Professor Hitendra Wadhwa is both yogi and businessman. As a faculty member at the Columbia School of Business, Wadhwa teaches what it means to bring the principles of yoga to a segment of the population that aren't usually associated with spiritual pursuits. Through his approach, which he calls Personal Leadership, Wadhwa brings together meditation and techniques for building awareness, scientific research, lessons from the great leaders of history and today's corporate environment. By combining these seemingly disparate elements, he offers a way to approach living in the world of business that is not only more balanced and fulfilling, but also leads to ultimately greater success. YogaCity NYC's Alex Phelan sat down with Wadhwa to learn more about his work and how it offers a different way of looking at being in business.
Alex Phelan: How did you first come to these ideas?
Hitendra Wadhwa: I got interested in meditation at a very young age – I was nine or ten. At Columbia, I was looking for a way to have much more impactful conversations in university environments about the things I think really matter. And I found that students were often drawn to those kinds of conversations.
AP: What style of meditation do you practice?
HW: Ever since I was very very young, I have been drawn to the modern style of language in which Yogananda brought traditional wisdom to a modern consciousness. Both Autobiography of a Yogi and his organization, Self Realization Fellowship, have been very influential.
AP: How do you reconcile what many would see as a fundamental divide between spirituality and business?
HW: I don't necessarily use the term spirituality, in the way I teach. Although anyone who looks at it, that has any kind of spiritual background, will immediately link it to their faith or tradition. So it's there, but I talk about the science of human potential. I talk about how we can operate as our best selves.
To me, the best of business is very spiritual. There's a lot of evidence of people like Warren Buffet, who are very ethical even though they are capitalists. I do think our system is very challenged by the excessive material mindset of our times. We need to recognize the need to bring more spirituality in. There are examples of having wealth and potential come together. I think it is about combining those forces rather than setting them at odds with each other.
AP: What does spirituality mean to you as you try to incorporate it into both an academic and a business context?
HW: I think there are two parts to spirituality. The first part is about practicing what I call the five pillars of personal leadership. In the first pillar, rather than being pulled by the day-to-day ebbs and flows of what's happening around you, you align yourself with what you see as your purpose. The second is to master your energy by working with your mindsets and emotions. To tame them so that you have the energy you need to offer your best self. Then there's the self-awareness pillar where you constantly review yourself by pulling away your attention from emotions, thoughts, actions, etc. to your inner space. It's about training your mind, through meditation, to do your bidding as opposed to it's own bidding. Then the fourth pillar is about seeking to expand your consciousness so that you see your success in other people's success, you find joy in other’s joy. You fuse your identity with something larger than yourself, something that transcends yourself. And then the final pillar is growth, which means an ever-expanding sense of consciousness. You never feel that you've reached the summit, there's always the next step.
AP: How have you adapted ideas of spirituality to fit your teaching in a business school environment?
HW: I had to definitely develop a language which was more universal, more grounded in academic rigor. For me there was this sort of aha moment when I found that there is a lot of evidence that the great leaders through history, including some of the more successful business leaders of our time, have taken similar approaches.
AP: What do these principles of spirituality look like in action in the workplace or a business context?
HW: One main way is to recognize the potential in each of us to keep growing and changing. Many people view their personality as just what it is. Coming from this perspective, I try to help people see that this larger sense of spirit is infinite, but our habits, our personalities are changeable. It takes time and it takes regular practice, but as long as one is willing to dig in, one can actually transform oneself.
AP: How has your work been received in the corporate environment?
HW: I think there are two kinds of people. There's a minority which are the vanguard and they've been looking for this stuff. And now they have a language and a toolkit. Then you have the majority, who have not necessarily been looking for it. But I find that most of them tend to get really fired up. I've taught programs for corporations where every one of their executives have to participate. So it's not a self-selected group, it is everyone. Say it's a group of 25 executives from one company and we'll have 23 who are really into it. That's why I've actually started the Institute for Personal Leadership so I can take this work out beyond Columbia, which is very exciting. We've even gone into a high school in Harlem.
AP: How would you characterize the differences between business ethics and your way of introducing spirituality into business?
HW: I do think it my approach offers somewhat of a new path. Part of that is recognizing that in each and all of us is the seed of good and the seed of evil. Rather than assume that the world around you is evil and trying not to get corrupted by it, all of us need to strengthen the good. The idea is to make people attend to their emotions and their impulses and to pull away from those in a more proactive way, which I think should be a part of any ethical training.
I think it is also important to teach people to exist in a world that is not perfect. You can create purposeful ethical practices for yourself and act in your own bigger interests when the world around you is often not giving you a lot of support. In this respect I have found it very instructive to study the minds of great leaders of history. Take Lincoln for example, he lived in a very dark time, but he wasn't just out there hoisting his values on everybody. He took a very strategic, methodical, patient approach to getting change to happen. What I try to do is teach people these kinds of methods that can gradually uplift a lot of other people around them so that they develop a strong inner core. And when you have a strong inner core you don't fall for the seduction of power.
Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.