Be Present and in the KNOW. Engage employees at every level of your organization regularly. Recent studies indicate that performance increases when employees feel genuinely cared for and have opportunities to get to know their leaders as fellow human beings!
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Ciarimboli.
Jennifer Ciarimboli is studio BE’s founder and CEO. Jennifer began her career in corporate telecommunications sales in 1999, eventually suffering burnout after nearly a decade in the industry. Looking to heal, Jennifer made a drastic pivot in her professional and spiritual paths, entering into deep, years-long study of yoga, meditation, and the teachings of the Buddha, and eventually owning her own yoga studio. She recognized that if she had learned mindfulness meditation years previously, she would have been able to manage her corporate stress in a healthier, more holistic way. From this insight, studio BE was born.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I started my career working in corporate sales in the Tampa market. I clearly remember my very first day, driving across the Courtney Campbell Causeway thinking about all that was ahead. It was a bright future; I loved my job and took full advantage of the opportunity. This was 1999 — the peak of the tech bubble — and I was, for the first time in my life, making serious money. But soon that bubble would burst, the company would start changing the rules, and our sales compensation plan would churn in constant flux.
I was still able to navigate a clear path to success, which became a strength that propelled me up the corporate ladder, but however much I tried to “work smarter,” I just kept working harder and taking on more. Working late and often remotely from home became toxic for me, as I simultaneously tried to juggle a young family. Soon I began traveling extensively and life quickly took a turn for the worse. As the stress of the job began taking its toll, I began to lose sight of what was most important in my life. My marriage ended, my children suffered the consequences and I spiraled into a dark place, riddled with anxiety. My divorce, as hard as it was, became the catalyst for major introspection. The experience of deep loss and changing family dynamics grounded me in my body, and I slowly discovered a way “in” through my daily yoga practice, which up until this point was strictly physical and unconscious — not paying close attention. But the beautiful reality is that yoga works, whether or not we are paying attention. I know and trust this now — deeply. It was as if I had cannonballs chained to my feet, finally dropping me down into myself. That’s where everything shifted. It wasn’t a straight line; more like a lightning bolt, and it took a long time to figure it out, but with each practice, I gradually stepped onto that long pathway to healing and mending my life.
After my divorce, a cross-country move with my children, falling in love again and settling back into life in the Northeast, I quit that fancy, high paying (VERY STRESSFUL) corporate sales gig in one swift, clear decision. It came after a meeting that took me months to secure. Sitting in front of the CTO of a Fortune 50 company, I saw myself looking across the desk at myself in 20 years. This woman was f-ing mean. She could not have been more miserable and unkind. I remember this so vividly all these years later: this deep sense of knowing that I did not want to turn into her. Not only that, but I didn’t want to work with her, or help her, or waste my time feeding her ego in my effort to make my numbers. I was done. I quit my job two weeks later.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Definitely everything that came with opening a yoga studio and running it for six and a half years. There are so many stories from that experience. The yoga teachers and I used to call them “episodes.” Just to give you a taste: one was when we rented an extra room to a gothic sex therapist. Or when we rescued several litters of kittens or the time we drove three Tibetan monks to do a healing ceremony at a chocolate store. We shared so many incredible and hysterical episodes. I really could write a sitcom.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Early on I was assigned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers account. The decision-maker that I had to meet with was quite handsome and very charming. It was disarming, and I didn’t like feeling small, so I had to really get in the right frame of mind before our meetings. At that time, working primarily with older men, I felt I had to call on my masculine energy and I put up a lot of walls. I remember sharply walking into a meeting and swiftly falling flat on my face, my bag flying across the room and paperwork landing everywhere. I was so embarrassed, and of course everyone tried to help. I sat in the middle of that room and belly-laughed — and, of course, everyone laughed along with me. After brushing off my knees, and my ego, I had a great meeting. Stripping that “edge” off and just being real — embracing myself as this quirky, often clumsy and very feminine woman — came quite naturally after that. Other important qualities took longer to develop, but there was a significant shift there.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Too many to count. Know that your NETWORK is your lifeline. Nurture it, protect it, keep it warm and don’t burn bridges. EVER.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Figure out what you love, what turns you on, lights you up — and do more of that. If you can make that passion your work, be willing to take risks and learn how to get more comfortable with discomfort. If you can’t completely fulfill that need in your professional life, find a creative way to align the work that gives you a sense of purpose with your career. If you don’t know what that is, then be willing to get curious and do the work to know the landscape of your heart.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that everyone should get divorced, quit their jobs and go into silence. So, if you are in a career you once loved but recognize that you are at risk and feeling depleted, you need to have a plan.
Perhaps start by breaking it down into five manageable spheres of attention.
Physically: What are you noticing in your body? Ask these questions: What is my energy like? How am I sleeping? When I sleep well, do I still feel fatigued? How strong is my immunity? Am I getting sick a lot?
Cognitively: Pay attention to how you are talking to yourself. What stories are present? Are you ruminating on stories from the past or overwhelmed and ruminating on future worries? How focused and attentive do you feel in the present? At work? Are you noticing brain fog? Does your mind feel scattered?
Emotionally: How emotionally balanced do I feel? How often do I feel emotionally flooded at work? At home? Am I willing to look deeply and truthfully at the inner landscape of my heart? Where do I feel disconnected?
Relationally: To what degree are workplace stressors impacting my most significant relationships? How are workplace stressors impacting my relationships with my colleagues? How do these relational stressors impact the quality of work I do both alone and in groups or teams?
Professionally: How satisfied and fulfilled am I feeling about work? How is burnout impacting my motivation, engagement, and my willingness to be fully present and invested in the work I do?
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I’d advise the following:
- Be Present and in the KNOW. Engage employees at every level of your organization regularly. Recent studies indicate that performance increases when employees feel genuinely cared for and have opportunities to get to know their leaders as fellow human beings!
- Be CLEAR that workplace culture matters. Many people will leave their jobs not because of the actual work, but because they do not feel good about the professional climate. Workplace cultures need to be welcoming. They need to provide employees with opportunities to challenge themselves and to have some autonomy in making decisions and taking risks. They need to know that they are a significant piece of the overall organizational system — and that without their presence, things would not be the same.
- UNDERSTAND that creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box problem solving cannot take place in organizational cultures that are overly stressed and full of burnout. Absent creativity, innovation and flexible problem solving, an organization will never reach or surpass its potential — nor will its employees. Workplace cultures that openly address stress and burnout proactively invest in employees operating at optimal levels.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Commit to openly tending to your mental and emotional well-being, and to communicating with others as to how you do this. The sooner we start communicating openly about mental health challenges — challenges that we all face — the better we will get at helping those who feel incredibly isolated and lonely, fearful and ashamed of their mental health challenges. We talk freely about things we do to improve and preserve our physical health — imagine how it would be if we are so open about and invested in caring for our mental well-being? For many the act of putting voice to their emotional/mental health struggles often begins to diminish the intensity of these struggles.
- Sleep is paramount to our mental well-being. Seven to nine hours of deep, restorative sleep is essential to emotional balance. Getting to sleep and staying asleep through sleep rituals that you firmly commit to can help. For example, unplug from your devices at least one hour before sleep. Consider guided meditations that calm and relax to support easing into sleep. Diffusing essential oils, having bedding you love, and considering sleep a sacred part of your daily life can nudge you into prioritizing sleep and thus, your mental health.
- Just as you might take great care in making healthy food choices, become vigilant about other things you “ingest” or bring into your system. For example, be mindful of what you are watching on television and what you are reading. Be mindful of the social media platforms you visit. Be mindful of the ways that your TV-watching, reading and scrolling impact your nervous system. Ask yourself: is spending time ingesting this material contributing to or taking from my well-being?
- Prioritize your close relationships. We know for certain that we live longer when we thrive in healthy, nurturing and supportive relationships. Making your relational wellness a priority will positively impact your mental health.
- Finally, engage regularly in activities and practices that put you into a flow state — total present moment awareness. Such practices include: mindfulness meditation, physical exercise, connecting to nature and beauty, listening to music, and connecting deeply through meaningful dialogue with someone close to you. Flow states give the thinking, anxious, emotionally taxed mind a break. Flow is essential for our emotional well-being.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Many people welcoming their retirement years enter physically healthy, vibrant and cognitively sharp. With that going for them, they can (and should) expect to live in ways that feel vital and nourishing. Even with good health going for you, though, a lifetime spent in the workforce that suddenly comes to an end can be unexpectedly jarring. It’s not at all uncommon for retirees to experience depression, anxiety and a lack of purpose.
It is critical to prepare for and to openly communicate about how you are feeling as you near retirement and post-retirement.
Here are some tips:
- Let’s start talking about the depression, anxiety and lack of purpose that can accompany retirement. The more open we are about this, the more we can prepare ourselves to understand that retirement is a major life transition. Like all major transitions, it needs to be met with lots of self-awareness, compassion and honesty.
- Perhaps re-frame “retirement” by taking the word out of your vocabulary and step into viewing retirement as “Life 2.0.” What will you do during this next, great phase of life? What will you share? Who do you wish to impact? What legacy would you like to leave? How can you engage Life 2.0 in a courageous way — one that brings forth parts of yourself that perhaps have not yet found expression?
- Commit to engaging in an exceptional level of self-care. This is YOUR time.
- Commit to deepening your closest bonds and cultivating new relationships. You now have the time.
- Engage in the more quieting practices: those that allow you to turn inward to explore your own inner terrain. During our work years, we can be incredibly “outwardly focused.” Turn the lens back on yourself. Be open to knowing yourself in ways not previously possible.
How about teens and pre teens? Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Itis critical that we teach pre-teens and teens that their mental health needs the same degree of “tending to” as their physical health, academic performance and extracurricular activities. Unless and until we prioritize mental/emotional health and well-being, our teens will continue to enter their adult lives ill-prepared. Training in mindfulness practices, social/emotional intelligence, and growth mindset are ways to optimize the mental wellness of our teens. Additionally, teaching our teens to “disconnect” in order to truly connect meaningfully with others is critical in a time when our teens are cultivating and sustaining friendships and intimate relationships via technology. We have yet to understand the impact that technology will have on the quality of our teens’ interpersonal bonds as they move into adulthood. That said, training our kids in relational communication is central.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?
The book Insight Yoga by my primary teacher Sarah Powers was extremely impactful when I picked it up 11 years ago, and it remains a source of inspiration, curiosity and comfort for me even today. My original copy of the book is now well-worn and missing pages, but I still pick it up sometimes to read the notes that I’ve taken over the years, re-read Sarah’s words and gather new insights. Sarah has undoubtedly been the most influential teacher on my path, and I credit Insight Yoga (which is a blend of Yin Yoga, Buddhism and Spiritual Psychology) for gently dropping me on the Buddhist path. Without embodied mindfulness I would not have had the capacity to cultivate stillness with my mind and heart.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Idon’t think in those terms: “If I could.” I just do. And yes, I sometimes fail and then try again. Ideas need to marinate, but so often they drown in the vinegar of the mind. My “movement” (or the “mission behind the mission”) of studio BE is to transform the wider system of yoga. Yoga studios are typically not well-run, struggle to generate enough revenue to stay open, and 99% of them only serve the top 1% of wealthy, white people. I didn’t start on third base. Growing up poor and always feeling separate because of this class barrier lit a fire in me that even I don’t yet understand how to cool. I am determined to reach the unreachable to serve the underserved by being so impactful for the businesses that hire us that they then feel compelled to donate to my nonprofit, the Riverfront Yoga Project. Through RYP, we’ve set up an alternative system of radical belonging to fund sustainable, long-term yoga and meditation classes throughout our community. This year we’ll also be issuing scholarships to the people in our community that go above and beyond serving others. These modern-day Bodhisattvas need access to studios where they can build the inner resources to keep serving and stay healthy. I can’t wait to issue our first scholarships. It will be a day of celebration and triumph for me and all whom we are blessed to serve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.” ~Thoreau
Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I was raised by a single mother and had Sunday visits with my Dad, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam and has spent every day since fighting severe and often debilitating PTSD. My Mother was, and still is, a warrior. She went back to school with three small kids and graduated from nursing school when I was 13. We were very poor; there was never enough. My childhood was largely about surviving. Honestly, I often wonder how in the world my mother did it and how my brother, sister and I possibly made it to the other side. She worked night shift and would come home, get us off to school, clean the house and get just a few hours of sleep before going back into work. It was a hard life. There was a lot of dysfunction and drama. My Grandmother was veryinvolved and instrumental in our lives. She was kind and funny and her gentleness made us all feel safe enough to rest and dream. She lived in a tiny, yellow house that always smelled like garlic and fresh laundry. My brother, sister and I spent a lot of time there. I don’t remember when I first saw this Thoreau quote, but it was definitely in high school and I was definitely retreating at her house. Something shifted when I read it — and in that moment I knew that it was up to me to make my life beautiful. So I did.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!