Believe it or not, we are all doing the best that we can. It’s often said that self-observation with compassion is a potent way to step into the human experience. We make mistakes, others make mistakes, so finding a balance between accountability and forgiveness is key. It doesn’t mean we can’t let our voices be heard or ask for things to be done in a better way, but it does invite a bit more understanding of our common humanity.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Coby Kozlowski, a speaker, life coach trainer, contemporary yoga and meditation educator, and author of One Degree Revolution: How the Wisdom of Yoga Inspires Small Shifts That Lead to Big. She has appeared on the covers of Yoga Journal and Mantra Wellness Magazine and was named as “one of the seven yoga teachers who have changed the practice.” Coby is a senior faculty member and presenter at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and Esalen Institute. She received her master’s degree in transformative leadership.
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?
Ididn’t realize the complexity and depth that yoga had to offer until I was badly injured in college. I had already been doing yoga for a few years. In fact, I took my first yoga class when I was seventeen. I was intrigued by the mind-body connection, and fascinated by the physical practice. So I got on the mat, and much to my surprise I was truly disappointed: the first class just bored me. I didn’t feel relaxed, peaceful, or in tune with my body. I don’t know why I kept going, but I did. Eventually, my seventeen-year-old self learned to appreciate the strength, stability, fluidity, and introspection within the postures.
One day, a few years after that first yoga class, my life changed in an instant. I was seriously injured and was supposed to have a routine ACL reconstruction on my knee. Yet for the next six years I was on and off crutches, and I ended up having nine surgeries. After the first surgery there were complications. I also had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia, which impacted both my healing and my vision. I ended up bedridden for three months: my life as I knew it was put on hold. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t see clearly, and I couldn’t do what most other twenty-year-olds were doing. Instead, I was back at my parent’s house, literally stuck in a bed in the middle of their living room.
Now that I no longer could use my body in the same way, and with so much time on my hands, I began to go inward and think even more. Who am I really? Why am I here? How do I want to live? What happens when I die?
Ruminating on these thoughts steered me toward investigating the other aspects of yoga, the teachings beyond the physical practice. Yoga turned out to be so much more than what I could do with my body. In fact, the yoga I had been practicing on the mat was just the beginning. Understanding and exploring the philosophy opened up a completely new way to see the world and the relationship I could have with it. I was being initiated into a path of living yoga, not just doing yoga.
As I looked for new or different ways to heal my physical body, I continued to deepen my inquiry with all aspects of yoga. I began to study as many different perspectives of the tradition as well as our innate human potential. I started combining the ancient teachings of yoga with studies in Ayurveda. I also studied more “western” ideas like coaching, transformative leadership, positive psychology, expressive arts, and dance. Each of these studies challenged me, encouraged me, and helped me evolve into a different version of myself. Now I share what I’ve learned by teaching leadership and personal transformation workshops across the country. Most recently, I’ve put these same living yoga lessons into my book, ONE DEGREE REVOLUTION, where I share how making very small shifts in the way we approach life can lead to major, impactful change.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In my book I share a story that I once took a workshop where everyone was blindfolded and taken to a large maze out in a forest. The goal of the exercise was to find our way out of the maze as quickly as possible. Each time a person made it out, one of the facilitators would announce their escape to everybody else: “Nathan is out of the maze,” “Susan is out of the maze.”
I was pretty competitive at that time in my life, so I immediately decided that I was going to be the first one out of that maze. We put our blindfolds on, entered the maze, and — within less than a minute — I heard the announcement, “Aubrey is out of the maze.” Wait, what? How had she gotten out so fast? I took a breath and refocused. Time went on, and I didn’t seem any closer to finding my way out. One by one, I heard, “Mark is out of the maze. Todd is out of the maze. Jillian is out of the maze.” I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting out of this maze, and why everybody else had gotten out so easily. As each person got out of the maze I found myself more and more frustrated. I could hear people talking, yet I was more interested in getting myself out than listening to what they were saying. The facilitators came over to me and asked a number of times, “Coby, how are you doing?” My response was always, “I’m fine, please leave me alone, I’m trying to get out of the maze.”
Twenty minutes went by; thirty minutes, an hour. By this time, everybody in the group was cheering me on because it was clear that I was the only person left in the maze. Finally, one of the facilitators came up to me and asked again, “Coby, how’s it going?” I turned to him and said, “I don’t know. I guess I need help.” And the next words I heard were, “Coby is out of the maze.”
It turned out that the maze was not a maze at all — it was a totally enclosed course with no exit, unless you asked for help. In that moment, I realized how often I’d been stuck in the maze of life, forgetting that the wide-open door was right there, if I only reached out and asked someone for help. Even leaders need to know that it’s ok to ask for help, and sometimes, that help may come from unexpected sources, including their employees. This lesson taught me to be open and change my expectations that I had to do everything myself, even in my business, all the time.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I believe in transparency as well as creating a work environment that feels like a team, tribe, or sacred community. Create a structure that shares both the responsibility and rewards as a self-supportive network. Everyone on a team should be given clear expectations and guidelines so that they know how they can succeed in their individual roles. They should also understand the expectations of their coworkers so that they can support their success.
Remember that the people who work for you are exactly that; people, so treat them with respect — be curious, kind, and thoughtful. Educate your staff on helping them find their own balance between responsibility, organization, and creativity. This balance fosters the optimal environment for people to home in on their particular genius skill.
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?
The Radiance Sutras by my teacher and friend Dr. Lorin Roche is like listening to a conversation between two lovers, where one is longing to experience more of the divine in everyday life, and the other offers the instructions. The Radiance Sutras is one of the most beautiful texts that I’ve ever read. Not only has it shaped the way that I look at meditation, it’s also shaped the way I look at life. This text awakened something inside of me that I couldn’t deny. It encourage me to take the first steps on what would become an incredible journey — both beautiful and painful, where I experienced the deepest love and deepest heartbreak, and through this practice of meditation, I learned to cherish it all — that it was all beautiful.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
To me, mindfulness means being aware of what you are experiencing in the moment — and celebrating the gift of life in as many moments throughout the day as you can. My approach to mindfulness teaches that we can be in awe of the mystery of life, including the changes that accompany that mystery by delighting in the senses. Mindfulness then becomes a form of meditation, where we learn to cherish all of life.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Everyone has particular patterns, habits, or routines in their life. These can be patterns of movement (or lack of movement), patterns of thought, or ways we react to our environment. These patterns are not inherently bad; they help to organize and simplify our actions so our lives can be more efficient, predictable and enjoyable. The key that mindfulness unlocks is turning these unconscious patterns into conscious ones. The more we are aware of why we are moving, thinking, or responding in a particular way, the more freedom we have to either continue or adjust our behavior. In other words, strengthening the mindfulness muscle supports us to respond more to life as opposed to constantly reacting to the emotional currents of the day-to-day.
Often addressing any of these areas — physical, mental or emotional will support your understanding of the others. If a person is more mindful of their physical body, they will likely become aware of when they feel the most vibrant and when they feel the dullest. Then they can transfer that same intuition to their mind: what is keeping them from making the choices to feel more vibrant more often and feel dull less? Most likely it is an unconscious pattern or habit of living. By turning our attention to those patterns, we can notice which thoughts serve us and which ones are self-sabotaging. As the mindfulness muscle grows, we can recognize when an emotional storm is on the horizon and better navigate it when it arrives.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
1. First of all, what might be helpful or useful for someone else might not be right for you. We are all experiencing something different, so we must be able to pause long enough to truly listen to what part of this uncertainty is trying to get your attention. So the first step is to figure out how you can best hear what your inner wisdom is trying to tell you: where can you go so you can listen — is it nature, meditation, for a run.
2. Connect with what matters to you, with something bigger than yourself, with your community, and with your truth. We all have plenty of time right now, but not always enough energy. If you can start to take inventory of how you spend your time it can become extremely clear how many choices you are making that don’t actually help you to recharge and feel more connected to the things that really matter.
3. Create boundaries with the parts of your self that ruminate over the worst case scenarios, and with people that drain your energy. It is vital to be able to step back and recognize when your mind has hijacked your experience and is leading you down the fear-filled road. It is valuable to vent to your friends and family, but there is a tipping point when the collective worry starts to be a drain. When we can hold these boundaries from a place of kindness and clarity, and shift both the internal and external conversations we engage in, it can open up more space for you to rest, heal, replenish, and renew.
4. Compassion — Believe it or not, we are all doing the best that we can. It’s often said that self-observation with compassion is a potent way to step into the human experience. We make mistakes, others make mistakes, so finding a balance between accountability and forgiveness is key. It doesn’t mean we can’t let our voices be heard or ask for things to be done in a better way, but it does invite a bit more understanding of our common humanity.
5. Trust Life- We can learn to trust life more by letting go of the idea that we should know all the intricacies of how life is supposed to work, or that every aspect of life is always going to make sense. There is always something that’s being secreted, and there will always be more for you to learn. There’s always the possibility that you have come to the wrong conclusion. As I like to say, leave room for doubt.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
1. Space and time: Sometimes the best thing to offer someone feeling anxious is space and time. I’ve found that a situation, or even a feeling will shift with these two ingredients instead of trying to solve someone’s problems for them.
2. Offer community: Just knowing that someone is part of your inner circle can lessen the burden of anxiety. Again, don’t try to solve their problem; just listen.
3. Conscious communication: when the person seems ready, ask what would be supportive for them. Invite them to reconnect with a memory of another time when they experienced something hard and got to the other side of the problem. Help them find a similar solution to the new anxiety.
4. Help them brainstorm a strategy to create more ease by supporting their mind to take a break from the thoughts that spark constant anxiety. Help them make a list of conscious distractions — cooking, art, dance, writing letters, gardening — that would help them to shift their attention.
5. Be an example of being grounded and relaxed: even adults learn from seeing as much as doing. When you can remain calm, you will see how others act in kind.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Two of my favorite meditation inspirations are Lorin Roche Phd, who also wrote Meditation Made Easy and can be found at www.lorinroche.com and Steven Leonard who is the creator of Freestyle Meditation and can be found at www.stevenleonard.net. Both of them provide a natural and instinctive approach to meditation.
Take time to explore what works for you and your life right now — keeping in mind this might change. Start slow; know that even five minutes of practice a few days a week can be impactful. Find teachers that you resonate with. Remember there is not one way to be mindful, every activity can be infused with this innate ability to pay more attention and savor whatever it is we are engaging with in the moment.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Live in wonder.
When we let go of what we think we “know”, we open up an entirely new way of experiencing life. We become like children again and we get to savor the precious gift that is life itself, and realize that this gift is always available.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Radical Kindness. Everyone has a story and everyone is learning to navigate the waves of life the best that they can with the tools that they have. What if real change began with first being kind to ourselves and to each other?
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?