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Wed 15 Jul 2015 10:25 AM

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Business with soul: An interview with Max Strom

Tamara Pupic spoken with US-based teacher and author Max Strom on his recent visit to the region

Business with soul: An interview with Max Strom

There’s neither an app for happiness nor software for a meaningful life, says Max Strom during his recent visit to Dubai - a city which plans to become the ‘smartest’ in the world by 2017.

The popular US-based teacher, speaker, and author on personal transformation was in the UAE and Qatar for a series of engagements designed to help improve people’s personal and business lives.

Problems from wealth and growth are good problems to have, he says, but they also come with a price in the form of many psychological ailments. Anxiety, insomnia, mood disorders, and other stress-related symptoms mark today’s modern societies either due to their failing economies or rapid growth, causing a competitive 24-hour work culture and many other issues.

And with more than 190 countries, including some in the Gulf, taking part in the first ever International Yoga Day on 21 June, it is clear that temporary reliefs through anti-anxiety or anti-depression medicines are no longer considered enough, if ever.

“I teach breath-initiated movement, followed by guided visualisation, followed by meditation. In that order,” Strom tells StartUp, referring to his system of field-tested techniques for personal growth after a two-day workshop at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dubai Media City.

The event was organised by Exhale Fitness Studio and Zen Yoga.

“I call it Inner Axis [because] axis is your core. This sort of method brings you back to that, reminds you of who you are, what you are truly capable of and then how to do it.”

Since 1991 yoga has become Strom’s ‘system of embodiment’ for all his studies, which include Taoism, Qi Gong, Sufism, and Western movement therapy. “I use only what works and not necessarily what a particular tradition teaches,” he adds.

Featuring a lecture at The Capital Club Dubai and a workshop for yoga professionals at Zen Yoga, this was Strom’s fourth visit to the UAE since 2008, but the first one to follow similar engagements in Qatar’s capital Doha.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, a Qatari government entity in charge of delivering stadiums and other infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has adopted Strom’s sustainable mindfulness programme. It has been developed for organisations that want ‘not only to be successful, but healthy and make a meaningful difference in the world.’

“They are under a lot of stress like any other big city or government, except that they are under the stress that they have this big deadline,” Strom briefly explains, careful not to break the constraints of a confidentiality agreement.

“They decided to have a mindfulness programme installed for the benefit of their employees, from the executives all the way down.”

Experts report that 25 percent of large US companies have launched mindfulness stress-reduction initiatives, including Google offering courses on emotional intelligence, and General Mills and Goldman Sachs teaching meditation to their staff.

These programmes can enhance employees’ performance, productivity and work quality by 29 percent, according to various scientific studies.

A recent example comes from US-based health insurer, Aetna, whose paid medical claims per employee decreased by 7.3 percent, saving the company $9 million, a year after starting free yoga and meditation classes for employees. 

Rama Al-Jayyousi, co-founder and managing partner at Exhale Fitness Studio, a women-only yoga studio located in Dubai Marina, has a first-hand experience of how stress affects corporate employees in Dubai – whom she refers as her ‘evening clients’ - on a daily basis. “They immediately come wired up, they are already stressed,” she says.

“I would sit and have a conversation, and you can see that she is stressed from life, and if there’s anything wrong with the schedule or similar, she can become very aggressive. It’s our job to calm her down. Evening clients are very demanding.”

With regular reports about suicide, or stress and exhaustion-related deaths within the corporate world, Strom points out the need to bring ‘a yogic, relaxed state’ into the workplace.

“Let’s say you are in a management position, so you can make policies just for your staff to treat them better,” he suggests.

“Don’t call them at 11pm and expect them to answer the phone unless it’s a real emergency. Treat them like human beings.”

However, there are sceptics when it comes to integrating these kinds of practices into the business world, and Strom recalls a conversation with a hedge fund banker who felt more relaxed after a session with him, but immediately feared that ‘he might lose his edge’ because of it.

“This kind of activity I never practised and I never believed in it, but I felt that it was worth trying,” says Zaher Farra, a 40 year old Jordanian, after the first of Strom’s four sessions. He explains that witnessing several of his friends becoming calmer after practising similar activities drew him to participate.

From 9am to 6pm Farra works as the director of business development at Accela, a Dubai-based software development company, and from 6pm he is committed to the development of Trolley.ae, an online grocery shop he co-founded in 2011. Often, his weekends are equally busy, with the added pressure of balancing family life.

When asked about the stress he’s experiencing as both a corporate executive and an entrepreneur, he seems uncomfortable to answer and reverts to humour. “I have more white hair than before,” he says, laughing.

“I absorb stress in general,” he admits.” It doesn’t reflect on the people surrounding me. I try as much as possible to contain it in myself. And this is when you decide: ‘I need to start taking care of this’. When it starts affecting your health and all the people that you care about.

“Our life as corporates as well as start-ups is full of deadlines, reports. You just need to learn when to pause.

“I think it’s less about [work-life] balance and more about pausing at one point in time and making sure that during a day or a week there has to be a time that you step back and look around.”

Describing herself as ‘a former control freak’, Al-Jayyousi agrees that entrepreneurs find it hard to slow down. Since launching in 2007 she has grown Exhale Fitness Studio, one of Dubai’s oldest yoga studios, to employ 12 people and offer 60 classes per week to around 4,000 visitors per month.

“I, for example, cannot practise yoga in my studio because as an entrepreneur, you’re thinking about your business all the time,” she says. “So I’ll be sitting in the class and looking whether they [the cleaners] forgot to clean something. You cannot separate.

“This lack of separation is very dangerous for entrepreneurs. It can bring them down to depression. As an entrepreneur, your brain is continuously moving.”

One of the most famous entrepreneurs, Steve Jobs, was famous for trying to take control of his mind by cultivating Zen mindfulness meditation, a Buddhism-associated practice, to reduce stress, gain more clarity and enhance creativity.

Jobs’s life-long dedication to it, reportedly, influenced not only his mental state but his business decisions, such as relying on his intuition to ‘give people what they didn’t know they needed’. Interestingly, even the industrial design of Apple’s mouse is derived from the enso, a hand-drawn circle which is the most fundamental form of Zen visual art.

Like many entrepreneurs after him, Jobs’ personality was marked by ambition, passion, energy, and risk tolerance. Strom says entrepreneurs are easy to spot in his classes. “Entrepreneurs are usually the first ones in the class, they are never late,” he says.

“They have their spot, they have everything they need, and they are great listeners. But you will lose them if what you say isn’t extremely practical and easy to understand. You need to address those things clearly and deal with them immediately.”

Al-Jayyousi adds: “We get a lot of entrepreneurs in the morning because they have their time for themselves. You find them trying to improvise into your business. They send me emails with suggestions and I depend on them because they are always suggesting things that could be better.”

The personal and financial risks involved in starting and running a business are a source of more worry for entrepreneurs who, according to the 2012 Gallup Healthways Wellbeing Index, are more likely to ‘experience stress’ or ‘worry a lot’ than other workers.

Earlier this year, Fadi Ghandour, the founder of Aramex, told StartUp that every entrepreneur had his or her own paranoia. “Mine was [that] for 15 years I had to worry about paying salaries. That was keeping me awake for many nights,” he said. “That sense of responsibility created paranoia in me.”

Only recently entrepreneurs around the world have become vocal in revealing that their inner fears and the need to keep going can cause a variety of mental health issues, such as depression, self-worth issues, anxiety, addictions and similar.

However, even the change in the start-up community’s famous adages from “Failure is not an option” to “Fail fast, fail smart, and move on” signifies that the fast-paced start-up community has remained slow when it comes to accepting failure and integrating self-help practices into their lifestyles.

“Their main issues are that a lot of stress that they have is self-created,” explains Strom. “A lot of unnecessary sleep issues. A lot of entrepreneurs I meet sleep five to six hours [per day] and think that’s normal because other entrepreneurs are doing the same thing.”

Al-Jayyousi had a few words to share about failure. After running a branch of Exhale Fitness in Dubai Motor City for three years, she had to close it due to increasing rents and instability in the number of visitors caused by the city’s transient population.

Even before opening her yoga studio, she was one of the first providers of ‘beauty-on-wheels’ services in Dubai. However, she says, the business failed. “I see that as a success, but back then it was a failure,” she recalls. “And then you pick up and do it again. Now, even if I fail with Exhale I have the ability and the tools to accept it and move on.

“Accepting failure is a success in a way. And yoga will help you do that.”

Rather than committing to yoga as a practice, many entrepreneurs around the world have done what they know best – how to make a good business out of it.

Originally practiced in Mysore, India, to initiate spiritual growth, the global popularity of the centuries-old set of physical and mental techniques is credited to B. K. S. Iyengar, the yoga teacher who presented it to the west in the 1970s.

It has developed into an $11 billion industry in the US alone, with many yoga teachers developing and fiercely protecting their own styles, such as the battle of Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, to patent his 90-min class of 26 postures and two breathing exercises in a heated room.

The market for yoga-related products has been booming as well. From the world of yoga fashion including Nasdaq-listed Lululemon Athletica from Canada or the Australian Divine Goddess, to DVDs, online classes, luxury yoga retreats, or new niche markets of yoga for kids or men, there’s little wonder yoga is considered an ultimate entrepreneurial trend in 2015.   

Strom believes that business is not always a competition, and quotes Peter H. Diamandis, a Greek-American entrepreneur, who advises entrepreneurs to make money while helping the humanity which is when they look at what is really needed as opposed to what is profitable.

”You can look at things differently,” Strom adds.

“You can try to improve your product to compete with the competitor or you can try to improve your product because you want to improve your product for the service of your customers.”

In his latest book, There Is No App For Happiness, Strom suggests that there’s no app for ethics either, arguing that the 2008 financial crises wasn’t caused by a software glitch or stupid people, but Ivy League-educated people who lacked ethics.

When asked whether yoga or any other similar practice could prevent this from happening again, he says: “I think that practising yoga, breathing, and meditation can awaken the internal ethics of a human being, the consciousness. But it doesn’t always.

“But when a person is suffering, which is stress, anxiety, or lack of sleep, they tend to be more myopic and self-centred. When they heal and become happier, they tend to be more selfless or giving.

“I’ve seen this happen with many corporate people when they start of driving very expensive, ‘look-at-me’ car, and then they practise with me for a year or two and suddenly they are in an electric car that anyone can afford.

“They no longer have the need to show off, and then they start investing money not only in the things that make money, but also in the things that can change the world.”

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