Jonathan knew something was wrong the moment the pain in his hips and knees was so great that he had to cut his daily run short, something completely out of character for him as a type-A entrepreneur. He began taking ibuprofen for the pain, a couple of hundred milligrams in the morning, another pill or two in the evening. The pills allowed him to keep up his workouts and push through.
Then one day, something clicked. He thought of himself as a young man—he was in his early forties—yet the pain in his hips and knees made him resistant to sitting on the floor to play with his children. He found himself sitting on the sofa and talking down to them. What am I doing? he thought to himself. I’ve got chronic pain and I am popping pills all day to get relief.
Something had to change. When Jonathan first came to Namaste, we traced the changes in his fitness routine back to five years prior when he became a father. By the time he had three children, the free time he used to fill with reading, visiting museums, and learning new things was now filled with being a dad. He loved being a father, and at the same time, he was concerned that he wasn’t balancing time for his family with some time for himself.
His intentions were in the right place; his application, however, led to a perfect storm of chronic pain and imbalance. He’d structured his self-guided routine around intensive workouts: low-rep, high-weight training in the gym in the morning, followed by a ten-mile run on the treadmill while watching the news. When we first met, his hamstrings were on lockdown and intensely tight, creating tension that rose through his hips, into his lower back, and up through his shoulders and neck.
His body was so rigid that he could barely turn his head. Albeit intense and high-performing, Jonathan is a glass-half-full, generally happy kind of man. He was eager to learn how to remedy his situation. When Jonathan and I had our first wellness advisory call, I learned about how he watched the news while running on the treadmill. While this was entertaining on a certain level, the content he was consuming often triggered feelings of stress.
I explained that the tension that arose in his body while watching negative stories on the news caused physical stress and tightening of the muscles that were counterproductive to the benefits of running. And as we know, running in and of itself causes our muscles to tighten, even without the mental stress. I suggested he run outside instead—he lived next door to Central Park, where an urban lung waited to offer an experience of fresh, open air.
He resisted a bit and agreed to run outside three days a week. He was shocked at how mentally invigorating this was to him compared to his treadmill and TV time—two different exercise experiences. The real change for Jonathan came through adding a yoga practice to his evening routine. His children ate dinner around 6:30 in the evening and were in bed by 7:30.
He got home early enough to spend a few minutes with them while they ate, tuck them in, and then eat dinner with his wife around eight. Their routine when we first met was to eat a heavy, late meal. I suggested they eat their big meal at lunchtime and then eat a light dinner. I then incorporated restorative evening yoga that focused on softening his tense, hardened muscles and led to a closing meditation practice.
Jonathan embraced yoga. He had always enjoyed learning new things, and he liked learning the alignment nuances of the poses, challenging himself with arm balances such as handstands and balancing poses such as standing on one leg, and the relaxation aspect that his teacher always incorporated into the wind-down and closing of the practice. He discovered the balance, new learning, and inspiration that he sought.
Over time, Jonathan learned to use yoga positions to stretch and limber his muscles before his morning weightlifting and running routine, and he was able to eliminate the pain and the ibuprofen. Yoga is a qualified physical exercise as well as a deep psychospiritual practice integrating aspects of both psychology and spirituality.
Through the breathing, stretch ing, and mindful embodiment of yoga, we catch patterns and issues in our body, heart, and mind early on, before they blossom into full-blown injuries or problems. People who run, like Jonathan, are often extremely passionate—runner’s high is a real thing. Their endorphins soar when they’re running, and they often feel depressed when they stop. But they also tend to push themselves beyond the point that they should be running—something for which yoga provides a counterbalance.
The practice of yoga ripples off the mat and seeps into other activities as mindful awareness and a more embodied experience. Through yoga, Jonathan learned to be more present and compassionate in his body, understanding when he needed to slow down a bit and when he could push a little more. As Jonathan worked with Namaste over time, we also added bodywork (which you’ll read about in chapter nine), which supported his musculoskeletal system, his central nervous system, and his parasympathetic nervous system, all helping him to slow down and manage his stress.
By integrating yoga and bodywork into Jonathan’s self-care routine, he was not only able to continue running without pain or injury, but he was also able to release his stress physically and mentally and enjoy sitting on the floor with his young children, present, happy, and pain-free.
The Healing Power of Yoga
Eliza Stone didn’t know how she’d feel from one morning to the next. She moved through her day-to-day routine but just didn’t feel well. Eliza was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease several years ago, and she fought daily fatigue, aches, and chronic intestinal issues. Some days were better than others, but the unpredictable nature of her health kept her from going to her beloved spinning, barre, and yoga classes.
Despite her doctor saying exercise wasn’t the cause of her pain, the fitness classes seemed to exacerbate her symptoms and in turn create stress. Eliza attempted to balance mothering two teenage children and holding leadership positions on several prestigious boards. She felt frustrated with her instability and how it impacted her capacity to feel effective as a leader and make meaningful contributions to the things she cared about.
For years she tried to narrow down which foods or specific movements triggered her inflammation and pain. She often found herself wondering if something she ate yesterday had brought on the pain. Or maybe it was something she ate last week? It’s a process, she thought—a process she hadn’t yet figured out. Eliza lived in this constant wave of anxiety and uncertainty.
What was certain, however, was that in addition to feeling mentally incompetent, she lacked the physical confidence she once had. She used to be incredibly active. She and her husband skied in Vermont every winter and hiked in the summer. Chronic back and knee pain, though, had made those outings impossible. She felt frustrated and vulnerable because her husband continued to be active and athletic, yet they could no longer do things together as they once did.
She worried that she was disappointing her husband and that their relationship would suffer. Although I’m sure it was a loss for him, I’m also quite sure he had primarily compassion without blame for her. Eliza came to us for a specific approach that kept her limitations in mind: she wanted to build muscular strength, navigate her pain, and reach her dream of hiking a substantial portion of the Long Trail with her husband for her fiftieth birthday, which was in a year.
We began with a restorative yoga practice. She was familiar with yoga and loved it, but she felt she was terrible at it. We reassured her that there’s no such thing as a bad yoga practitioner. She looked fine from the outside, but inside she felt insecure as if she was never doing a good job, and she was fearful of hurting herself. We created a modified practice that felt supportive and stabilizing to her neck and back and built strength in the musculature behind the kneecap.
In a short amount of time, she made progress and began to feel stronger. We were able to integrate some personal training into Eliza’s routine with a skilled and senior trainer adept at working with pain and injury, to build her cardiovascular stamina slowly and steadily. Eliza did yoga twice a week and worked with a personal trainer once a week in between. She still dealt with all the symptoms of her autoimmune disease, but she felt physically and mentally stronger simply because she faced her situation head-on, and she began to see small, incremental progress.
By being proactive, she felt more in control of an out-of-control experience. This built confidence and a greater sense of connection with her husband, who occasionally joined her for her yoga and training sessions and practiced at Eliza’s pace. After eleven months of her routine, Eliza was able to do an eight-hour hike on the Long Trail in Vermont with her husband just before she turned fifty.
She never imagined being able to do this when she began with Namaste and felt a renewed sense of hope that at some point she would again put on skis and feel the energy of the slopes and the crisp mountain air, something she’d loved since childhood. Not surprisingly, as Eliza’s physical confidence, stamina, and resilience grew, she felt more confident about her ability to lead as chairperson of the board and contribute meaningfully to the causes that mattered to her.
It’s not that her pain was gone, but her relationship to her body had changed dramatically, shifting her relationship to the rest of her life. Yoga is an amazing practice because it always meets us where we are. We can do gentler poses on days we don’t feel well and more rigorous and challenging poses on days we feel strong. Some days it makes sense to push ourselves, and other days surrender is the best choice.
Yoga teaches us self-compassion and awareness, essential for embodiment and making wise decisions day by day, moment by moment. Life is always going to present obstacles, and as Buddhist philosophy points out and my experiences have shown me, pain is an inevitable part of the human experience. Suffering, on the other hand, is a choice. There are things in life we can control and others we can’t—like being diagnosed with an extremely challenging chronic disease.
The work is to harness the things we do have control over, like our choices around movement and building the strength of body and mind, in a way that can manifest certain ripples in our lives. As my father always says, “It’s not about the weight of the pack on your back but the strength of the back that carries the pack.”
Eliza could have sat around and held a pity party for herself and suffered from her pain. Instead, she navigated the pain and grief by accessing her internal resources to build physical and mental strength, resiliency, and the ability to listen and find softness when she needed it most.
Yoga and Self-Care
Yoga is the practice of being in our skin. It is a loving mirror that shows us where we are physically and mentally, day by day, in our practice. Yoga can be moving meditation; the poses quickly bring us into our bodies consciously and hopefully compassionately. With practice, we can observe where we feel tight and where we feel open and spacious, physically, mentally, and energetically.
Combining movement and breathwork, we learn to be present in our bodies, and we notice when we are distracted by anxious thoughts or feelings without judgment. Yoga is a feedback loop that touches on the four pillars simultaneously. It’s movement, the meditative aspect falls into stillness, it nourishes the mind and body, and it offers touch and connection to ourselves and/or to the teacher.
Yoga is one of the few physical practices where we wrap our arms around our bodies, essentially giving ourselves hugs. According to yogic philosophy, the body has seven energy centers, or chakras, distributed from the tailbone to just above the crown of the head. Different types of energy flow—or can be blocked—at each of these centers. The asanas, or poses, stimulate the chakras, moving energy from one to another and to the meridians that are like a web, reaching the extremes of the body.
The asanas create balance. Different poses support opening (like backbends) and looking inward (forward bends). Exhalation and inhalation of the breath signal giving and receiving, connecting us to a universal pool of air that everyone on the earth is sharing. Consistent yoga practice brings the body and all the internal organs into a greater state of harmony.
Many people in their seventies and eighties who have practiced yoga throughout their adult life moves with a fluidity rarely seen at that age. I had a wonderful, impeccable, and very fancy senior who I taught from age seventy to eighty. Her goal was to do a headstand, and by the time she reached her seventy-seventh birthday, she accomplished this magnificent feat.
While I was a bit nervous, she was determined and empowered by the process and the achievement. My partner and husband, Michael, calls yoga the fountain of youth, and he is right. Yoga creates a quality of strength and mobility in body, mind, and spirit that are the essential, necessary ingredients for a balanced, rich, beautifully layered self-care practice.
It’s Okay to Cry
Tears seeped from Alex McLaughlin’s eyes with each exhale shortly after she sat on her yoga mat. She often cried spontaneously during the private sessions with her yoga teacher. It was the one time she could let her guard down, be vulnerable, and release the tension she wore like a coat of armor. Alex was going through a personal crisis that had been years in the making.
In her early twenties, she married the man she loved, but over time he had become abusive, unpredictable, and mentally unstable. She never knew when she woke up if he’d slam the door or bring her coffee in bed. She put up with the abuse because when he was nice, he was truly loving. And they had three children together. The pain was constant, but the crisis hit when she discovered he’d been unfaithful.
Alex did what so many of us do: she controlled the pain by creating an illusion of the perfect life. She was a wildly successful and renowned interior designer; the latest haute couture hung in her closet; her hair, makeup, and nails were always fresh from the salon. Her three children were perfectly dressed and mannered as well. She invested in protecting them and being a supermom.
She followed an intense daily fitness and yoga practice, resulting in a sculpted body that was as beautiful and as hard as the statue of Venus. Alex was physically strong but rigid. She knew she needed the softness of yoga. She knew she needed to feel. When she stepped on the mat, she was able to begin processing the emotional trauma she felt in her body.
The yoga mat was the one place she could breathe, stretch, open, and release the feelings that she held tightly inside her rock-hard body. Perhaps unconsciously, she thought that if she had the perfect body, the perfect children, and the perfect lifestyle, her husband would be faithful and kind again. She took him to therapists and interventions to try to “fix” him, hoping that he’d have an awakening and her family could be happy.
At some level, they loved each other. He went to therapy because of her, not because he wanted to heal. As Alex allowed herself pockets of vulnerability and emotional safety on the yoga mat, she softened. She was able to connect to her own experience rather than remain codependent on everyone else in the situation. Over five or six years, through her practice and psychotherapy, she was able to leave the relationship.
The moment she made the decision, she stopped feeling the need to exercise with such intensity. She was comfortable being more real and less perfect. Her strength was balanced with softness, which I found to be more beautiful than the “perfect body” she’d had before. She transformed into a brave, strong but supple, gorgeous human being. Yoga allows us to experience our lives from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, and that transformation takes time.
Sometimes we need the darkness to get to the light, we need to be sick to heal, we need too much of something to find balance. That’s the nature of life. When we understand the impermanence of the stages we go through in life, we can engage in the effort and surrender it takes to find mind-body health. When we’re active in the process, we’re not stuck, which means we’re growing and evolving, moving through pain and pleasure.
That’s the art of living. The practice of self-care is steady, but what it looks like will shift and change as life evolves. The more we can be curious about the emotional, mental, and physical landscape in this work, the more we’re inspired to be consistent with our self-care. It’s not about “set it and forget it” but about “let me engage in this journey,” which serves consistency in self-care, whatever that might mean in different stages of life.
When we get stuck in a practice that doesn’t serve us, we become disengaged and often stop practicing altogether. When we figure out the right practice at any given moment, it feels like the path of least resistance, like we are in the flow of our life, even though it still takes effort and intention.
I’m Too Inflexible for Yoga
All the time, I hear people who say, “I’m too inflexible for yoga” or “yoga’s boring.” First of all, there is no such thing as being bad at yoga. Yoga is a practice, not a performance, so there’s no reason we can’t do it whether we’re as limber as a contortionist or as stiff as aboard. There is no winner—there is no loser. I’ll say, “Let’s just stretch and breathe.” And they’re okay with that.
People are often worried about performing and doing well, but stretching and breathing is just a practice. My secret’s out now—I trick them into doing yoga, which is essentially stretching and breathing. Just like there is no such thing as being bad at yoga, I am not overly impressed if someone can wrap her leg around her neck ten times. I am interested only in the quality of the breath, heart, and mind during the movements. Yoga is a lifelong practice, and progress happens over the years.
It’s an investment in our health and well-being, and the return on investment comes with time. The true intention of the practice is to work through tension in the body and mind and to prepare the body for meditation. Contrary to popular belief, one could argue that the tighter we are, the more yoga we should do. It’s not about how flexible we are today; it’s about learning to be in our skin in the tension in our body, listening and breathing into that.
By the time Stan Goodman’s wife convinced him to call Namaste, he had been holding his breath for about forty years. He had a happy marriage, his children were in college, he was a top executive for a fashion conglomerate—life was good. His expression, however, was of someone in chronic pain, and his tight lips told me the guy barely breathed. Every muscle from his forehead to his toes was taut with the tension of stress, travel, sitting, and random, inefficient exercise.
His shoulders were so close to his ears that it seemed he didn’t have a neck. Stan also had a phone addiction and had developed a forward-leaning neck from constantly staring at his screen. I could see the foreshadowing of a kyphotic hunchback. He didn’t have acute pain, but he was deeply uncomfortable in his body. Stan traveled a lot for work and ate his meals in airports and hotels, and while he knew he needed a self-care plan, he had a hard time being consistent.
After about a year of on-again, off-again sessions, he finally committed to weekend sessions—both Saturday and Sunday. Through the consistency of those weekend “stretching and breathing” sessions (dare I call it yoga), Stan started to feel better, giving him a taste of what was possible if he could practice more frequently. One Monday morning on a flight to Los Angeles, he noticed that he could turn his head to talk to the passenger next to him—something he hadn’t been able to do six months earlier.
He’d had a yoga session the evening before and had an aha moment. Stan realized that the yoga practice was helping and that he needed to do it more often. He began time-blocking. He worked with his assistant to schedule out yoga sessions two weeks at a time. When he was traveling, he’d have a thirty-minute virtual session with his teacher from his hotel room.
Similar to the level of intensity he remembered having when launching his career in his twenties and tasting some success, Stan became obsessed with practicing yoga and how it was changing his experience in his body. We also integrated Pilates to build his core strength. He stuck to a consistent three-times-a-week schedule and became completely engaged in the experience of learning.
Stan also began doing bodywork a few times a month, which he shared with his wife. Leveraging the support of some recorded guided sessions made by his yoga teacher, he practiced deep breathing and mindfulness meditation on long flights. Stan incorporated random acts of yoga into his day. When waiting in the airport, he’d do a forward fold with his arms on his suitcase.
On one of his business trips to Asia, he even stayed an extra week and went on a yoga and wellness retreat with his wife. Stan’s body went through a total transformation. His face was no longer tense, his posture was erect, and his furrowed brow had softened. His shoulders were down and open. He told me his mindset shifted from numbness toward his job to find ing gratification in his work. The compassion he learned toward himself spread outward as well; he became concerned about the working conditions in his company’s factories in Asia.
He’d never given it a moment’s thought before practicing yoga. He became more conscious, and compassion became the filter through which he viewed the world. He was residing in his body and his heart, no longer a talking head. He was living his life, playing and enjoying the game rather than just being a piece on the board.
The Power of Yoga
Any movement is better than no movement, but over time, traditional fitness can create physical tension, rigidity, and even injury. Yoga helps mitigate the tension of sport and other types of exercise. As we saw with Alex McLaughlin, yoga offers softness to a body hardened by too much fitness. And as we saw with Stan Goodman, it can do so much more. Yoga helps us learn to live in our bodies.
Every experience, every emotion we have, is stored in the body. When we don’t move in a way that enables us to energetically process those experiences and emotions, the energy gets stuck. On an emotional, psychological, and psychospiritual level, with the support of a skillful and highly trained teacher, the practice is a vehicle to process experiences and trauma that we hold in our bodies.
Yoga builds strength that is proportionate to our body (because we’re not using weights); we’re holding our own body in space. That kind of strength creates an equilibrium and suppleness. We’re less prone to injury and more fluid and expansive physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Practiced over a lifetime, yoga leaves us looking and feeling younger than the biological number on our driver’s license.
We’re able to sit cross-legged on the floor to play with our grandchildren. Created as a way to prepare the body for long, sitting meditation, yoga practice always ends with Savasana, which is a final rest. This most important part of the practice has several purposes. It enables us to digest and integrate the benefits of the practice on multiple levels and leaves us restored and energized even after a rigorous class.
Savasana is “the other half” of the stretching, strengthening, and flowing. It’s the stillness, the quiet, and then returning to the earth. The combination of the movement and the stillness of yoga helps us live with greater ease in our bodies and teaches us how to be in our skin in many different shapes and forms, literally and metaphorically. As important as it is to move and do, it is equally essential to stop and rest.
Ironically, for many high-achieving people, it is the slowing down and the stillness that is the hardest. They have been trained to move and achieve and have been rewarded financially and otherwise for these accomplishments. Slowing down can be frightening. Facing the resistance to stillness, moving through the uncomfortable feeling of being in our selves, and making space for doing less is key to inner wealth.