Why Yoga for Public Speaking?
“Yoga ceases the fluctuations of the mind.”
-The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Welcome to Yoga for Public Speaking (Y4PS)!
Congratulations on taking this important step toward improving your onstage presence. You are about to discover ideas and practices that can help you manage fear and anxiety; become a calmer, stronger, and more confident presenter; and make speaking a more pleasant, even enjoyable experience.
Spoiler alert: these practices can also change your life.
What is Y4PS?
Yoga for Public Speaking will introduce you to breath, movement, and mindfulness techniques anchored in ancient yogic teachings. As opposed to a general yoga practice you’d find in a gym or yoga studio, the set of practices you’ll learn in Y4PS have been chosen to address the specific needs of public speakers: building confidence, finding calm, and reducing fear. These practices can help you get out of your head, and into your body, so you can bring your whole self to the stage and fully embody your message.
Why should we look to yoga for this purpose?
It’s not unusual to hear committed yoga practitioners say that yoga and meditation “changed my life.”
A huge benefit of a yoga and meditation practice is that it has the potential to shift things at a fundamental level – in a sense, to alter your base “operating system” and rewire your nervous system in substantial ways.
Through yoga and meditation, you can change the way your nervous system experiences and handles some of the most vexing challenges related to public speaking, such as how to deal with presentation-related fear and anxiety; how to handle feelings of “excess energy” before you take the stage and on stage; and how to direct that excess energy to enhance your delivery, rather than hamper your performance.
As you make these shifts to enhance your presence as a speaker, you may find yoga and meditation changing your life in other ways as well. You might find yourself more prepared to handle difficult conversations of any sort, personal or professional; more steady and ready as you enter high-stakes meetings or job interviews; and less likely to ruminate about conversations you’ve had in the past or worry or be hypervigilant about what may happen in the future.
States vs Traits
The ancient yogis were in effect the original bio-hackers, experimenting with breath, movement, and meditation practices to alter not only their in-the-moment “states,” but also the “traits” that define who we are and how we show up to life’s challenges over the long term.
While ancient yogis developed these ideas and practices over thousands of years, modern neuroscience has validated many benefits of breathwork and meditation, showing that we actually do have the ability to change not only our behavior and mood, but also our neural pathways, in positive ways.
These yogis discovered what we today call neuroplasticity: the ability to change the brain’s neural networks, which can have profound effects on our lives. We can become more aware of our own thought processes, less reactive, more resilient, and less beholden – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to every worry and fear.
Let’s Talk About Fear of Public Speaking
If you’ve ever felt anxious or fearful about public speaking, the first and most important thing to know is that you are not alone. Nothing is wrong with you, and you have no reason to feel ashamed. In fact, most speakers – even veterans of large events – experience some anxiety.
Public speaking can be incredibly rewarding. It’s a way to share our ideas, to teach others what we know, and to advance in our lives and careers as we connect with other people. At some point, it’s possible you’ll be asked to share what you know with a group, and that group size is likely to grow larger as you advance in your career.
But speaking in front of an audience can also be very intimidating. In fact, it’s one of the things people fear most, showing up in public polls right up there with death and snakes. An estimated 75% of people have experienced fear of public speaking.
In my work as a public speaking coach and creative director for large events, I help to prepare executives who are presenting to hundreds or even thousands of people in the room, and often many thousands more watching online; so a bit of fear and anxiety is part of the deal.
Speakers don’t always want to say they are nervous, even when it’s obvious they are. The speakers I work with fall into several categories:
Speakers who are nervous in advance and say so (we can work with this!)
Speakers who are obviously anxious, but who say they’re fine (harder to address, but we can get there)
Speakers who aren’t overtly nervous until about hour before they take the stage; but then excess energy starts to build – or outright symptoms of anxiety blind-side them (we can plan for this and have strategies both to prevent it and to address symptoms that sneak in anyway)
And finally, those rare speakers who don’t seem nervous at all, who we might even call “naturals” (even in this category, an excellent and at-ease speaker will often acknowledge that they sometimes feel so nervous that they suspect people can tell; usually we can’t, a testament to their “poker face” skills)
Performance anxiety, nerves, butterflies – whatever you want to call it – it’s a near-universal problem that speakers at all levels experience, and sometimes are ashamed to acknowledge. One speaker told me that she was afraid to admit that she was nervous because saying so would reveal her to be the impostor she alone knew herself to be. (That’s a lot to carry around and a good illustration of how heavy self-doubt and fear can become!)
Even experienced speakers and those who’ve had professional coaching often carry this shame and fear with them. Most speaker coaching addresses important issues like how to open your presentation with personal stories, how to use your hands, and a myriad of other helpful advice. But these things are mostly happening on the surface and don’t address the deeper issue of what’s going on in our nervous systems to hijack our minds and bodies as we take stage – or what to do about it, so we can be calm and confident and just be ourselves.
Y4PS offers a new approach and seeks to fill this gap for nervous speakers. Through yoga, we will connect with what’s happening in our minds, bodies, and spirits, and use yogic strategies – breath, movement, and meditation – to self-regulate our nervous systems and regain control.
Y4PS is for you if:
You are an experienced speaker, but you’d like to be more comfortable and authentic onstage
You are a newer speaker and feel uncertain and a little anxious about taking stage or presenting in small groups
You have never practiced yoga before, but you’re open to learning about breath, movement, and mindfulness practices that can help your onstage presence
You already have a strong yoga practice and want to apply the ideas of yoga to public speaking
You are a curious individual who just wants to know how the heck yoga can help public speakers!
So is Y4PS a workout?
In a word: No. Let’s get this one out of the way right now: while Y4PS does include some simple movement practices, it is not a workout.
In the West, we often think of yoga as a physical workout done at a gym or yoga studio by fit, bendy people. But this view of yoga arose only in the last 50 years or so.
In its ancient roots going back over two thousand years in India, yoga was a much more holistic set of practices. “Asana,” or yoga poses, are just one of the eight limbs of yoga:
Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
For our purposes in Y4PS, we’ll be focusing on asana (postures), pranayama (breathwork), and dhyana (meditation/mindfulness practices). I do encourage you to learn more about the other limbs of yoga as you build a comprehensive practice.
Because yoga is so much more than poses, it offers us more comprehensive benefits than physical exercise alone can. And the biggest benefit of all, for our purposes, involves the mind-body connection.
The Sanskrit word “yoga” means “union” or “to yoke” – offering us the ability to connect our breath, attention, movement, and ultimately to connect with and even shift our nervous systems, quite intentionally, so that we can move about the world in more calm and conscious ways.
Over two thousand years ago, yoga was described in one of its most foundational texts, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as a way to “cease the fluctuations of the mind.” For anyone who has ridden the wave of public speaking anxiety, this potential holds huge promise – much more than any mere workout can.
Y4PS is based upon the more holistic aspects of yoga – breathing exercises, meditation/mindfulness techniques, and some brief, gentle movement practices. You do not need to be flexible, fit, or a prior yoga practitioner to practice Yoga for Public Speaking.
Also know that the physical practices are adjustable and adaptable to your needs. As I say at the beginning of every yoga class I teach: Everything is adjustable, and everything is optional. You can and should opt out of anything that doesn’t feel right for your body or mind. You can even do many of these practices seated, including some that you can do discreetly while you are sitting in the front row of an event, while you are waiting to be introduced.
So what does all of this mind/body/spirit stuff have to do with public speaking?
It’s natural to think of public speaking as a cerebral pursuit, or to focus on the content of a presentation or even just the visuals as you prepare. And of course it is important to have a well-prepared message.
But public speaking is so much more than that. When we step out in front of an audience, we aren’t just presenting our story; we are putting our whole selves out there, including our nervous systems.
Standing in front of an audience of any size can make us feel quite vulnerable and it can challenge the body, the mind, and the spirit in new ways. No one wants to feel nauseated or shaky or even terrified when they take the stage, or to have their mouth go dry or their knees shake. But without a plan for managing the nervous system, fear can make an unscheduled and unwelcome appearance, and it’s absolutely key to have strategies in place to deal with those symptoms.
Y4PS helps us arm ourselves against unchecked fear and be ready for these challenges on a truly embodied, whole-person level.
A Missing Link
In 25+ years of helping speakers deliver their messages to large audiences, I came to understand that what was missing from traditional speaker coaching is this view of the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. Speakers might have great slides and carefully developed talking points, but they are often missing a way to deal with the often-unspoken fears, anxieties, and insecurities that they bring to the stage with them.
Traditional speaker coaching focuses on important things like refining the story that’s being told; choosing clean and simple visuals that support the message; having a plan for how to open, close, and transition between topics; using vocal pacing, pauses, and voice modulation; how to move about the stage (what we call “blocking”); body language; for virtual events, how to connect with a remote audience; and much more.
All of these are important. And having a clear plan and preparation process for these elements can help build confidence, too. So to be clear, Y4PS doesn’t replace strong preparation and a well-honed message.
But the final missing piece for most speakers is the deeper stuff: how to deal with mental and physical symptoms of fear and anxiety, such as mouth dryness, heart rate increases, or shallow respiration; how to handle feelings of inadequacy, aka “impostor syndrome”; how to ride waves of unexpected and unwelcome fears and sensations that can arise; and most of all, how to protect yourself in advance from these and find a place of calm at the center of the storm.
This deeper stuff can sneak up on and overwhelm speakers, whether they feel well prepared or not. No matter how strong your message is, how powerful your visuals, how many drafts of your script, you also need a plan for how to manage your nervous system.
Here’s the good news: Yoga can help. It can help a whole lot.
Can I use these tools right away?
Yes. In this book, we address this “whole person” approach in two ways: techniques that can help in the short term, right before and as you take the stage; and also over the long term, with practices that can slowly but surely change the way you show up and react to these challenges.
My Journey to Yoga – and Y4PS
Yoga first came into my life as a way to counterbalance a very high-intensity job.
For over 25 years, I’ve enjoyed a career as a large-event creative director and public speaking coach. It’s a privilege to help individual speakers and entire organizations put their messages on stage, and I’ve been lucky to travel around the world to some of the biggest events imaginable, with tens of thousands of attendees.
It’s fascinating to see it all come together and to be part of creating these monumental events. I take great pleasure in helping speakers climb the mountain of preparation and rehearsal and in seeing them succeed on stage.
During the actual live event, I’m often at the back of a huge room filled with people who are watching “my” speakers take the stage. If you see me back there, I’m like a proud parent at a recital, smiling and sending all the good and calm vibes to the stage as each speaker brings their message to life after weeks or even months of preparation.
It’s also incredibly intense. Event “pre-production” – the period of weeks and months with the event date looming on the horizon – is a high-pressure, high-exposure process for my clients. The live event itself will be seen and assessed by hundreds or thousands of people. And even during the preparation process, speakers are being viewed by peers and bosses as they pitch their story plans and rehearse their delivery.
I’m honored to help speakers prepare to present to audiences with thousands in the room – and tens of thousands more watching on live video streams.
It’s intense for the speakers and for everyone involved in the event, from the meeting planners to the production crew to the executives whose careers are riding on the flawless execution and success of every element.
If all of this sounds like a high-wire act, it is. We have a saying in the production world: “The parachute only has to open once, but it had better open.”
My peers in the event production business bring a set of skills that are equal to this high-pressure environment. We all know how to exude calm under intense pressure. We have incredibly good poker faces.
We know that even when the clock is ticking down to the start of a big meeting, if something goes awry (and it will, occasionally, despite all the measures we take to prevent it), we can’t show fear or spread panic. Fear and panic are not only dangerous; they are contagious – and people who spread these unhelpful vibes are not welcome nor are they invited to work on the next event.
We must appear serene and under control, even when a voice in our headsets is telling us that a presenter suddenly can’t be found (just before they are to be announced to the stage), or that an important piece of equipment has just failed and we don’t currently have a sound signal, or – well, you can imagine the million things that can go wrong, but which simply can’t.
Many of us in the production business are “type A” personalities who have learned to thrive in intense environments. In fact, it’s common to learn that fellow production folks cut their professional teeth in the restaurant industry. Waiting tables in college, I learned to ride waves of adrenaline during the Friday night rush – to trust my instincts and to never let them see me sweat. Many of my peers have similar backstories; most of us learned early on how to handle work situations loaded with intensity, fueled by adrenaline and the knowledge that failure is not an option.
But the benefits of an adrenaline rush, as with any drug, are dose-dependent. And too much, over too much time, will burn you out and stress your system. Even those of us who thrive on pressure, as resilient as we may seem, have our limits.
We all need to find antidotes to these rushes of adrenaline. Back in the college days of waiting tables, that may have meant drinking with fellow restaurant “soldiers” into the wee hours after an intense night. I don’t have to tell you that as an adult and a professional speaking coach, that’s not a sustainable path – especially if you need to be back in rehearsals at 6 am!
Yoga came into the picture for me about 20 years ago as a workout and as a release valve for the high-pressure settings I was constantly immersed in. I’d work on an event from Sunday to Thursday, fly home Friday, and take a yoga class on Saturday to finally exhale and offload the stress of the week.
This intensity/release, on/off cycle worked well for me for a while, as I continued to see yoga as a workout and as an “off” switch after each event.
But then, over a few years, my Saturday antidote started to seep into my work week. I began to bring a yoga mat in my suitcase so I could do some stretching in my hotel room. Stretching led to an improvised meditation practice with breathing, sitting, and reflecting 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning.
I surprised myself because I had always assumed that meditation was for a different kind of person – not me, whose vibe could be described as “caffeine driven.”
I remember thinking, Am I really meditating? Huh, I guess I am!
Making time for yoga and meditation while I was traveling was a big shift for me, but it felt so good, I kept at it.
And over time, without trying, the way I showed up in intense situations began to change. A little bit at a time, things were shifting. Instead of wearing a well-practiced poker face to hide my low-level panic, I actually felt a bit more serene, more thoughtful in my reactions, more at peace with trusting other people to solve problems rather than thinking I had to help put out every small fire. I found myself more able to keep focus on the big things and less likely to be distracted by the small ones.
All of this made my own experience infinitely more pleasant. I was not only able to be more effective, I was suffering less. Being less fearful and less hypervigilant made my own experience better.
As I began to use some of the breathing techniques I’d learned with the speakers I coached, I saw them suffering less, too.
While it didn’t happen all at once, there were points along the way when I had a-ha moments that something big had changed deep in my operating system. People I worked with noticed, too.
I remember when one client, a young woman who was newer to the crazy world of big-event planning and production, invited me to lunch and asked for a bit of mentoring. She wondered how I did it – how did I show up in the middle of such intense situations in such a bubble of calm?
I thanked her for noticing and told her that it was on purpose; that it was an acquired set of skills; and that yoga and meditation had helped tremendously. I also shared that part of my motivation was that, for the sake of our speakers, we all need to “protect the vibe” so they can stay calm and confident.
Finally, I told her that for now, she could fake a poker face, but over time, she could choose to cultivate skills to help her become authentically more calm and serene.
As these changes took hold in my own operating system, it was nice to have people I’d worked with for years noticing the “new me.” But I wanted to know more. I became super curious about just exactly what had happened to change the way I was showing up in intense work situations and in my life in general.
I knew yoga and meditation had helped, but I wanted to know why. Had my brain changed in some way? Was my nervous system reacting differently in chaotic situations? How did I become less hypervigilant (and if I’m honest, maybe a little more pleasant to work with) because of this change?
Why and how did this happen? And most of all – how could I get more of this good stuff? And how might I then share it with others?
That curiosity would eventually lead me to study the fascinating neuroscience of yoga and meditation; to become a yoga and meditation teacher (not in my original career plans!); and to write this book and develop a companion course to help nervous speakers (aka most speakers).
It’s my great pleasure and privilege to share what I’ve learned in the hope that it will help you to build your own toolkit of breath, movement, and meditation practices – and to find your calm and confidence as a fearless public speaker.
CHAPTER 1: THE TAKEAWAYS
Breath, movement, and meditation/mindfulness practices based in ancient yoga traditions have the potential to help us self-regulate our nervous systems and, over time, change how we respond to stress in significant ways.
Practicing these techniques, public speakers can build resilience and a toolkit of practical skills to help manage fear and anxiety, find calm amidst chaos, and bring a more confident and authentic “you” to the stage.
Y4PS will guide you through a strategically selected set of techniques, step by step, to build your own practice and become a calmer and more confident speaker.