across from the office. She crosses the street and is at work by 7:30 a.m. (sometimes earlier, she says, "if I feel the need to get an early start"), and tries to leave the office by 8 p.m., although an 11 p.m. departure isn't unusual. "We're a young company, which means we all do more than one thing," she says. "For me, strategizing is a huge part of my job." She's in daily contact with employees in Fasturn's New York, Washington, Hong Kong, and Seoul offices; travel, although sporadic, can be very heavy. On the weekends, Tam commutes to her home in Santa Barbara, 90 miles away, where she tries to get in another session at Teahouse Yoga, Sullivan's studio. Although she claims not to be very flexible yet, her practice is enhanced by the fact that she has been meditating on a daily basis for around 20 years. And, like any good businesswoman, she's excited by the challenge of doing something better. "I like to go to classes and see my improvement. Maybe I'm doing better than last time."
Dimity McDowell is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer.