Since the publication of The 4-Hour Workweek in 2007, New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss has been provoking his fiercely loyal readership to challenge assumptions, question popular beliefs and seek out unconventional ways to live a richer and more fulfilled life. His approach involves deconstructing complex topics, and then demonstrating the simplest and most effective way to accomplish extraordinary things.
Tim Ferriss has applied his trademark framework to many areas of health and fitness, including how to prevent fat gain while bingeing, gain 34 pounds of muscle in 28 days and 4 hours total gym time, go from running 5km to 50km in 12 weeks and add 150+ pounds to your lifts. Could yoga, a discipline that is characterised by surrendering and going with the flow, stand up to the same level of scrutiny?
Optimised, productive, methodical and systematic are not words that are often associated with the practice but I would argue that they should be. With more than 20 million practitioners in the United States, the time has come to hold yoga’s feet to the fire. Here are 7 ways to apply the principles Tim Ferriss teaches in the 4-Hour canon to establishing a consistent, effective and efficient home yoga practice.
1. Optimise Your Body
In an episode of his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss uses the metaphor of a racing car to explain why the physical body is the focus of so much of his work:
“The car itself, the vehicle, is the physical body upon which everything is predicated. People tend to have this Cartesian separation of mind and body but at the end of the day you have certain levels of neurotransmitters that are produced at a certain rate, depleted at a certain rate, and that is the rate-limiting step in your mental performance. So if you want to have better levels of working memory, sustained attention and so on, you can optimise those by optimising the car, ie. the body. You can use exercise to improve the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Growth Factor and all these things that are very very interesting.”
Yoga is a great tool, as part of a well-formulated training program, for improving health in both body and mind. With consistent practice, the practitioner will increase strength, suppleness, range of motion, stamina, endurance, power, agility, balance, body awareness, breath efficiency, physical fitness and coordination, which ultimately enhances focus, concentration, calm and clarity.
2. “Everything popular is wrong.” Oscar Wilde
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain
When facing a problem or tackling a new skill, Ferriss poses the following questions:
• What are the untested assumptions?
• What do we all believe is true?
• What if the opposite were true?
Yoga, as adopted by the West, is rife with untested assumptions and unsubstantiated beliefs. There are many aspects of the practice that elite performers and smart, successful business people find hard to swallow. The classes are often excessively long, lacking in structure, inconsistent, frustratingly repetitive, and for many, the imported spirituality is unappealing. The benefits in terms of enhancing physical and mental performance are well-supported by the research but it can be a struggle to find an efficient, distilled, optimised yoga method to sign up to.
The key is to look for classes that are short, focussed on physical and mental performance as opposed to spiritual enlightenment, have a clear objective (eg. to increase core strength), and are accessible wherever you are.
There is an explosion of short, digital yoga classes available on apps, websites, You Tube and on demand TV. Yoga 15, a new app for the iPhone, is a great example of a comprehensive program that is skills-based, systematically structured and designed to follow a clear progression.
3. Minimum Effective Dose
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“The minimum effective dose (MED) is defined simply: the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome…Anything beyond the MED is wasteful.” Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body
Yoga classes typically last 60-90 minutes which is a major barrier to entry for busy, productive people, leading demanding, high-pressure lifestyles. If we deconstruct the class into discrete skills we can reduce the length of each workout. The minimum possible length for a session, allowing for warm-up, working out and cooling down, is around 15 minutes. This is the MED.
Practicing a different objective (eg. hip mobility, core strength, breath efficiency or mental focus) each day for 15 minutes has the advantage of being not only more effective from a physiological perceptive but is also much easier to stick to than committing to a long, expensive, weekly class in another neighbourhood.
As Tim Ferriss says:
“The decent method you follow is better than the perfect method you quit.” The 4-Hour Body
4. 80/20 Principle
The “80/20 Principle” or “Pareto’s Law” first appears in The 4-Hour Workweek and is a recurring theme throughout all of Ferriss’ work.
The “80/20 Principle” states that 80% of outputs come from 20% of inputs and that therefore, by identifying the correct inputs, you can achieve the greatest results with the smallest amount of effort.
Tim Ferriss applies this principle to language learning:
“To be perceived as fluent in conversational Spanish…you need an active vocabulary of approximately 2500 high-frequency words [out of] the estimated 100,000 words in the Spanish language.” The 4-Hour Body
The inference being that you only need to learn 20% of the language to achieve 80% fluency.
Due to the current ubiquity of short, digital yoga sessions, it is possible to achieve a high level of yoga mastery and to gain the majority of the benefits from the practice at a fraction of the cost, in only 15 minutes a day, without having to go to a studio or commit to a membership.
5. Habit Formation
“We break commitments to ourselves with embarrassing regularity.” The 4-Hour Body
Habit formation or “engineering compliance” is a dominant theme throughout Tim Ferriss’ work. Here are a few of his recommendations:
Ferriss teaches his readers that routines and systems are more effective when trying to create a new habit than relying solely on self-discipline, which he believes is overrated. By establishing routines, your actions become automatic and you do not have to dip into your limited supply of willpower every time you are faced with a decision.
“Don’t strive for variation – and thus increase option consideration – when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.”
The beauty of short, goal-orientated yoga workouts is that you can fit them into your current routine without having to make any radical changes to your schedule.
“Track or you will fail.”
“What gets measured gets managed.” Peter Drucker
Initially, track everything. Record workouts completed, how you feel, improvements in flexibility, strength and range of motion, changes in mood, especially in high-stress situations and your ability to hold difficult poses. Track everything that is related to your yoga practice.
There are two distinct reasons for this. Firstly, tracking progress brings awareness to your new habit, creating a positive feedback loop that is profoundly motivating. Secondly, by running a series of mini experiments on yourself, you can clarify your objectives, identify exactly what is and is not working and determine which teachers or schools deliver the most consistent results.
6. Early Wins
“You need immediate results that compel you to continue.” The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle
Ferriss asserts that early wins are critical for creating habit momentum. High performers, successful business people and entrepreneurs demand a great deal from their bodies and minds. Their work requires that they are predominantly sedentary and the pressure they subject themselves to is unrelenting. For this elite group of people, practicing yoga feels amazing and offers immediate relief from pain and stiffness. This generates a positive feedback loop which makes it easier to stay committed to a consistent yoga habit. You can increase the impact of this effect by being mindful of how you feel after each yoga workout, giving yourself a moment to let that feeling really sink in.
7. Renewal Breaks
Ferriss introduces the idea of creating a daily architecture that includes renewal breaks in his interview with Joshua Waitzkin. This technique allows you to switch from conscious to unconscious thinking, in order to stoke creativity and accelerate productivity. This is where yoga can really move the needle for elite performers.
Ferriss recommends you ask yourself a question or assign your brain a problem to work on and then release your mind by engaging in a completely different task, such as exercise, sleep or meditation. Short yoga sessions during your work day are also particularly effective for this. Yoga can be a form of moving meditation that is particularly suitable for people that find it hard to sit still and focus on their breath for more than a minute and a half. After focussing all your attention on your 15-minute workout, you return to the problem, before allowing in any other inputs (like checking email or Facebook), and wait for mind-blowing creative insights to arise in your consciousness.
In a recent podcast, Ferriss mentioned that he has been focussing more on mobility than strength training during his workouts. He described his daily calisthenics and breathing routine as “yoga without the mystical woo-woo stuff”. Fortunately, with the recent boom in short, online classes, that is now accessible to all of us.