Tara Stiles: “Slow down. Soften. Feel. Respond”

Make your goal the process over a pose — This of course works for yoga and life, but the comparison is so easy to make once you try it out in practice. Like a wave, your inhale lifts you up. Your exhale brings you in the next direction. If your goal is the pose, it’s so easy […]

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Make your goal the process over a pose — This of course works for yoga and life, but the comparison is so easy to make once you try it out in practice. Like a wave, your inhale lifts you up. Your exhale brings you in the next direction. If your goal is the pose, it’s so easy to get in this mode of “just make it happen.” You can end up forcing yourself into a physical place that has no value. The value is in connection with yourself. The reward is when you make that good connection with yourself in the form, you’ll be able to do much more easily.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Stiles of Strala Yoga.

Tara Stiles, a wellness expert, bestselling author, and the founder of Strala Yoga. Tara’s bestselling books, which have been translated and published in multiple languages, include Strala Yoga, Make Your Own Rules Diet, Yoga Cures, and Slim Calm Sexy Yoga, and she has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, Esquire, and Shape. Her newest book, Clean Mind, Clean Body: A 28 Day Plan for Physical, Mental and Spiritual Self-Care (Dey Street Books), will be released this December.

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 danced since I was a little girl but was always interested in lots of things that brought me together with other people. I was in a computer club in high school, loved to collect garbage and recycle, and I mainly wanted to figure out how to use my energy and gifts to the best of my ability. I grew up in rural Illinois and was very excited to meet people from all around the world. I knew I would do something using all my interests a bit but had no idea it would bring me to where I am now.

I was introduced to yoga while studying dance and was so excited there were people and practices around these ideas about feeling more connected to yourself. I went to any workshop I could find and started learning as much as I could about this world of wellbeing. Back then, even in the mid 90s there was no wellness industry. It was more like you heard about something from someone, there was maybe a flyer and a group of people getting together to meditate. I knew this was a practice I would have for myself for my life, but the more I got involved, the more I was upset that these practices weren’t easy, accessible and something everyone could do. The bug to share these practices hit me slowly and then took over how I spent my time. I decided I wanted to share yoga and wellbeing in a way that was easy, allowed you to feel like you, and as something that is useful and fits into your life. I saw a lot of examples of dogma and rigidity and practice as something that took you further away from your life and I knew I wanted to be part of a change. For me these practices felt held hostage in a way to this dogmatic way and that felt not ok. I wanted my friends and family to feel better and to feel like these practices are meant for them, not for other people so different from them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I feel like I have so many, but maybe one to share is the moment I decided to share yoga and wellbeing in this easy, accessible way, it felt like the entire world and the greatest people in it to help me rushed in to lift me up and guide me in this direction. I think that is something so helpful and encouraging to share. I’m literally a girl from rural Illinois and when I started talking about yoga in this “new way”, writing about it in this “new way” and making videos in this “new way” everyone from Deepak Chopra, Jane Fonda, the New York Times entered my life. I feel very fortunate, but I know it really has little to do with me, and a lot to do with that process of doing something useful and folks much further along and fabulous seeing that and wanting to help that. I get to go along for the ride.

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?

Hmm, nothing hilarious comes to mind but I am also not afraid to do lots of things with the same passion. I suppose my background in dance led me to theme and variation in my life. My schedule might look a little funny I suppose. When I first started teaching yoga regularly, I led a free yoga class in Central Park. I sewed a flag with orange fabric I bought from the art store that designers go to called Mood. I rode to the park on my bike carrying the flag. I suppose that must have looked strange, but I am always interested in each moment of the process and how it feels to me just as much as how I can help others. I like to talk with a lot of people and end up asking about their problems and showing how some simple yoga can help. I suppose I ended up with a pretty full schedule teaching yoga one-on-one like that, not really by trying, just by being pretty curious about how people feel. So, I would be riding around on my bike a lot from house to house, delivering the yoga. Eventually we started Strala the studio which allowed me to hang in one place and save some time.

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?

I need 10,000 words for that and it’s hard to begin. Being grateful and reflecting on the help, guidance and gifts I’ve been given by so many people is necessary to keep me headed in the right direction. Mike, my husband has supported me so much. Sam Berlind, our shiatsu faculty member of Strala has taught me so much about teaching through watching him and countless hours of patience and feedback. Jane Fonda selected me for a project and was super kind to me and gave me a big confidence boost. She also said beautiful things about me for a New York Times feature on my work. Deepak Chopra asked me to do a project with him when I was starting out writing books. His support, friendship and generosity in introducing me to others is massive to me. Our Strala community is so beautiful in how we support each other. This feels like a big acceptance speech, but the list really does go on forever. Life is a together project and I’m so grateful to be able to participate in this way and use my gifts.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Wu Wei. Do what you are doing with only the energy you need. This is the basis for what we teach with Strala and how I try to live. Yoga teachers and healers burn out so easily. They often feel like they give so much of their energy and get tired and injured. There is magic in looking at how you move and how you are and dropping the extra effort. It’s so hard because we are trained to show our stress as a sign of success, when it’s really just wearing us out.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Be a good person. Listen to others. Create space that makes yourself and everyone feel good. Create good habits so you are productive and calm. People learn from how you are more than what you say.

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.

Slow down. Soften. Feel. Respond.

We are so programmed to rush through things that we end up breaking ourselves and not being very effective. My little formula is slow down, soften, feel and respond. We can’t feel when we are tense and rigid and we need to feel if we want to be well. Finally we can respond to how we feel, instead of running on autopilot until a breakdown happens.

Make Self Care Time All the Time

How you move is how you are. This is a little mantra I love to remind myself to practice taking care of myself all the time, not just when there is 5 minutes of 30 minutes of self-care luxury time. Crawling up and down from the ground in the easiest way possible, sitting and standing without rushing, bending my knees and softening my body when I’m in conversation with myself or something are all simple practices to make self-care time all the time.

Get to know yourself

It’s so easy to sign up for someone else’s prescription and get disappointed when it doesn’t work for us. I love recruiting the ancient practices instead of a recent fad. When you have a grab bag like yoga, meditation, tai chi and ayurveda to dive into, you can experiment and find what works for you in this current phase of your life. Getting to know what you need is a superpower.

Soften your practice

Your practice won’t work unless it feels like you. It’s wild to understand this because most of us spend so much time trying to get good at yoga and meditation and it becomes a rigid practice to us. You don’t need to “double do” things. For example, you can place your body in a warrior 2 form and then really “fire it up” which simply creates tension in your whole self, or you can be in the form and soften yourself so your breath can move you, which puts yourself in the flow. Try it out and you’ll feel very different with each version.

Make your goal the process over a pose

This of course works for yoga and life, but the comparison is so easy to make once you try it out in practice. Like a wave, your inhale lifts you up. Your exhale brings you in the next direction. If your goal is the pose, it’s so easy to get in this mode of “just make it happen.” You can end up forcing yourself into a physical place that has no value. The value is in connection with yourself. The reward is when you make that good connection with yourself in the form, you’ll be able to do much more easily.

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.

That’s amazing you help people at such an important time of life. Seeing my parents and other relatives and friends living retired or semi-retired, I’m looking forward to this stage as well, mainly because I’ve learned that you can make your own way and continue to do what you love. This is so important for wellbeing. Staying active doing something you enjoy seems critical for retired people. Whether it’s yoga, boxing, gardening, or biking, now is the time to fill the space with adventure and self-discovery. Creating a routine that gives freedom and structure seems essential to a healthy balance. My uncle runs our family farm and will never “retire” in the traditional sense, but he structures his time in a beautiful way. He’s taught himself photography and practices yoga. It’s so great to find new things that draw your interests. I have a lot of examples of this around me and it’s inspirational.

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?

Teenage and pre-teen years seem like the ideal time to begin yoga. I learned yoga around 17 and I remember thinking, wow, I could have really used this even more a few years earlier. I love sharing yoga with people this age. Connecting feelings to physicality, building confidence, healthy boundaries, self-identity, and a desire to learn about the self is a massive universe and this age group is ready for this vast world. What a tool use for life.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

My ballet teacher Rory Foster gave me a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi. It was the first book I read about yoga and this time in my life was a big turning point of self-discovery. For me, it’s more than the pages in the book, it’s the moment I remember Rory noticed I was interested in yoga, when he gave me the book, and how I felt reading it. I still have the copy and will always cherish it.

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. 🙂

I love this. Soften the movement. If we all softened many times a day, literally took softness breaks to slow down and connect with ourselves, I really would love to see the results of that.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I’m not sure if it’s a quote but I learned about synchronicity from Deepak Chopra. I used to teach yoga to him and his wife Rita at his home most mornings when he was in NYC. A time I’m so grateful for. He was always so generous to me after our class. He would take a selfie of us, tweet it and ask me to retweet it. He believed in me and wanted others to also. Deepak would constantly introduce me to people for projects that he thought would be a good fit and he would casually throw in the word synchronicity. It really educated me to put a real life word and reality around this otherwise raw feeling of immense luck. It’s simply meant to be when it’s synchronistic. I love that.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Instagram or Twitter for @tarastiles

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