What do yoga and public speaking have in common?

After a workshop on executive presence at a law firm in Philadelphia last month, a participant came up to me and commented that she saw lots of overlap with my advice and the material she was learning in yoga teacher training – something she was pursuing on evenings and weekends. As someone who has practiced yoga for several years, I had never considered how basic tenants of yoga are helpful practices at the lectern too. Here are four:

1. Breath

In yoga, there is a focus on deep, smooth, and controlled inhalation and exhalation that initiates each movement of the body. Likewise, paying attention to breath is helpful in managing nervousness associated with public speaking. When speakers get anxious, their breathing tends to get fast and shallow – causing them to speak at a fast rate and with a breathy quality. Fast, shallow breathing can even lead to hyperventilation and an “out-of-body” feeling at the lectern.

Consciously deepening the breath, especially right before you speak when nervousness generally spikes, can help lower the heart rate and allow for a louder, richer, and slower vocal quality.

2. Presence

Slowing the breath also promotes being present. Yoga teachers often remind their yogis to become more aware of their breath and to be in the present moment — not worrying about what happened before class or the to-do list waiting to get done later in the day. The focus on staying in the moment is important for public speakers too.

Think about speakers you revere. They likely aren’t perfect – they’ll have few hiccups in their speech, a typo on a slide, a few junk words, etc. But they don’t dwell on them. They focus on authentically connecting with listeners – sharing a story or idea that is meaningful or useful. This connection can only happen when speakers are present in the moment. Sounds easy, but how can speakers be more present?

  • Thoroughly understand the audience and context
  • Talk about topics that they’re passionate about and that can help listeners
  • Carefully prepare so they aren’t slaves to a script or outline
  • Smile and relish their role of presenter
  • Look into the eyes of listeners and have a conversation with them, not at them

3. Posture

In addition to being present in the moment, yogis cultivate awareness of the body as they move through yoga poses. They pay attention to grounding their feet, aligning their hips, opening the heart, and creating space between each vertebra in their back, etc. I find one of the most rewarding aspects of practicing yoga is “ah-ha” moment when you finally achieve proper alignment in a posture or deepen your experience of a pose you’ve done hundreds of times in the past.

A focus on proper alignment and purposeful movement is key for a public speaker too. Presenters must first cultivate a stable, open and tall posture that conveys confidence and avoids distracting movements. Then, they can push themselves to use their body in meaningful ways to supplement their message and make their presentation more dynamic.

4. Acceptance

One of the most difficult yoga lessons is acceptance – accepting your body as it is, not what it could do yesterday or what you want to do in the future, and not comparing it to the person next to you. Similarly, as a public speaker, you will have some aspects of presenting that come easily and some that are a challenge; you will have incredible performances and off performances.

It is important not to get frustrated or judge yourself harshly when you struggle or have an off-performance. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person or terrible speaker. Accept that it is a proficiency that challenges you or that it was an off day. Then, let it go. Focus your energies on planning and preparing as best you can for the next presentation.

These four yoga principles are instructive for public speakers to consider (even if they don’t practice yoga). I’m grateful that my program participant in Philadelphia helped make the connection. Learning from audience members is one of the greatest gifts of presenting.