Core awareness is another incredible practice to attain optimal focus. Bringing people back to the wisdom of their core is a large part of the work I do with clients. We have been hardwired to seek external approval and advice and we are often unable to focus because we have twenty well intended voices yapping at us to “do it this way.” Core awareness is the habit of bringing the minds awareness inward, to the center of the body and asking ourselves what needs to be focused on? The answer is always taking a path of least resistance and if we can keep our mind on that inner wisdom shared with us, focus becomes much less of a forced activity.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sara Smith.
Dr. Sara Smith, PT, combines medical research and holistic practices to help women restore their physical, mental and spiritual health. Her goal is to help women build a legacy without burnout, reclaim their joy and accomplish their personal and professional goals by unlocking their core confidence. She focuses on connecting women back to their core, which holds authenticity, choice and immediate solutions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory? Thank you for having me!
My childhood was beautiful and full of me dancing around pretending I was a performer, singing and knocking fancy knickknacks off the tables with my wild moves! It was full of play, friends and moving to a new small town from the city and settling into a new pace. Below that surface experiences, there was a lot of uncertainty in my little world. My parents were going through a very difficult divorce, I was feeling confused, hurt. Often I would become painfully shy as I didn’t know how to handle or deal with all the stress around me. While showered with love, I was an only child and didn’t know yet that I was empathic and intuitive. I was unaware I was spending a lot of time making sure others were happy and focused on me to not feel their stress and pain.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My career has morphed many times over the years. The person who sticks out the most in encouraging my current career track is my aunt, Ginny. I recall one night while I was in physical therapy school, we were having dinner together. We have been known to savor a deep conversation over a meal at any of our favorite local restaurants. After we got home and I was about to leave to head back to my apartment, she said out of nowhere, “You know Sara, one day you are going to be a life coach! You are going to be amazing; you actually already do it!” I was dumbfounded and had no words. I think I just huffed and made a fake laugh. Actually, I was furious! I was spending precious time and money to work towards a Doctorate in Physical Therapy. I wondered why on earth would I be going through all this training to then leave that career and become a life coach? How does one even do that anyway?!
Lo and behold, years into my career as a Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist and Yoga and Mindfulness Practitioner, I began leaning towards a coaching certificate. As an empath and intuitive, I saw the immense importance of mindset and behavioral habit changes. I was obsessed with what it took for a client to experience a lasting lifestyle shift. In that experimentation process, I realized I could not attain the same major changes through physical movement practices alone. It took a mind, body and spirit integrative approach. So, I took my time, found a coaching program and have never looked back!
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I have a real love for sitting with and learning from elders who are spiritual, philosophical or human rights advocates. There have been many that I have learned from, each leaving their own mark of wisdom and personal experience that has shaped the unique approach I choose to take in my own business. The first woman I did this with was Mary Onley, AKA- Mama Girl. She was a folk artist, minister and prophet (she wouldn’t admit this, but I will for her). I would put aside my work someday just to go sit with Mama Girl in her studio. I would sit there in this tiny wooden chair that must have been built for a small child, surrounded by her colorful, life-sized sculptures and I would share my struggles and questions about life. In return, she would share her wisdom. In those precious moments, I was centered back on what was true and real in the world, love. She had this knack for using stories from her own life to inspire me to go for the stirrings of my soul. She, along with several other elders I have been blessed to sit with for extended periods, gave me the proverbial permission slip to be authentically me.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
This is a funny question because, being a recovering perfectionist, I have worked hard not to let mistakes happen! But here it is:
I went on a long, arduous journey to convince myself I needed a bigger audience and that I wasn’t doing something “right.” That I didn’t have the right systems, that I didn’t have the right words to describe the powerful work I do with clients, that I didn’t have the right sales pages, funnels or automation…that I didn’t have the right organizational skills…that I didn’t have the best model…that I wasn’t the best at sales strategies and that not enough people needed this transformational life process. Go back and read that first sentence again: I convinced myself! I spent a lot of time looking around at others who were not even comparable in business structure. I was looking to others to help answer the questions I wasn’t ready to hear yet. I drifted away from the teachings of my spiritual practice that those such as Mama Girl taught me, to look to God and go within for my own truth.
It was a funny mistake only because I can look back at it now and see it so clearly. At the time, it was painful, very painful!
The lesson I learned was every time those not good enough gremlins and comparison trolls pop into my head trying to derail my beautiful business and life I visualize myself hugging them, asking what they really need, wait for the answer and then meditate and come back to my core wisdom. This is hilarious to me because that is the exact process I teach others now! Core confidence, truth and wisdom. I had to go through the pain of feeling lost to realize what I was seeking was within me the entire time.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I believe we have an opportunity to be thoughtful of the words we are using to young aspiring individuals. Tremendous dedication is a fabulous way to describe the journey to success. I would also say to anyone struggling with how hard it is, please find others who can mentor you and who you can emulate. II would encourage younger people to seek those who will teach them, model healthy boundaries and are creative. Positivity and focused action are contagious traits! Always seek out those who love what they do and have fun doing it. That is worth its weight in gold! Don’t forget success is a journey! The more malleable and adjustable one is and the longer one is willing to walk on the journey, the more life’s success can unfold. Keep going and be ready to pivot instead of giving up.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yes! Carolyn Myss’ book, Anatomy of the Spirit, was life-changing to me. Have you ever known something to be true deep inside you, but you had no words to verbalize it? When I read Anatomy of the Spirit, it connected so many dots that I previously had not been able to verbalize succinctly. It helped connect the medical and science background I had with the religious, spiritual and metaphysical elements I studied personally and in yoga and mindfulness training. Carolyn’s book connected the emotional to the physical in such a way that I was cracked wide open. Suddenly I had words written on pages to validate why I noticed very specific and differing emotional and spiritual blocks in patients in the cardiac units versus the oncology units versus chronic pain sufferers. It all made sense. My mother has much to do with introducing me to this mind-body connection when I was young. But I have always been a “why?!” kid who was not satisfied unless I proved the theory to be true for myself. Once I had the medical knowledge from physical therapy school and yoga teacher training, coupled with life experience working with patients in the hospital, home health and outpatient situations, Anatomy of the Spirit came to me at just the right time to connect all the dots handed to me prior.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny. -Mahatma Gandhi
This resonates with me because it shows the immense connectedness our personalities and traits have to our past, to our communities and generations before us. Since beliefs are malleable, Gandhi’s quote also exudes hope and the ability to adjust and upgrade beliefs and habits that no longer serve us. Perhaps they worked at a certain time in history, or they work for your mother, but when one taps into their own core confidence and wisdom, one can quickly determine if the divine is calling us to that truth anymore or not.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I think now more than ever, the digital age mixed with social and political discord plus the pandemic has exposed the lack of connection and alone-ness that so many feel, myself included. We keep seeking connection from places that give us only minor dopamine hits of satisfaction, and avoid sitting and being with others, laughing, problem-solving and sharing. The most interesting projects I am working on right now involve gathering small, intimate groups together for authentic connecting experiences. The overarching theme is always centered around taking an intentional pause to bring about clarity and focused action in some of the situations where we feel most helpless. When we feel seen, heard, valued and connected; we have greater resiliency and hope, which breeds self-efficacy. This self-efficacy is vital to setting goals and making habit upgrades so we can actually achieve them for improved health, relationships and career success. I am loving being able to test this out as a theory (based on a lot of research I have previously studied) in the real world with real working women who desire to attain more work-life balance and spiritual growth.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
I want to first clarify my definition of “good habits.” All of our lives, especially as children, we are little sponges soaking up the habits of those around us and assimilating our own flavor of these modeled habits. Often, we are not taught to question and determine if a habit is ideal and healthy for ourselves. Some habits are “good” because they help a child cope with challenging circumstances at that time. Overtime they may come to be outdated, not helpful or even debilitating habits in adulthood. Habits are engrained behaviors, and it is important to remember habits are not inherently good or bad, they are simply trying to solve a problem. Being aware of how and why they formed can lead to a shift away from habits that no longer serve us. For example, some habits that are helpful, good, or even neutral in one phase of life can be unhealthy, annoying or harmful in other stages of life. Attempting to move away from labeling a habit as good or bad can take the guilt and shame out of the equation, which often is the emotion standing between you and the change you desire.
Now, let me answer your original question: Why is it important to be able to create new habits?
It is important to create new habits because our soul is often asking us to upgrade and shift to receive more blessings. Our bodies are constantly attempting to speak to us through signals and symptoms that share what is needed to survive, be healthy and even to thrive! Evolving habits helps us capitalize on this innate inner wisdom. Yet, how often have we been taught to listen and understand the messages and signals of the body? Not often enough. Instead, we are usually taught how to keep pushing and avoid listening to the messages. Another way to explain this is having a feeling in your gut that you should turn left or right; talk to that person or avoid that person. So, it is important to create “good” or new habits so that we can experience improved health, financial abundance, safety, strength, confidence and clarity. Now, humans like to determine if habits are “good” or “bad” such as gluten is bad, gluten-free is good. Yet, what is healthy for one is not healthy for another. I’ll give you an example. I had a client who was told she needed to stop drinking coffee all together because she was diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis (an extremely painful bladder condition). This habit was an extremely hard change for her, and she would come in reporting she felt awful. She just could not stop. She was in “shame mode” for not being able to do what the doctor (a superior) requested of her. I asked her if we could try a different approach and she was agreeable. I taught her how her bladder and body were communicating with her. Once she understood that, I gave her the “detective hat” and asked her to use that knowledge and notice foods and drinks she ingested and the effects they had on her symptoms. Over the course of a few short weeks she realized she could indeed have specific brands of coffee without her symptoms flaring, whereas other coffee brands, plus dairy, made her symptoms worse. She regained motivation and hope, she easily made the healthy habit change for herself and she stopped having flare ups. Come to find out later, she was in an abusive relationship at the time and was not yet able to discuss that. As she continued to use the tools I gave her she followed the signals of her body to create even more incredible habit changes in her career, marriage, mental and physical health.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
The smallest habits have been the ones that pack the most punch for me in creating success. Waking up in the morning and making sure the first thought I have is a positive, uplifting one has been the way I start my day for as long as I can recall. It sets the entire tone for how I show up.
I work from home, so getting dressed and stating out loud “I am starting my work day” and “I have closed my work day” has become a consistent habit of mine. That ability to turn work on and off is extremely empowering.
The other habit that has both personally and professionally benefited me is a combination of reading sacred texts, learning from trusted spiritual mentors and attending consistent healing sessions. I have found the more dedicated I am to experiencing these gifts for myself, the more I can show up for others in a clear, authentic and powerful way.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
I love that word develop! Development implies we have the opportunity to start and allow evolution over time, so that a habit is eventually formed. The best way to develop good habits is to seek professional counsel. Habit change is so much more than accountability. Often people desire to change a neurologic wiring, yet they keep running into stumbling blocks. We would all get a lot farther if we would hire the help to be the change we wish to see. Conversely, I would give the same professional opinion for stopping “bad” habits, because usually there is a whole rabbit hole of why someone is engaging in the habit. In addition though, I would suggest releasing the word bad. Bad implies someone is a little child and is getting reprimanded by the teacher or that someone is less than another human being. If you can start to inject love and kindness, the not so ideal habit can release and be replaced more easily.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
Three habits that can lead to Optimal Wellness include
- Having a forgiveness practice. We all hold grudges. I had a client who was personally disrespected by trusted team members in an organization she represented. It was such a personal subject and the response from her teammates was so unexpected she became hurt and angry. She started making business decisions based on that anger. When she came to me, I taught her a forgiveness practice that allowed her to have a place for the emotions while also letting go of the harm it was doing for her and her career. She is now launching a second business and was just featured in a well known magazine for her first business.
- Having an enjoyable and simple movement practice that allows hormone rebalancing. I used to be an avid runner. I still love running, but as I studied more about hormone balancing and stress management coupled with tuning into the messages of my body, I learned some days I needed more intense movement and some days I needed light, fluid stretching movement. As I began to look at the whole picture of my mind and body wellness I could decide each day what felt like a supportive movement practice. Now I have significantly less anxiety and fewer sleep disturbances or other hormonal symptoms.
- Having a spiritual practice that may include a variety of activities such as reading, journaling, mindfulness, meditation etc. This habit seems to be the one everyone wants to try (or wants to add on) but often is the hardest to implement. I have run across this personally too when it comes to my meditative practice. I can find so many other wonderful things to fill time. So, my lifehack includes downloading a meditation timer, such as Insight Timer, and setting the timer for 1, 2 or 3 minutes max! The smaller the goal, the more success I have, the more I feel the positive effects and more likely I am to do it again later or tomorrow. To the brain, the smaller the task the less threatening it is to habitual “more important” tasks! Since it didn’t threaten my productivity or take away from caring for others, the brain can calm down and realize it is a supportive activity.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
The most effective practices to develop my top three optimal wellness habits include streamlined simplicity and celebration.
Streamlined simplicity entails time and keeping tasks simple. First, setting an amount of time to dedicate to forming each habit and then cutting that amount of time down even further is key. We often grossly overestimate what we have time for when creating a new habit. Instead, set yourself up to succeed, always. Secondly, achieve simplicity by taking an inventory and ask yourself, “Does this feel simple?” and “Is there a way I can make this task even more simple and streamlined?” Whenever we are trying to create a new habit we are out of practice and the experience often requires a lot of neural firing, which requires energy. It is similar to trailblazing! At first there is a ton of energy expended in chopping down trees and shrubs and looking ahead to determine the path the trail should take. As the trail is forged and used regularly, it becomes clear, patted down by happy feet and it is easy to get from point A to point B at top speed.
Celebration is often forgotten, but is one of the most vital practices when creating new optimal wellness habits. How often do you give yourself a pat on the back, do a happy dance or really stop to smile and feel proud of taking the next step to caring for yourself? In working with hundreds of clients all over the world, I have seen firsthand most are not trained to celebrate or see/feel their own successes because they are looking for more. We are addicted to doing more, being more and achieving more. So much so that we forget all the little wins along the way. Learn what celebration means to you and be amazed at all your little accomplishments. Optimal wellness will come with greater expediency because the brain is getting more neural input that the tasks your are engaging in are safe, secure and healthy.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
Habits are the best way to optimize performance. But not all healthy habits can optimize performance at work or in sport. The top three habits that lead to optimal work and physical performance include visualization, sensory-feedback and performance review.
In the world of athletes, it has long been practiced and proven that visualization is a way to control stress and physiologic responses, including respiratory rate, heart rate and posture. In working with a client who was a professional and Olympic swimmer I lead her through meditative visualizations that were so detailed she felt as if she has already competed. We were able to practice together in a way that gave the physical body a rest but kicked in the autonomic neural pathways to work any jitters out of the mind and stress response system prior to performance. I have also done the same with executives in major corporations who were going to walk into a difficult board meeting or conversation. The more detailed we can get, the more relaxed and prepared the mind can be when it comes time to communicate effectively.
The habit of practicing sensory-feedback is one of awareness. When talking about sport or work activities where high performance is required, you may have heard people say “Everything just slowed down, I saw their next move before it even happened. I felt my heart beating and everything was laser focused.” This can be trained by creating the habit of sensory-feedback: noting the breath as we speak or move, noticing the temperature in the room, the tightness or softness felt in the arms or legs, sensing the heart beating. If you have a mirror nearby, you can also take a quick glance and notice your position or simply look down at your hands and notice their position. Sensory-feedback is something my clients have found invaluable to set them apart from their peers in conflict resolution and under high stress circumstances.
Having a habit of non-judgmental performance review is also vital. Taking an inventory of what went well, what to improve or shift for next time, reviewing the sensory-feedback and any other feedback you can get from your recollection and others. While this habit is often practiced, not many have mastered the ability to be non-judgmental and see the positives when it deals specifically with themselves. Some of my favorite moments with clients happen when we review their performance, they share all the ways they could have/should have done something differently, I show them how to interpret it through symbolism and reading in between the lines and they immediately can move into recovery action instead of getting stuck in frustration or embarrassment.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
To develop the habits of visualization, sensory-feedback and performance review I believe you must invest in a trained professional. If you are working towards greatness, optimal performance requires great care and attention. Many say that it can be lonely at the top, but the wisest know to seek counsel. We cannot see the backpack that’s on our own back! We all need someone who is standing with us to reduce the stress, prepare us for greatness by thinking outside the box and getting our jitters out prior to “the big game.”
There is no greater practice to cultivate optimal performance habits than seeking professional training from someone who specializes in stress management and executive functioning.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
Focus is centering one’s attention and three habits to cultivate optimal focus are breath awareness, core awareness and consistent breaks (who would have thought?!).
I believe how we focus in one area can help us cultivate focus in other areas. So, by focusing on the breath, by counting inhalation and exhalation time or noting the space between inhale and exhale for a certain length of time, we can help train the brain in the art of focus. One client sticks out in my mind as she started to practice breath awareness. She came in one day so excited and with more energy than I had ever seen from her prior. She had been practicing daily for 5 minutes and was proud to report she finally completed her resume, applied for new roles she had previously not felt qualified for (she was very qualified), cleaned the house and made several doctors appointments she had been avoiding. She knew it was due to the breath awareness and said “I just want to shout this from the hills!”
Core awareness is another incredible practice to attain optimal focus. Bringing people back to the wisdom of their core is a large part of the work I do with clients. We have been hardwired to seek external approval and advice and we are often unable to focus because we have twenty well intended voices yapping at us to “do it this way.” Core awareness is the habit of bringing the minds awareness inward, to the center of the body and asking ourselves what needs to be focused on? The answer is always taking a path of least resistance and if we can keep our mind on that inner wisdom shared with us, focus becomes much less of a forced activity. Let me share a story of this: Laurel recently took a new director position at work, had a new baby at home, plus two other children and had worked it out to have a much needed weekend getaway with her husband. As she thought of the looming to-do list and act of God it would take to get her and the family ready for the weekend she started getting so overwhelmed that action was slow and clunky. Luckily for her, we had a group coaching session that day and as I led them through the core awareness check in she received a clear message. While it didn’t mean much to anyone else, it was exactly what she needed to hear,“You only need to worry about one thing.” A light bulb clicked on, her voice became more confident and she suddenly became laser focused saying “I got it! I just wrote out the entire plan. Wow, I feel so much better! I am ready for the weekend.” Something that was so daunting suddenly became crystal clear and energizing as she checked in with her core.
Breaks and focus may seem contradictory at times, but the brain has a limited attention span. Breaks allow play and brain rest. Brain rest equates to more intent focus on the task at hand whether it is solving a challenging problem, creating a new masterpiece or writing that next novel. Some of the most rewarding experiences I have had with clients involve helping young women in college improve their academic performance and reach their career goals. I was a decent studier, but by no means had stellar habits, so it was comical when I first started helping young women optimize study habits, especially those with ADD/ADHD. Yet, when you know how the brain works and infuse the art of spiritual mindfulness, the sky is the limit. This one client took medication to control ADD but really wanted to have other tools to cope. With the help of her physician we embarked on a series of practices that optimized her focus while studying. One of those was taking way more breaks than she ever allowed before. in addition, we made her breaks fun. Yes, fun! I needed her to look forward to those breaks and needed her brain to truly feel refreshed. Her grades soared for the first time in years. Soon she was accepted into every grad school she applied to and I am still supporting her focus as she navigates her next chapter.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Practices to help develop breath awareness include taking a yoga class or starting with a free video. Breath is a truly important skill and there are so many nuances, make sure to avoid dizziness or practicing too long to start.
Core awareness habits can start by practicing mindfulness, but even before that it starts with learning the anatomy and physiology of the pelvis and core. Understanding exactly what your pelvis and core does makes connected awareness more meaningful and less ambiguous.
To form the habit of taking breaks, I would suggest using a timer. Try the technique of setting a timer to focus for 30–60 minutes, then when the timer goes off, have an enjoyable break planned for 5–15 minutes. Once the break time is up, start the cycle again.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Practicing core awareness is the best way I know to come into a state of flow. Core awareness is the habit of bringing the minds awareness inward, to the center of the body and then asking ourselves what needs to be focused on? The answers that bubble up are direct inner wisdom! This inner guide can keep us in a state of flow if practiced often enough. We may not always get the answer we want to hear, but if we learn to stop manipulating the answer given, we can stay in the center of challenging and meaningful experiences.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The movement I want to see is a funded school program that truthfully teaches girls about their body, their inner wisdom, how to increase confidence and how to communicate and resolve conflict effectively. I see this program being a safe space where collaboration and connection are fostered among differences. While there are many incredible programs, I hope we can get this vital information to everyone, not just those with resources. I believe it is the backbone of creating healthier generations as well as healthier, creative communicators in the workforce. Within this program I also see connecting young girls with elders in nursing homes, in homes and hospitals who are willing to impart their own story and share lessons they wish they had known when they were younger.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Oh, I would love to take a dance class followed by a breakfast date with Rachel Hollis! She has shared so much of her story but simply to be in the Rachel Hollis flow followed by the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about life would be a dream! I have laughed and cried listening to her books and podcast but as an aspiring writer and motivational speaker it would be awesome to be around someone who has been there.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I would love to keep connecting with everyone. You can find me on www.drsarasmith.com
LinkedIn: Dr. Sara Smith
Facebook: Dr. Sara Smith Official
Instagram: Dr. Sara Smith Official
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Thank you so much for the opportunity! I love talking about optimal habits.