Whenever I’m in a high-stress or high-pressure situation, I employ relaxation breathing, which always helps with my anxiety and nerves. Mindful breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, aka your relaxation response, so that you can act with clarity, focus and grace.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Vaynerman.
Sarah built Work From Om® to help organizations support their employees’ well-being and development, and manage stress in a world where the lines between work and life are becoming increasingly blurred. She created the Work From Om® model that has touched thousands of professionals nationwide and has personally led successful mindfulness trainings at more than 100 companies.
Sarah believes that the transformative qualities of mindfulness and conscious movement must be widely available and has devoted her career to building programs that are relatable and accessible to individuals from all walks of life and all levels of practice.
Before launching Work From Om®, Sarah spent nearly a decade in marketing communications, leading brand engagement initiatives for growing companies within tech and on Wall Street before starting her own consulting practice. Through the practices of yoga, mindful movement and meditation, she soon noticed profound improvements in virtually every aspect of her life, from sleep and physical fitness to productivity and personal relationships. Inspired and rejuvenated, Sarah completed her yoga teacher training and launched Work From Om® in 2014 with a mission to deliver the same benefits to busy professionals one company at a time.
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?
My family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1987 following the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred less than 100 miles from our home. My parents were focused on working hard and creating a great life for us here, (which they did!) but there wasn’t much focus on relaxation or aligning with a spiritual path. We grew up with traditional Russian values and rules, and learned about the value of hard work and discipline.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
In my 20s, I worked on Wall Street in a very high-pressure, high-stress environment. At work from 7 AM to 7 PM or later every day, working weekends, life was fast and demanding but I was good at what I did. I thought I had everything I was supposed to want.
But then I found that I hated the stress that came along with that job. I was miserable and imploding from the pressure of it. I thought exercise might help… but had already given up on spin classes and gym memberships. I heard yoga was really good for stress, so I tried it, and it was the one thing that helped me feel better immediately. After savasana in my first class, I didn’t have the urge to check in with my phone — which was unique and profound. I had finally found what could help me combat work-related stress and anxiety.
I spent the next year diving deeper into my personal practice, including becoming an instructor and spending hours researching the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. I started to see a connection between the practice and mental clarity, productivity and purpose, and realized that these characteristics are also foundational to success in the workplace. I was learning about the importance of habits and consistent practice, and finding the results I was seeking in unexpected places. I found out that just showing up and doing the work was so much more effective than attaching myself to a certain destination or end-goal.
In 2014 I launched my own business to help other professionals with the challenges that we all face in the workplace and Work From Om® began working exclusively with corporate clients through my personal and professional connections. Today we partner with companies around the world to bring active mindfulness and movement into workplaces for healthier, happier and higher-functioning organizations.
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?
My dad is an entrepreneur and a business owner, so starting a company never seemed out of reach for me. When I shared my business idea with him, he gave his unconditional support and communicated that I could do it as a matter of fact — there was no skepticism nor inflamed enthusiasm. It wasn’t the typical “you can do anything you dream of!” kind of encouragement but it was just the no-nonsense guidance that I needed.
He gave me a lot of practical, action-oriented advice that helped me develop the habits and systems needed to build a foundation and eventually grow the company. He would always tell me to stay organized and to keep working on things little by little, day after day. This advice mirrored what I was learning in my practice, that showing up consistently is actually the “secret” to success.
My dad’s steady approach inspired me to not be afraid of risk, and set an example that changed my career forever. I learned from him that anyone can be successful at what they do so long as they are authentic to themselves and work hard.
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?
Early on we were approached by a producer of the Today Show who wanted to film a segment with us and one of our clients. We were so new to PR and media and were convinced that this opportunity was going to be HUGE for our company. We had a lot of big expectations.
We prepared and then filmed the segment. We were so excited about how this was going to catalyze our growth and couldn’t wait to be on TV. Well, I don’t know what happened but the segment didn’t ever air. We never learned why.
Through this experience I learned not to expect any one thing to be revolutionary for our company. Sometimes moments can be pivotal, but most of the time the work in growing a business is slow and steady. Just like my practice. Just like building habits. But the slow and steady work is just as valuable and important as the groundbreaking events, so just keep going.
It’s like they say, it takes 10 years to become an overnight success.
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?
Stay focused on your mission and don’t worry too much about what everyone else is doing or not doing. Just do what you’re good at, and do it well.
For example, our market is full of countless wellness influencers and brands, and there’s always the “next big thing” that can easily shift our attention into comparison mode. I have found that this is only a distraction and takes away from the time we should be spending on growing our business.
Bet on yourself, take risks and don’t always wait until you’re “ready.” Just take action.
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?
I found yoga through The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. He writes that you can replace any bad habit with a good one if you can recognize what your trigger is, and what reward you’re seeking in that habit. When I was working on Wall Street I was so stressed and had a slew of bad habits, including drinking too much, self-deprecation and taking anger out on people. Basically I was dealing with my anxiety in all of the worst ways. This book gave me the key to intercepting those habits, and I started doing yoga whenever I felt anxious or stressed, practicing a very specific Ashtanga series each time. Sticking to this new habit was transformative, and completely changed my life and career.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Practice and all is coming.” — Pattabhi Jois
This quote helped me realize that practice in itself is more valuable than hyper-focusing on a destination. Practice is the goal. So do the practice, and keep on doing it, and that will get you to where you want to go.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now we’re focused on two initiatives both centered around making yoga and mindfulness accessible to more people, which is a core pillar of our mission to integrate well-being into every workday.
When the pandemic hit, we completely pivoted our business model to be able to serve our clients and their employees online. At this point we’ve been teaching all virtual classes since March of 2020, and have designed an experience that is seamless for both our students and the people who manage their company wellness programs (usually HR leaders.) Now we’re in the process of scaling and further improving that framework to meet the needs of what we believe will be a permanent shift towards a remote-first world of work.
In March we also realized that although many people were laid off and lost access to their workplace wellness program, or their neighborhood studios were closed, they needed the stress-relieving benefits of yoga and meditation more than ever. So in partnership with Running River Collective, a non-profit centered around supporting healthy lifestyles for marginalized yet powerful communities, we launched a donation-based Community Studio. We believe that all people deserve the opportunity to learn practices to improve their health and happiness, and we’re proud to be able to give back in this way.
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?
Creating good habits reduces our cognitive load, making more space for us to allocate our limited mental resources to the things that matter. Building a habit means that we only have to make that decision once, and then it becomes automatic. For example, once I decided that I was going to incorporate journaling into my morning routine, then that part of my day became so much simpler and I was able to achieve my daily goals more easily. Habits are like those moving walkways in airports, they help us get moving more easily, and can accelerate our efforts to complete everything else in our day more efficiently.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
The Power of Habit completely redirected my career and helped me find the path I’m on now. In addition to sparking my yoga practice it also inspired me to track my habits in a daily journal. Along with being accountable to check off my small and big goals, I kept a record of how I was feeling every day, which helped me make the connection between positive habits and my mood, productivity and happiness.
I have learned that the most effective and valuable habits take two minutes or less. But these are also the easiest to skip or avoid. So, when I stack lots of these short habits on top of each other, like in my morning routine, they build up exponentially and really get me moving. James Clear writes in Atomic Habits that “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement” and I have really found this to be true. That practice of habit stacking and establishing a solid morning ritual was the “moving walkway” that set me on the trajectory for success.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
The most effective way to stop a bad habit is to replace it with a positive one. In The Power of Habit Duhigg writes about habit loops, which consist of a cue, a routine and a reward. Once you understand how these three elements work together and with your own mental patterns, then you can redesign your loops and develop the habits that you want. Also, make sure you’re tracking your habits and the wins you have along the way. This creates a powerful positive feedback loop that helps your brain latch onto new positive rewards. Celebrating each tiny victory is key to making them stick.
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.
- I have found the repetitiveness of the Ashtanga yoga series to be transformational in my ability to build habits. It’s the same sequence every time, so I don’t have to think about what’s coming next while also having the space to develop focus, a sense of perception and depth within each pose.
- Sleep is so, so important, and in my experience recharging my battery is the only way that I can expect to perform and succeed. Our culture glorifies working more and sleeping less, which in reality makes us much less effective. The quality of our work is directly related to the quality of our sleep, and should be prioritized as such.
- I’ll say it again, a solid morning routine is key to optimal wellness and success. Find a few small yet powerful habits that you can stack, keep doing them every day, and you will see remarkable results.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Taking the time to track and journal about your habits each day is critical to making them stick. We even created a Habit Tracker template for our students that makes it easy to do and includes a gratitude log for every day. It seems like such a simple practice, but it can truly change and catalyze a lot.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
- People often relate performance with productivity, and they’re not wrong. But where many miss the mark is in thinking that to be more productive one must simply do more. I have found the opposite to be true. To optimize my performance, I must carve out space for both rest and work.
- Celebrating tiny victories reinforces your work in the brain and creates a positive association that is just as important as the feeling of achieving the goal itself. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” so make sure that you’re noticing the small steps and cheering yourself on for each thing you accomplish.
- Whenever I’m in a high-stress or high-pressure situation, I employ relaxation breathing, which always helps with my anxiety and nerves. Mindful breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, aka your relaxation response, so that you can act with clarity, focus and grace.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Setting boundaries on my time and blocking windows of time for rest, celebration and mindfulness practices helps me get it all done, and perform at my best.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
- Mindfulness meditation has been proven to improve focus, and that’s always the first technique that I turn to. One study on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction showed that those who meditated for 27 minutes per day saw an increase in the size of their hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for attention, focus and concentration.
- When I need to be the most productive, I use our 40–10–10 rule, a time blocking method inspired by the Pomodoro Technique. This modern-day solution calls for 40 minutes of dedicated work on ONE task, 10 minutes to take a break and 10 minutes to respond to any missed texts, emails or notifications. Since multitasking has been shown to increase the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, in our brains, I work to avoid it at all costs.
- We also recommend a Digital Diet to our students that helps reduce the demands on your attention. For example, something as simple as turning off non-vital notifications from your smartphone helps us find balance in this Age of Distraction and profoundly improve our mental well-being.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Being mindful about meditating, media usage and prioritizing my time helps me stay focused. But I’m not perfect! It’s definitely a daily practice and I’m always working to stay in control of my own mind and thoughts.
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?
I think about habits as the gears that enable a sense of flow. When I set myself up to do the same beneficial things day after day, stacking my positive habits within my morning routine, I set myself in motion and can more easily stay in motion. Inertia is powerful, and automating as much as possible to create that sense of effortless movement helps me find my groove.
I also try to stay aware of how much pressure I’m experiencing, which has a direct effect on the quality of my work. The Yerkes-Dodson law explains this best: performance is improved under pressure and even in situations of anxiety, but only up to a point. Once you pass that threshold we become overloaded and then eventually burn out. We also work with our clients and students to help them find just the right amount of pressure and mental stimulation to help them achieve optimal performance.
Finally, I believe that it’s nearly impossible to achieve a flow state if you don’t believe in what you’re doing. The actions you’re taking should be aligned with your personal values and with what you want for the world. That synchronicity will make it so much easier to get into your flow state and maximize your potential. It can be simple: start by doing what makes you happy, and keep working on that, and your career will flow into your purpose. It seems fluffy but I know from personal experience that it works and is absolutely worth it.
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.
I wouldn’t be able to personally inspire a movement nearly as important as the Black Lives Matter movement and fight against White supremacy that is happening right now. Fundamentally, I believe that it is our social responsibility to stand up for people impacted by inequality, especially those who live at a point of intersectional discrimination. As it relates to our work, we believe that well-being is a human right, and we are committed to empowering inclusive and equitable access to well-being for every person in every community. We all deserve a society that cultivates an inclusive mindset, one where everyone is welcome and valued, and we have a lot of work ahead of us to get to that point.
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 🙂
I absolutely love Bethenny Frankel! A self-made businesswoman, she is scrappy, has created an amazing brand and also runs an incredible non-profit organization that provides emergency assistance to people in crisis. She is very authentic and unapologetic, characteristics that more women should feel empowered to embody. Not to mention she is hilarious and I have so much fun watching her shows.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.