How to cultivate authentic presence

“Happy International Yoga Day!”

This is the greeting I received when I arrived at my local yoga studio yesterday morning. While I was tempted to roll my eyes at the relentless proliferation of national and international days of significance (although I did enjoy International Hug Your Cat Day a few weeks ago), the occasion did give me pause for thought as I stretched into my first downward-facing dog at around 7.35am.

Yoga continues to surprise me with its many benefits. Like many things in life, it’s like peeling an onion. Beyond the initial motivation of increasing my strength and flexibility, I’ve discovered a deeper purpose for my practice: cultivating presence.

What is presence?

In the workplace, people usually think of 'presence' as one of those elusive characteristics (like charisma) that helps you to 'win friends and influence people'. We might associate it with a person's height, or stature, or role - or perhaps it's due to their extraverted personality. But look around you, and I'm sure you can think of many people who have presence who don't possess these qualities.

That's because presence is both a quality and a skill.

As I see it, presence is the ability to connect with others and influence them at an unconscious level – and it originates in a very conscious practice of being present.

For a leader to have impact, presence is essential. But it’s not just useful in leadership. Presence is valuable in just about any relationship – with family, friends, clients, and particularly with children. You could say that presence is the glue that binds people together.

The good news is that, because it's a skill, presence can be developed. It may come naturally to some people, but ultimately it’s a choice that becomes a habit.

So how can you increase your presence without getting on a yoga mat?

Based on my yoga experience, I've identified four levels of presence –physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Whether you choose to develop it ‘on the mat’ or ‘off the mat’, here’s how you can increase your presence in your own life.

1. Physical presence

A basic requirement of yoga practice is that you are physically present. You can’t dial in – you need to be there.

But it’s more than that. Whether it’s maintaining your balance in tree pose or resisting the temptation to fall asleep in corpse pose, the practice of yoga extends a standing invitation to be more fully in your body.

What does this mean?

As a starting point, it means being aware of any sensations in your body – any tension, any aches or pains, any spaciousness, anything at all.

The quickest and easiest way to activate your physical presence is to become aware of your breathing. In yoga, we’re often asked to simply notice the breath – not to change it, but to observe it. Similarly, in life, physical presence means simply noticing how we are in our bodies – not to change it, but to observe it.

Why don’t you try it now?

Take a moment to notice your breath – even just for 30 seconds.

If you have a bit more time, you could do a mental scan of your body. Start with your toes and work your way up to the crown of your head. Don’t judge; just notice.

What did you notice?

You can also practise physical presence in daily activities - e.g. mindful eating - or when socialising, playing with children, or engaging in hobbies.

2. Mental presence

Hands up if you’re an overthinker? (Me too.)

Overthinking suggests a lack of mental presence, which can be a real killer when it comes to our overall presence.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Most people (and especially overthinkers) tend to have a negativity bias when it comes to their thinking. Our mind is programmed to constantly scan the horizon for threats – and if our physical safety is under control, then we’ll look for other kinds of threats, whether economic, social, emotional, and so on. Negative thinking tends to lead to moods like anxiety and resentment that then have a negative impact on our emotional presence.

  2. It is virtually impossible to listen to two people at once and really absorb anything from either conversation. If we’re caught up in our own mental chatter, how can we possibly listen to someone else?

The antidote?

In yoga, we begin to cultivate mental presence by observing the breath. To focus fully on the breath is, by default, to detach our focus from other thoughts. But this isn’t sustainable for most people. Eventually, a thought will arise, and we will probably follow it. So that’s why many mindfulness practices invite us to simply notice our thoughts and let them go, rather than try to resist thinking altogether.

In day-to-day interactions, no one is expecting you to have the mindfulness of a Zen master. But how about taking a moment to focus your mind at the beginning of each interaction?

One way of doing this is to ‘clear your cache’. Our short-term memory is limited, so trying to hold on to too many thoughts is an exercise in futility. It can be helpful to write down anything that you need to remember or come back to. Some say that 95% of our thoughts are repetitive, so you can probably afford to let some of them go!

Take a few moments throughout the day to check in with yourself.

  • What are you thinking?

  • Is this thought helping you or hindering you?

  • If it’s not helping you, could you let it go?

If you want to be really systematic about it, you could adopt one of the practices that my colleagues from Polykala use in their workshops. They get participants to record their thoughts on sticky notes throughout the workshop (which could be over two or three days) and later reflect on any common themes. Onerous, but enlightening!

3. Emotional presence

Emotional presence is two-fold:

  1. It’s about being aware of our own moods and emotions, and the impact they may be having on our thinking and behaviour. This aspect of presence requires a foundation of physical presence, as emotions are experienced primarily in the body.

  2. It’s about being aware of others’ emotions and using this awareness to connect with them – using empathy.

Professor Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has studied the effects of damage to the limbic system (the part of the brain that generates emotions) and has found that it makes decision-making virtually impossible. Patients without a functioning limbic system can weigh the pros and cons of a decision using the neocortex (the rational brain), but they cannot actually decide – even on something as simple as chicken or fish! (Or maybe they were vegetarian?)

Being more emotionally present with ourselves enables us to be aware of what might be motivating our own behaviour, especially when that behaviour might be at odds with our ultimate purpose. As leaders and influencers, emotional presence also enables us to connect with those around us and engage them in a way that is more powerful than using logic or reason alone.

Try this: How are you feeling now?

Emotions can be complex and nuanced, and it not uncommon for people to have trouble naming them. So perhaps begin by identifying where you’re feeling any sensations – in your head, in your throat, in your chest, in your stomach, or elsewhere.

What impact might your emotions be having on you – on your thoughts, decisions and behaviour?

For bonus points: In your next conversation, try to identify how the other person might be feeling. What emotional space do they seem to be in? And how is it affecting their interaction with you?

4. Spiritual presence

The concept of spirituality means different things to people, and for some it doesn’t resonate at all. Let’s just say that spirituality is about having a sense of purpose – something that goes beyond your physical, mental and emotional existence; something that connects all of life and gives it meaning, whether it comes from a divine source or otherwise.

One of the key functions of a leader is the ability to articulate a clear and compelling purpose – in other words, a vision. And to be effective, a leader needs to embody the purpose – to be present to it as much as humanly possible – and inspire a corresponding sense of purpose in others (which is grounded in empathy).

From time to time, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your purpose?

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing?

  • What impact do you want to have?

Perhaps this sounds a bit too much like hard work...

As the saying goes, being present is “simple, but not easy”. But the rewards are tremendous, in terms of the quality of your relationships and your ability to make an impact in your world. And, as you become more familiar with feeling of presence within you, you may be able to access it within a few minutes.

To summarise:

  1. Connect to your breath (physical presence)

  2. Be mindful of your thoughts and your listening (mental presence)

  3. Acknowledge your own feelings and have empathy for others (emotional presence)

  4. Act on purpose, with conscious intent (spiritual presence)

Ultimately, presence is a gift (if you’ll pardon the pun). When we show up fully – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – it is a sign of respect, to ourselves and others. And we also create a space for others to do the same.

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” (Nelson Mandela)

*Ontology is the study of our ‘way of being’, which loosely corresponds to ‘mindset’ and encompasses the domains of Language, Moods/Emotions, and Body. Ontology draws upon the disciplines of linguistics, biology and philosophy to create a unique and exceptionally powerful framework for exploring personal and organisational change.