How Yoga Made Me a Better Lean Startup Practitioner

I’ve been practicing Bikram Yoga for a little over 5 years now. For those that aren’t familiar with this form of yoga:

Bikram Yoga is a system of yoga that Bikram Choudhury synthesized from traditional hatha yoga techniques and popularized beginning in the early 1970s. Bikram’s classes run exactly 90 minutes and consist of a set series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. Bikram Yoga is ideally practiced in a room heated to 105°F (≈ 40.6°C) with a humidity of 40%.


My initial draw to Bikram wasn’t the pursuit of spirituality or the many health benefits, but simply finding an “efficient” exercise routine that I could fit into my busy schedule. Before Bikram, I used to frequent a gym, occasionally run, and meditate. Even at 90 mins a class, Bikram packed in a workout, meditation, and sauna in one. I gave it a shot and have been hooked ever since.

As my practice has deepened, I have drawn many parallels with my practice of yoga and my practice of entrepreneurship – particularly lean.

Synthesis is Innovation

Yoga like entrepreneurship is a big (and daunting) topic especially to a beginner. Bikram curated 26 poses from a collection of close to a thousand, added heat, and created his own unique contribution to the yoga world. This wasn’t without controversy as he also managed to build a highly profitable franchise built on the merits of creating a copyrightable compilation.

Lean Startup also evoked a similar reaction by some in the early days (and maybe still does today). Many felt it was just a compilation of “best-practices” that was already common knowledge to more experienced entrepreneurs. But they missed the point.

The true power of innovation through synthesis is that it reduces previously fragmented and seemingly unrelated bodies of knowledge into an actionable framework – one where the sum is greater than the parts. The simplicity of the framework allows the practitioner to “just practice”, communicate with other practitioners using a common language, and contribute back to the framework.

Everyone is a Practitioner

It’s fairly common to find yoga instructors (or guides) lined up next to you in class. Everyone is a practitioner and it shows. There is a basic script (or dialog) used to lead the class but every instructor fills in the gaps with their own experiential knowledge. This provides the student with new ways to interprete and experiment with the poses (asanas).

Lean Startup’s success/popularity as a movement is, of course, largely attributed to Eric Ries – I believe not just for codifying the methodology itself and tirelessly traveling the globe (for 3 years straight), but just as importantly for actively fostering the “everyone is a practitioner” mindset.

Retain Only Rigorous Practitioners

I’ve always appreciated the “sign-up flow” at my yoga studio. Unlike my previous gym membership experience which felt like dealing with a used car salesperson, the sign-up process at the studio is simple and straightforward.

You are presented with two options: a drop-in rate of $14 or an introductory special of $20 which gets you unlimited classes for 14 days. The guides don’t “sell you” and actually warn you that this yoga isn’t for everyone. You’ll either love it or hate it by the end of the first class which is often amusing to see. Most newcomers start the class with smiling happy faces probably expecting a relaxing retreat. Half-way through the class the smile has worn off and they are struggling just to keep up and drinking lots of water (too much) which only makes it harder to do the poses.

After the sign-up period, there are many pricing options from pay-as-you-go, monthly, and yearly plans. The point is they are not interested in tricking or “guilting” you into a long-term contract but retaining serious practitioners – a sound philosophy for retaining both team members and customers.

Continuous Learning

I’ve found it amazing that even after 5 years I haven’t gotten bored of doing the same 26 pose routine. Every class is the same yet different. Yes you enter every class with a different mind/body state and the rotation of instructors add additional variation, but the real reason it feels new is that there is constant learning and discovery.

For instance, something I had to unlearn early on was keeping a bent knee during the poses. In every other sport I’ve done, keeping a locked knee is asking for injury. In yoga though, a locked knee is the foundation of a strong core and until you (can) lock your knee, the pose hasn’t even begun. This is surprisingly hard to do and all you need to focus on at first.

In Lean Startups, you similarly have to unlearn a lot of things that are surprisingly hard
– reaching for the compiler versus the phone
– building perfect products versus testing with “just-enough of a solution” proxies
– furthering your beliefs versus communicating learning objectively

After a while you begin to appreciate that every part of the dialog and routine was carefully chosen which reveals itself in layers. Some words suddenly start making sense from one day to the other – such as “sips of air”. When you first start Bikram, everyone brings in a bottle (or more) of water to class. The room is hot and uncomfortable and people reach for the water bottle whenever they can. You are instructed to drink water only after the fourth pose and thereafter only between poses. Here’s the thing, you can’t absorb water that quickly and the water ends up filling your belly, making it hard to move and breathe…

After coming for a while, you realize that it’s not water you need, but air. The key is keeping your breathing steady and under control and the discomfort quickly passes away. More advanced students only hydrate before class, don’t bring any water to class, and instead drink sips of air.

In a startup, money is like the water. You need just enough to get started. Drinking too much or refilling constantly will slow you down. You should instead chase those “sips of air” – customer learning.

Standing Bow-pull

The one pose for me though, that captures the process of starting up is the standing bow-pulling pose. This is certainly one of the harder poses to realize fully (not the hardest) but it’s the most fun – for newcomers and experienced practitioners alike.

The initial challenge is just setting up correctly and getting into the pose. It’s easy to get started and everyone falls out of the pose which is part of the fun. The first objective is finding balance and then holding it (survival/runway).

After practicing for a while, you find yourself able to balance and hold a pose comfortably forever, but it’s only a 50-75% realization of the full pose (the dip).

In order to get to the full realization, you have to continuously work at it – simultaneously kicking your leg up and stretching your arm forward. It can take years to achieve. In my studio, there are only 2-3 people who can fully realize this pose. I’m not one of them, but it’s the journey as much as the result that makes it worthwhile.

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  • Anonymous

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  • Ashu

    I’m glad someone in the lean startup world noticed the similarities in the concepts between yoga and lean startups. I myself have not had too much of a chance to explore that deeply but on the surface I noticed it. On a more personal note, I have been doing rock climbing as my workout routine and I think it has taught me a lot about tackling startups in general. Rock climbing is a daunting thing and I ave a tendency to be afraid of the unknown. Whenever I come across a climbing route I am uncertain of or unsure of, I used to shy away. Overtime I have learned that being afraid does me no good. Facing the challenge, failing at the difficult route, learning upon every try or iteration how to do it better eventually got me to a point where I can comfortablly climb it and finish. I have been able to unlearn being afraid of the unknown and getting over the voices of doubt in my head which I think is something not touched on when starting a startup.

  • Anonymous

    Combining two verticles for the better of both is evidence, you  know what you’re talking about. I’ve toyed with both ‘yoga’ and ‘start-ups’ – and to carry your analysis further, neither has worked out very well for me. Both require a full embrace in order to prove useful. Thanks again for your insight!

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  • Taylor Jacobson

    Ash, brilliant, thank you. I’m in Mumbai & Pune, India right now, studying yoga while working on my first startup.

    One of core philosophies in hatha yoga is that because the mind and body are completely interconnected, we can actually purify the mind by working on the body. Because yoga requires so much patience and attention to process and detail (alignment, straighten that knee, etc.), it would not be a huge leap to assert that practicing yoga can actually make you a better entrepreneur.

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  • Andrew Korf

    Great post. Slight segue: my fiancee and fellow yogi is in delhi and happened to see a copy of Running Lean at the institue she is working with.

    Can agree enough on how the concentration and centering that yoga helps a practitioner learn absolutely helps with focus and moving the ball forward on a startup. Im surprised more isn’t written about linking the two. the folks up @asana:disqus  are all about connecting yoga with their work.

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  • hernt gill

    Many felt it was just a compilation of “best-practices” that was
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  • Humberto Gonzalez

    Hello Ash, I’ve been following your blog articles for months now and I
    have learned a lot. In fact your views have helped me to reshape many of
    the businesses I’m involved with. But, this particular article changed
    my life: “How Yoga Made Me a Better Lean Startup Practitioner.”
    I liked the connection you made between Bikram Yoga and the Lean
    Startup practice. Besides the similarities between both disciplines I’ve
    also found that true change must start from ourselves, from within. I
    really feel sad for many of my entrepreneurs friends and colleagues who
    are very passionate and successful about their startups that they
    completely forget about taking care of themselves. They live in a hurry a
    short life without balance. The lean startup principles should be
    applied to our bodies to get rid of unnecessary fat and  reach a
    healthier and more fulfilling life. I had no idea what Bikram Yoga was
    about. After I read your article it picked my curiosity and did some
    Internet research on the topic. Two days after I was buying an
    introductory month of Bikram Yoga at the nearest studio. Thirty days
    after I decided to buy an unlimited one year membership. Since then I’ve
    been practicing every day with sacred commitment. I have lost 25 pounds
    and I haven’t felt healthier in many years. Bikram Yoga has made me
    more energetic, creative and disciplined. Like you said in your article,
    Bikram Yoga made me a better lean startup practitioner. Thank you for
    sharing your experience with the rest of us!

  • Eric Samudio

    this definitely hits home. Bikram Yoga is so challenging that no mater how many classes you go to, it’s equally hard. Everyone goes at their own pace, which is true with startups as well. Some people kick ass in one class a week, but others go 5 days a week and maintain posture throughout the class. 

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