Keeping a locked knee (or a completely straight leg) is key for one-legged balancing yoga poses.
A locked knee provides a solid foundation that keeps your foot grounded as you progress through the rest of the pose.
“If you don’t have a locked knee, your pose hasn’t even started.”
– Bikram Yoga Dialog
I get all this. Yet I still constantly struggle with keeping my knees locked even after years of yoga practice.
My brain knows what to do, but my body does not always follow.
I can’t help but draw a parallel to running lean where “locking your knees” corresponds to “tackling what’s riskiest in your business model”.
“If you aren’t tackling what’s riskiest, your learning hasn’t even started.”
Like locked knees, tackling what’s riskiest is simple to understand but deceptively hard to put into regular practice.
Here are a couple of reasons why…
1. The Curse of Specialization
Before yoga, I studied martial arts for several years where I was taught to do the exact opposite i.e. never to keep a locked knee. Not only do locked knees restrict mobility, but a misplaced kick from an opponent can have a really painful (and potentially disastrous) outcome.
“Keeping knees slightly bent” isn’t just applicable to martial arts. Almost every other sport from skiing to weight lifting dispels the same advice to prevent injury.
Years of prior practice in these other sports ingrained a muscle memory or behavior that is still hard for me to unlearn. This is what I label as the “curse of specialization”.
While overcoming old habits are part of the challenge, the problem is further exacerbated through misplaced fear.
2. Misplaced Fear
In the case of yoga, it is fairly easy to rationalize the contradictory advice. Yoga is different from other sports, it is less mobile, and people aren’t taking whacks at you. But the image of shattered knees (even though I have never had a knee injury – knock on wood) is still enough to make me slightly bend my knees under just enough tension.
These same forces are also at play in entrepreneurship which as you know is riddled with extreme uncertainty. When faced with extreme uncertainty, we reach into the past for guidance. Over the years though, each of us has honed both a specific set of skills along with a set of misplaced fears which actually hold us back.
For instance, software developers spend years honing their craft which is primarily an “inside the building” activity. Getting them outside the building to go talk to customers is not only perceived as non-productive work (because there isn’t any making involved), but it may also have the disastrous consequence of upsetting the customer or worse losing the customer. Really?
Similarly sales and marketing folks should only do what they are good at and stay clear from code, or risk bringing down the entire production system.
While there is a place for specialization, over specialization and misplaced fears help create organizational policies and silos that over time stifle innovation and can even negatively impact overall throughput.
Local (or sub) optimization is the enemy of overall organizational throughput.
The antidote to breaking this curse is replacing old ingrained habits with new ones. But behavior change is hard. Luckily there is now a science to it.
B = MAT
BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, has developed a simple framework to model human behavior.
Behavior = Motivation * Ability * Trigger
Lets work through this framework to see how it can help us unlearn old behaviors and replace them with newer ones:
The first requisite ingredient for behavior change is some kind of an initial triggering event that motivates change i.e. it makes us desire a better outcome than the present.
Note: A number of you should recognize the picture above from my post on the “Physics of Customer Acquisition”. Yes, the same forces that drive customer behavior also apply to us at a meta level.
With yoga, my initial motivation wasn’t the pursuit of spirituality or the many health benefits, but simply finding a more “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.
With running lean, I grew weary of having a 1-2 year cycle time going from an idea to a decision point where I would keep or kill off a product. As I wasn’t getting any younger and had more ideas than resources, this constraint motivated me to search for better and faster ways to vet new ideas.
“Life is Too Short to Build Something Nobody Wants”.
In order for a behavior to become habit forming, you need to have sufficient ability to complete the action. The action doesn’t necessarily have to be easy. It might even get you slightly outside your comfort zone but still be doable.
Many yoga instructors simply ask beginning students to hold the setup position for the entire length of the pose. You get on one leg and contract your quads until your knee cap lifts up. Then you hold this position for 30 seconds. Sounds simple, but after about 10 seconds you begin to feel your knee bending and have to constantly remind yourself to keep locking your knee.
Over time, muscle memory develops and you can then start progressing through the rest of the pose – still constantly reminding yourself to maintain your foundation which always fights to come undone.
In the examples above, you similarly need to adjust the activities for ability. Having a developer deliver a sales pitch or a salesperson deliver a complete feature could be aiming too high. Instead have the developer simply observe the customer interaction or the sales person commit low risk changes (like fixing spelling errors) at first to build muscle memory. Then gradually level up from there using additional triggers.
While the initial trigger (or motivation) is the catalyst that starts the ball rolling, for the change to really manifest into habit forming behavior, you need periodic and regular triggers that keep bringing you back to the specific activity.
One of my favorite techniques here is employing time boxing + external accountability. It is very easy for us to cop out when no one is watching.
“If you fail in the forest, is it really a failure?”
While I can technically practice yoga at home, I practice 3 times a week at a studio for external accountability. Constantly getting called out for not locking my knees by more than one instructor creates a repeatable trigger that reinforces the importance of this action.
With running lean, I employed external accountability right here on this blog with my first blog post. The expectation to continually share my learning around lean is what drove me to continue writing (and eventually teaching) on a regular basis.
I often recommend that entrepreneurs first set up their own external accountability systems and reporting cadence before committing to any project for exactly this reason.
These periodic triggers provide an opportunity for deliberate practice which is key for mastering anything new. Just make sure you gradually level up on ability, use motivation for your desired outcome to push you, and you’ll be locking your knees in no time.
Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.