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François Wouts

The developer happiness engineer

I write about software engineering, developer productivity and my journey from working at Google to becoming an indie dev.

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How yoga helped me become a better programmer

September 2017

I’ve been writing code for quite a few years now. Programming can be an exhilarating activity. Seeing the code you write turn into something you can interact with feels amazing. There is no limit to what you can achieve if you set your mind to it.

But programming can also be a frustrating endeavour. Ask any experienced developer. You’ll hear tales of entire days spent debugging an issue that turned out to be a silly mistake (wrong branch anyone?). Stories about computers refusing to do what we told them to do, until hours later we realised that we told it wrong. Melancholic songs about heisenbugs and hair loss.

In short, in programming, anything can go wrong. And everything will, at some point in your career. That’s how you learn.

When I started working at Google, I often found myself running into frustrating issues. I would throw my energy at it, trying every approach I can think of, nervously scratching my nose hoping to see the promising “Compilation successful. Tests passed.” message in the command line. Of course, I’d end up staring blankly at the computer until late at night and leaving work drained and defeated.

A few months later, a friend introduced me to yoga. I had been taught by public opinion that yoga is a stretching/feel-good activity for women. But I was going to try it once, because why not. My first class left me a sweaty, confused mess. As an ESL speaker, I had never heard of a “tailbone” and I wasn’t sure what “hamstrings” were. I felt parts of my body that I didn’t know even existed. That was not what I expected, and I was going to give it another try.

I signed up for a membership at a heated vinyasa yoga studio (Hom Yoga), which conveniently was located across the street from my apartment. As I started practicing almost daily, I noticed that my mind was often filled with programming frustrations. Heat, physical exertion and drishti kindly forced them out, however, leaving room for new perspectives and breakthrough insights. I’d often leave yoga not only flying high on endorphins, but also excited about a much better technical approach I had in mind for the next day, or a better way to interact with a challenging coworker.

Over the last four years, I’ve continually practiced vinyasa yoga (now approaching 600 classes at Hom Yoga). The insights I’ve accumulated over the years have influenced my career more than I’d have imagined. My work wouldn’t have been good enough to get promoted when I did. And I definitely wouldn’t have felt as serene when I decided to resign from Google.

Now, hopefully I got you a bit curious about yoga.

One thing to know: the term “yoga” is about as specific as “exercise”. There are many types of yoga, and not all of them are physical practices. Some of them are, but I wouldn’t consider them “exercise”. Each to their own, but my personal favourite is Vinyasa Flow, preferably in a heated room (ideally around 35 degrees Celsius, or 95 Fahrenheit if your country isn’t part of the Celsius club yet). I also much prefer practicing in a yoga studio, rather than a gym or a corporate environment.

Alternatively, if yoga isn’t your cup of tea, practicing mindfulness meditation may help. Actually, I’d recommend it either way. There are even apps to help you get started: Calm and Headspace are leaders in the space. Funny story: Alex Tew, the founder of Calm, is also the inventor of the Million Dollar Homepage.

Have a great day!

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