I Don't Know How You Do It

Breathe, Move, Thrive: Discovering the Power of Yoga with Michelle Itzkowitz

November 21, 2023 Jessica Fein Season 1 Episode 45
I Don't Know How You Do It
Breathe, Move, Thrive: Discovering the Power of Yoga with Michelle Itzkowitz
Show Notes Transcript

What is it about yoga that has everybody leaving their day jobs and heading to the mat? Why do so many people say yoga has changed their lives? And why do some of us break out in hives at the thought of spending 90 minutes in a sweltering room contorting our bodies with a bunch of strangers?

Meet Michelle Itzkowitz, an extraordinary individual with a passion for yoga and mindfulness. Michelle's lifelong journey of curiosity and self-discovery began more than 30 years ago after the loss of a close friend. Motivated by the desire to understand the complexities of life and inspire others, she immersed herself in the world of wellness. With over 2000 hours of formal yoga teacher training and culinary school under her belt, Michelle opened her own yoga studio in Cape Cod. She has since been teaching public and private yoga classes, cooking classes, and even training other yoga teachers. Currently pursuing a career in therapy, Michelle's dedication to helping people live healthier lives shines through in all facets of her work. Her personal experiences and commitment to cultivating joy and kindness shine through everything she offers. Get ready to be inspired as Michelle shares her wisdom and teaches us simple steps to incorporate yoga and mindfulness into our own lives.

Yoga and meditation have the power to transform lives, to bring relaxation, and to unlock doors we never knew existed. - Michelle Itzkowitz

In this episode, you will be able to:

  • Discover a key to finding joy within yourself and transforming your outlook.
  • Unlock the power of yoga and mindfulness to reduce stress, increase relaxation, and enhance overall well-being.
  • Master the art of managing stress through the practice of breath work, allowing for greater calm and peace in your daily life.
  • Cultivate kindness towards yourself and others, and experience the profound joy it brings.
  • Harness the transformative power of positive mantras to uplift your mindset and attract joy into your life.

Learn more about Michelle here.

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Music credit: Limitless by Bells


Jessica Fein: Welcome. I'm Jessica Fein and this is the ‘I Don’t Know How You Do It” podcast, where we talk to people whose lives seem unimaginable from the outside and dive into how they're able to do things that look undoable.

I'm so glad you're joining me on this journey and I hope you enjoy the conversation. Welcome back to the show. We have now spoken with dozens of people who are living lives that seem unimaginable to others, and it's been part of my goal to distill the tools and strategies people use to help them navigate through both challenge and adventure.

Something that's come up over and over again is yoga and mindfulness. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about either one, but I've been watching as a lot of people I know have [00:01:00] become very involved with yoga in particular, and I'm intrigued. Two of my friends recently left high power corporate jobs to become yoga instructors.

I wanted to learn a little bit about it all. So I turned to one of my lifelong friends, Michelle Itzkowitz, to join us on today's episode. Michelle's journey of curiosity began after the loss of a close friend more than 30 years ago. She dove into educating herself in many areas of wellness, including more than 2, 000 hours of formal yoga teacher training and culinary school to adapt classical cooking to a healthier approach to eating.

Michelle opened her own yoga studio in Cape Cod and began teaching public and private yoga classes, public and private cooking classes, and ultimately training other yoga teachers. After years helping people live healthier lives through all facets of yoga, Michelle is now studying to be a therapist.

Michelle says that yoga saved her life. We're going to find out why and also learn how we can get [00:02:00] started on our own journey with simple steps at home right away. I am so excited to bring you my dear friend, Michelle Itzkowitz.

Welcome Michelle. I am overjoyed, thrilled, so excited to have you on the show today. Thank you. 

Michelle Itzkowitz: And I am so excited to be on the show today. 

Jessica Fein: This is like an extra special gift for me because we should all be giving gifts to ourselves. But it's so amazing to have somebody who has been in my life for so long.

Michelle and I have been friends since we were nine years old. We met at summer camp as teeny tiny little things and we kind of never left each other's lives since then. So to have somebody that has been like a sister to me for so long and who has this life that I admire and respect and I can learn from is so magical.

And I love that we get to bring these things together and share your magic with all of the listeners today. [00:03:00] 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Wow, thank you. Yes. I know, thinking back, I still remember our bunk, G2, and camp, and all of our friends, and sharing clothes, and it's so incredibly gratifying in a way that we can look at each other, and in our lives, and just the amount of experiences and where we are now and how we live our lives in order to serve others and to really be okay ourselves.

I still cannot believe that it's been 40. 

Jessica Fein: As many years as it's been, let's just leave it at that.

Michelle Itzkowitz: As many years as it's been, exactly.

Jessica Fein: And I will say, you know, one of the first things we would do each summer, so at the time, you used to bring foot lockers to camp. Now I know my kids just bring duffel bags or whatever, but we'd bring foot lockers and you'd leave your clothes in them.

They'd be at the end of your cot. And within like two hours of arrival each year, Michelle and I would go to each other's foot lockers and start looking through like, what clothes do we have to wear this year? Because we used to share everything. Okay, shifting gears, Michelle, so first of all, just to get us on the [00:04:00] same page, you do a lot of things and the connective tissue, your mission through everything you do is really to inspire people to find their joy.

Yes. So first of all, what's better than that? Like what an amazing mission. Who doesn't want to be inspired to find their joy? So tell us, how do you do that? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Well thank you for asking. Sometimes it's not as easy as it seems or feels, but starting from probably my 20s and experiencing shifts in life. I had curiosities and started seeking and started seeking, like, why are people unhappy?

Why does this happen? Why does that happen? Why is there a loss? Why is there a shift in life? And I was introduced to many things, you know, I found that the common thread for me and The word for thread is sutra in yoga in Sanskrit, and I'll get to that later, but the common thread throughout everything was that seeking and how can I understand more [00:05:00] about my life in order to inspire others.

And I always wanted to be, you know, when I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher. I want to be a therapist. I wanted to do all these things, but I went through my path of college, going to school for business because in the eighties, that's what we did. And I was encouraged to do, you know, go to school, you learn business and then everything.

But my minor was psych. After school, I dove right into culinary school and nutrition and all of that. And the lens of everything is always through cultivating joy, but also through kindness. But again, that common thread was, I kept going and seeking and seeking and like, what's next? And that's pulled me through, if you will, through my life, my adult life.

All of the experience, everything I teach in yoga and cooking and training yoga teachers, working with my kids at school, everything comes from my own experiences. And I've done the work, you know, I've been at this for 30 years, diving into this work. And I look back on it like, Oh my God, it's been 30 years.

There was a pivotal event that happened and which I think [00:06:00] changed and really inspired the trajectory for everything that I do. And that was the loss of someone really close to me. And I had so many questions about what, why'd that happen? Why did he do that? Why is he gone? You know, and those kinds of things.

And I didn't understand. So the only way I could understand anything, because I wasn't getting answers, I wasn't asking the right questions. I realized it was all within me. And all of the answers we have within ourselves. And so finding peace and it's taken a long time for me to find that peace. And I went through other experiences in life, made choices because I wasn't settled.

And it's only, like I said, 30 years of work. I'm finally feeling settled in what I'm doing and how I'm serving, but it's all about service for me. 

Jessica Fein: I feel like just to level set, everybody listening needs to know that a lot of the things that we're going to talk about today. I am a total novice. So if you are listening and you are further [00:07:00] along than I am, forgive what you might perceive as ignorance in some of the questions, but I know that some of the listeners are right there where I am.

So we'll be in this together. I'm really intrigued by the word seeking and becoming a seeker. One of the things that I love in people and that I pride myself on is curiosity. But it strikes me, even in this little bit of us talking, that there's a difference between curiosity and seeking.

Michelle Itzkowitz: Yeah, and I'll back up even and say there's a difference between curiosity and judgment.

And so what I find oftentimes is that somebody will have a comment on, on something like Matthew Perry just passed away, right? 54 years old. It's kind of freaky, you know, thinking about that. And of course the speculation is, oh, well he was in recovery. He probably relapsed. And that's a judgment. Instead of the curiosity of, Oh, wow, I wonder what happened.

What were the events leading up to [00:08:00] this? Without a judgment, there's a difference in those two statements. So curiosity is really about understanding and wholeheartedly understanding without creating an answer in your own mind. So the curiosity then leads to seeking. Curiosity starts off with the questions, and then seeking is the resources.

For example, I'm writing a paper right now on how yoga affects teens and mental health. That's a question. And there's tons and tons of research and studies on it. So now I've asked the question, that's my curiosity. Now I'll dive in and look at all these articles and books and all of that to help validate and understand my question.

And that'll lead to more curiosity, which is the thing. So it's open ended. Curiosity is an amazing thing, and it happens when we feel free, and our brains are free from judgment. And judgment only leads to suffering. In Buddhism, that is the main cause of anything, of illness, or anything else in life, is [00:09:00] the causes of suffering.

And we don't want that in life. So instead of settling on an answer, we can research. Luckily, we live in a time where we can, like, Google it. The curiosity piece leads to seeking.

Jessica Fein: That's really helpful, and it is interesting what you say about the difference between curiosity and judgment. And I'll give you my example, which is, as you know, my sister died of lung cancer.

And I would say that more than half the people, quite a bit more, that I meet when it comes up that my sister died of lung cancer will say to me, did she smoke? The implied judgment there. is so over the top. That's not somebody being curious or wanting to be supportive. That's somebody wanting to know like, Oh no, is that going to happen to me?

And there's so much judgment in that question.

Michelle Itzkowitz: It's a loaded judgment question for sure. I think there's a curiosity in the question and then there's the judgment of assumption. And it's funny because that happens in so many things. There's an exercise I [00:10:00] do with my students that I'm training to become yoga teachers to track how many times they judge themselves or others in a day.

And it's good or bad judgment. And I don't like those two words, good or bad, but for our purposes, I'll use that. So a good judgment is, Oh, my hair looks great today. A bad judgment, you know, is my hair looks like crap today. You know what I mean? We do that constantly, you know, positive self talk, negative self talk.

So we can put those categories both under judgment instead of something simply being. I'll give you an example. A friend of mine made a comment to someone else like, oh, you look great. Looks like you lost weight. And like, we always love to hear that. Don't get me wrong. But instead of judging the body, because that's what it turns into, it's you look really joyful today or something like that.

You know what I mean? Like it's coming up with something else. So like your eyes are sparkling, extra, extra blue today, or, you know. Like it's something else other than, Oh, it looks like you lost weight. Those are judgments and they're unsupported assumptions. That then leads into some [00:11:00] questions based on the judgment and not from the curiosity side.


Jessica Fein: You mentioned that it was your own process of seeking that led you on this path. Can you share a bit more about your personal journey in terms of how you then got into yoga and meditation? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Yeah, sure. So I had terrible anxiety. It started in my senior of high school. And it may have even simply been that I was going to college.

I remember the first time feeling out of breath. It was also after a pep rally, and I just finished performing and ran out. And I remember running into the locker room because I was breathing really heavy, and I thought I was going to be sick. So that made me anxious. And I never really felt anxious before that.

But from there, it triggered something. It just woke up that part of my brain that deals with anxiety and panic. And my whole vagus nerve, my whole system was shifted. And that's probably the earliest memory I have of it. But that carried into college. And what I realized is that I was always comparing, judging myself, my own [00:12:00] being, my body, my grades, my everything to others.

And trying to fit in and conform and with a lot of deeper study, there's other things that have come up with generational trauma and that kind of thing, which is inbred in a lot of us based on our own history. But I went through college and I was in my late twenties. And I was living in Northern New Jersey and a great job and I was working for someone in New York and he told me that he was going to yoga and I'd gone to therapists all over the years and it was always talking.

Nothing really settled. My anxiety got worse within my twenties for sure. And then when I was Living in, in that area and I was working for Walter in New York City, he said he was going to yoga and I'm like, what's going to yoga? And he said, Oh, it's part of my recovery and I wasn't an addict and didn't have that connection and we didn't know recovery.

Like we didn't use that word like we do now. And. He said it also helps with my anxiety. So I went ding, ding, ding, and went right to the library and I got DVDs and practiced in my little apartment. And then when I moved home, I moved back in May of 2001, I moved back to [00:13:00] Massachusetts and the studio had opened and you know, 9 11 happened.

And then the studio opened, I think in October is when I started practicing there and it was like, I needed everything about it that I didn't know I needed. But I knew I felt great after I practiced, I went to hot yoga. So it was like sweating out everything. felt great, but that led more on the seeking slash curiosity path of what's happening to me.

Why am I feeling so much better with this practice? And that's been more of that piece of it, that seeking piece for the later years up until now and continuing now, because yoga and meditation, I would sit or lie down and I would still think. And I gave myself permission to do that. I didn't try to live up to any kind of expectation of meditation that we had to turn off our thoughts.

You can't do that, actually. So focusing on something, listening to music or a mantra or, you know, repeating something in my head or chanting, it really helped. And the physical practice of yoga helps because I love to move. So that helped get everything out. We know now that the emotional [00:14:00] body is stored in the physical.

So a lot of the trauma. I'll use that word not loosely, but for experiences during my life, yoga then became my go to. And I didn't know it. I didn't really know what was happening. And it's like, I can look back on it. I'll just throw this in. My friend was looking at my wedding albums. I'll have to show you because I feel like we're so young, but it was in 2005.

So my friend looked at it and she's like, You don't look like yourself. I'm like, I thought I looked really good. My hair looked good. And you know, and I worked really hard to get in that dress. And she's like, no, you can see it in your face. You're a completely different person. Now you can see how relaxed you are.

You were not living a relaxed life. And I wasn't, but since my devotion into yoga and to that deep study, it's like one door opens. I was moved to Cape Cod as a school teacher, had the opportunity to open a studio and run it for friends. And then took it over and like that door opened, literally the studio doors open.

And it just seemed like the right [00:15:00] thing to do. There's something about trusting your gut. These answers were sort of like flowing within me, like this is what you're supposed to be doing. And so now 10 years I've been running my studios and training yoga teachers. And continuing my education to keep seeking because I'm so curious, we don't have all the information.

We weren't born with all this stuff. 

Jessica Fein: I'm so fascinated because you said you really didn't know anything about yoga. You were like yoga practice. What's that? You get these tapes, you end up going to hot yoga and you said you felt so good afterwards. And I'm curious. Did you feel good right away? I will tell you that I have done yoga a handful of times in my life and I have done hot yoga one time.

I'm not sure it's something I will ever do again. First of all, I thought it was going to be like a 30 minute class and it kept going and going and going. It was like, you know, probably 90 minutes. It felt like it was 90 years and I mean, people were like contorting their bodies into all these shapes and I [00:16:00] can't touch my toes and I was boiling hot and I walked out and you know, actually.

My husband Rob was like, that was great. I feel so good. And I was like, Oh my God, that was torture. But I'm so drawn to the idea that this thing, if I kept practicing, right, I might ultimately get to the point that other people get to. And so when you felt like it really made you feel so much better and helped you deal with so much, did that take a while or was it instantaneous?

Michelle Itzkowitz: Well, both. So I immediately felt good. And I remember I used to go to practice at 7. 30 at night, it was 9. I'd go home, eat dinner, and then go to bed. That was my habit. There's something to be said because I was, you know, maybe early thirties when I did that. I was living with my parents. And I remember my mom said something to me like, you look so relaxed.

And I thought, Oh, there's something to yoga then. And I was having this whole internal dialogue of stress and anxiety. And when I went to the mat. It was gone. And so that is how the physical [00:17:00] practice helped me on the surface. But when I started diving into what yoga was really about, the practice is only one eighth.

The mat practice is only one eighth of what yoga is. So there are eight limbs of yoga. If you think about different branches of a tree, for example. 

Jessica Fein: I was thinking of an octopus.

Michelle Itzkowitz: Or an octopus. Oh, I like the octopus. We'll go with the octopus. I live on the ocean, it's the octopus. So yes, so like an octopus, there are eight distinct limbs.

And the first two, we sort of loosely sometimes call them like the 10 commandments of yoga. They're called the yamas and the niyamas, and there's five of each. And the yamas are outward expressions, how we treat others, how we show up in the world. Our niyamas are how we treat ourselves and our daily practices.

So things were intended just like the Ten Commandments, things were intended when they were written, and they sort of shifted, you know, with the times and modernized. And the same goes for that. 

Jessica Fein: I'm raising my hand. I have a question about that. When [00:18:00] was it written? You said when it was originally, you know, how far back does this go?

Michelle Itzkowitz: At least 5, 000 years. And it's funny because there was this rich history through lessons that were passed down verbally. And so nothing was written down. These lessons were passed down orally from teacher to student, teacher to student. And it was really more in the philosophical way. 

Jessica Fein: Okay. Thank you. All right.

So now let's get back to our octopus. So those are the first two. 

Michelle Itzkowitz: So we have the first two, the first two limbs, there's yamas and niyamas. And the first one, very, very, very first one is called ahimsa and ahimsa means nonviolence. And if we take the non out of it and switch the word around, it means kindness.

So it's about kindness. It's living your life from the foundation of kindness, which is related to joy, of course. So kindness leads to joy. Kindness is the very first and joy is the very last limb. I'll talk about the others in between, but it's this path of steps of how do you get from A to B or A to Z.

So we start off with this kindness and how can you do better? Hold a door open for someone in the market. [00:19:00] Say thank you, you know, to the barista at Starbucks. There are these little simple things that I think are normal for us, but for a lot of people, they don't think about it and people get really looped into their lives.

I find the focus on self care, the focus on nutrition and movement and diet, because nutrition and diet are two different things. It's about everything we consume. And then choices that we make as far as our clothing, our shoes, and all that, all is part of it. And then there are these other pieces of it.

Lifelong learning is one of the Niyamas. Being content in life is another one. There's five of each. Okay. And we're still on the first two. We're on the first day for our purposes. I'll leave it at that. Okay. The third limb is called Asana and the Asana is our movement practice. So every yoga pose, with the exception of a few ends in Asana.

So when I was in my first training, somebody told me that I'm like, Oh my God, I know half of every post. I'm so happy. So like Tadasana is mountain post. Shavasana is reclining pose, a resting pose, the end of class where we rest, Shavasana is also... 

Jessica Fein: [00:20:00] I love that one. I'm all about the resting pose. Just do this for the whole 90 minutes.

Michelle Itzkowitz: Exactly. Shalabhasana is locust pose. And it's on your belly, the back bend, you know, so there's all these different names with asana and that's the third limb. So putting the practice together, the practice that we know more modern day is really a modern day approach to the movement.

My teacher who I work with now in India, our practice is classical sun salutations. There's no fancy twists and lunges and high this and you know, none of that. It's classic. And then we work on subtle energy within the body and what's attached to that. And that's a whole other topic, but that's how my practice, it started with that mat practice.

And then when I started learning these eight limbs is that was my curiosity, my seeking in yoga. So the third limb is. Asana. The fourth is Pranayama, and that's the movement of energy in the body through breath. So we consider that our breath work. So breath work is really, really, really important. Each thing progresses on the last.

So our foundation of living a good life, being a good human, following our rules, [00:21:00] our yamas and niyamas, having daily practice. Our breath work, moving our energy. There's five ways to move the energy in the body. And then our three to four phases of meditation. Everyone has a different approach to this, but after pranayama comes pratyahara, which is the withdrawal of senses, meaning distractions.

So focusing on what is calling your eyes, what's calling your ears. All of our distractions come from the senses. So quieting the senses. Finding one point focus in Dharana is the next one, the sixth limb, and then it could be looking at a candle or chanting a mantra, and then the meditation itself. And the meditation itself leads us to bliss, which is Samadhi.

Jessica Fein: Okay. And there's no shortcut, right? I can't skip the other ones and go right to bliss? No. I promised you I was going to ask some basic questions. So there you go. Speaking of basic questions, what is the difference between meditation and mindfulness? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: That's a great question. So mindfulness is paying attention on [00:22:00] purpose.

It's being present with whatever it is that you're being present with. I was having a conversation with someone earlier today, and the person asked me a question every time I opened my mouth, the other person would start like fidgeting or doing something else. That's not being present. You know, that's being in their own head.

So they're distracted. So they have to work through their, their senses and distractions, right? to get to a place where it's more focused. So mindfulness is paying attention on purpose. Meditation is really about quieting the mind. And you can't quiet the mind until you're focused in the moment. So mindfulness leads into meditation.

Jessica Fein: And would it be right to say one could live their whole life mindfully, but meditation is something you do for like a certain period of time during a day. Is that right? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Yeah, you could say that, sure. And that's a really great way to separate it. So mindfulness can be part of meditation, but we talk about living life off the mat and the mindfulness piece is part of that.

So you only, you know, if you're practicing yoga a few times a week and the [00:23:00] practice doesn't have to look like going to a studio, and I say that even though I own a studio and love when people come in, it doesn't have to be coming to the studio. The meditation piece, there's a reason why it comes after movement and breath in that When we sit, we get distracted.

You know, our shoulder hurts or my back hurts. I can't sit to meditate. And it's hard to be mindful in that moment when you're dealing with anything going on the body. Does that make sense? 

Jessica Fein: Yeah, it does. And you know, it's interesting because in terms of mindfulness, I went to a session one time at a conference on it.

And when we got there, there were those itty bitty like Halloween size boxes of raisins on everybody's chair. And of course, when I see one of those, I open it up, I dump them into my hand, I throw them in my mouth, and there go my box of raisins. And the instructor asked us each to take one raisin out. And I don't remember how long we had to just chew on that one raisin and think about, like, every texture and, you know, taste of the raisin.

But this was her way of telling us, we do so much in the day without even, we don't eat our raisins mindfully, put it that way. 

Michelle Itzkowitz: I've done that with chocolate. It's really hard. [00:24:00] Oh yeah, no. Like melt in your mouth and you savor. So that it's a perfect example. Mindful eating is a whole other subject, but that was that exercise.

And I've done that and taught it and it's so interesting to be in it. And when you do it. And you forget that you're supposed to savor, not supposed to, I don't want to say, I don't like to should on myself either, but should eat a certain way, but it's taking the moment to really be in the moment. And that's the essence of mindfulness.

Jessica Fein: When we talk about being in the moment, I think that so many people who are going through huge, huge, huge challenges often find it additionally challenging to be in the moment when being in the moment is the most effective way to deal with those challenges. But boy, it's hard to be in the moment because that means you have to be present with all the messiness that's going on inside of your head.

Michelle Itzkowitz: Absolutely true. I hear that from a lot of people as well and including myself, it's easier to be busy and to keep going and I know I've been guilty of that because I do a lot and I pack a lot in my day and I pack a lot in [00:25:00] my life. I run the studio, I have my school where I train yoga teachers, I teach cooking classes through the Ayurvedic lens and then I'm also in grad school becoming a therapist full time.

So, yeah, It's hard. It can be really hard to find that time to sit down because when we sit down and stop, all the stuff we don't want to focus on comes in. 

Jessica Fein: Okay. This is feeling a little bit like I might be in a therapy session here, but I feel like that speaks to me so profoundly because I for sure am doing and keeping busy and getting things done.

And it's a lovely little way to not sit with all the stuff, right? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Absolutely true. And I started, I have to say, you know, going back to my experience that catapulted my journey in a way when I was 24. I feel like I've been nonstop since because I didn't want to deal with that. I didn't want to deal with the experience.

So I kept going through and through and learning and it hasn't been until I've been able to pause with meditation and yoga that I understand, but it didn't [00:26:00] happen. You asked before if it was an instant thing and it wasn't. This has been a growth for years. And that's why it's also called a yoga practice, not yoga perfect that I borrowed from my friend Joe, if he's listening.

That's part of the practice. Some days are really not great or worries come in and the worries come in and might be compounded by other stuff that's still in there. But then I have the tools now to get myself out of it. So yoga, again, having these eight limbs that lead from Kindness to bliss kindness to joy.

It's all within our whole day. It's all within our whole day. And this was all outlined in a classical text, which came, say, 4000 years ago, three or 4000 years. This wasn't what was originally in the yoga and the practice just a side note. It's called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and he was a sage and he wrote this whole book, it's three books in one, and it's not mentioned until the second book within this bigger book about the physical practice.

So when I'm teaching that, and this [00:27:00] book, I'm still studying this book, I've been studying it for 20 something years, and when I'm reading these sutras, these threads, I mentioned that word earlier, One leads into the next, into the next, into the next. So if we start off with our question or now the yoga journey has begun, how do you quiet the movement in the mind?

And it starts to lead into these questions, this curiosities. So for your listeners, I highly recommend that book. It's the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Highly recommended. It's a lifelong study book for sure. I found that diving into philosophy feeds my own curiosity, my questions. For my seeking and without reading something and forming an opinion, but yet reading it, letting it settle and land, and then going back to it and then talking about it.

Jessica Fein: At what point did you realize that these tools that we're talking about here could help with things like past trauma and grief? And as you mentioned, anxiety, how did you put that together? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: I knew I felt [00:28:00] really good when I was on my mat, and it wasn't about, like, I could hold dancer's pose for 10 minutes, it was nothing like that.

It wasn't, I could do a split or an arm balance or handstand, you know, it wasn't about the physical practice. And there's something to be said, like, the first time I was able to hold a balance on my hands, I'm like, oh my god, this is so cool. First time I did a handstand, like, something really empowering about that.

But that's not all it is. It's all of the other things. So the way a yoga class is put together, the way I teach it, the way I train my teachers, is to take at least 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of class to settle in, to quiet the mind, to come into breath, to settle down the whole nervous system, and then move with ease.

And the whole point is to move with steadiness and ease. It's called shtirashuka. And so finding that steadiness and ease in how we're breathing and how we're moving and how our minds are operating. Early on, I didn't know this. And that came from when I dove in deeper. And that's why my mission is to sprinkle these pieces of it, even in our conversation.

What is one thing that you can sit with in your life and be with it and [00:29:00] breathe through it? And recognize how you're feeling and maybe even move through it. 

Jessica Fein: Does that one thing need to be something that we've been struggling with? Because I'm taking this challenge and I'm thinking about, okay, what is one thing I could sit with and breathe through?

Does it have to be something hard?

Michelle Itzkowitz: No. Well, I think everything's hard. But it could be, you know, a simple thing with some of my coaching clients, even. It's switching up food choices. That's where these things start. Switching from Diet Coke to the Whole Foods brand of Diet Soda. You know, something that's not as harmful to the body.

Switching from shampoo to an organic shampoo. You know, things like that. That's how it starts. Or creating a new habit, using a water bottle instead of plastic bottles and throwing them out, things like that. It's being able to sit with something and say, okay, well that was a shift I made in my life. We overwhelm ourselves so much and we tend to magnify everything that we want answers to or that we want to get through.

We want to [00:30:00] feel better. I mean, that's really the ultimate on everything is that we want to feel good. And we want to be able to show up for others feeling good. 

Jessica Fein: Why do these tools work on things like trauma and anxiety? What's happening to us that's making us feel through things like yoga? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Well, the memories are always going to be there, and I won't discount therapy.

Number one, I'm going to be a therapist, and I've been seeing a therapist for most of my life. My very first therapist gave me a tool mantra, and I say it every single day. I love and accept myself. And that was the most simple thing and it comes up if I'm feeling anxious, say, Nope, I love and accept myself, hold a hand on my heart.

And that's a tool. I didn't have that. I didn't create that. That was given to me. So I share that, you know, I love and accept myself. From that, I have the breath work. I have the meditation piece. I have that movement piece. It's a connection to myself that hasn't always been there because I wasn't connected to my physical body.

We don't make that connection, and then we wonder why we have, like, my shoulder hurts today. It's like, why does my shoulder [00:31:00] hurt? What am I carrying here? So now I have curiosity within my own body, like, okay, why is this tight? I know why, because I'm carrying the weight of my world on my shoulders, literally.

Back to your question, there's been a ton of research, a ton of study on it, and the research mirrors what the beginnings of yoga are, which it calms our body, but now we know why. Our nervous system is made up of multiple parts. And part of our nervous system is the vagus nerve and it's a bundle of nerves that is in the back of the head and travels down the spine and it attaches into different organs.

It's up here, attaches into all the space in the chest and just above the sacrum and the low back. And when we're triggered by something, the vagus nerve goes into fight, flight, or freeze. I'm a freezer. I didn't know that. I freeze. Some people are fighters. Some people like, I'm out of here. And it was interesting because I always thought that was such a bad thing, but it's an observation without judgment.

When we're relaxed through yoga on a physiological [00:32:00] level, we calm that part and we activate our rest and digest, which is the parasympathetic nervous system. Everything slows down. When we're in fight or flight, like palms get sweaty, you get dry throat, stomach hurts. Call back on earlier mankind being chased by a bear or being chased by something or there's danger.

We go into mode or there was an example of a mom being able to lift a car off a toddler. You know what I mean? Like things like that, like you go into and you know that you're a mom. So like something's happening. You go into that mode and it's like everything else shuts down and that's the focus. We now know that that's our fight or flight.

And then. What's the opposite is rest or digest. So after that, like we crash after that, something happens. So after traumatic experiences, we're in that panic mode because we're not really sure even how to handle it. And we go into exhaustion for sure. Any stressful situation. And it doesn't have to be bad stress.

There's good stress too, you know, getting married and going on vacation and like planning for things. And then once you get somewhere, it's like, it's over. I need, I need to sleep for three days, you know. So, that's parasympathetic, [00:33:00] but we want to encourage the parasympathetic and, and sympathetic to be more even.

And that's what yoga does. That's what breath work does. It's helping us in the moment, that mindfulness piece, recognizing in the moment how we feel and breathing and pausing and observing to come back into homeostasis, which is balanced so we can function. 

Jessica Fein: When we talk about fight or flight, it's so interesting to me because of course, right, it's supposed to be something that's like, it'll allow us to run away from the tiger or whatever.

But for a lot of us, we are living in constant fight or flight scenarios. So just to speak about myself, you know, raising somebody who was so medically fragile where every minute you're on the precipice, you are living in constant fight or flight. And I know that's the case for a lot of listeners. So, what advice do you have for people who are living in constant fight or flight?

How can they use some of these tools to get back to more of a sense of balance without diving head first into an eight limbed process? 

Michelle Itzkowitz: [00:34:00] Yeah, that's a great question, and I appreciate that, and appreciate you, and understand you, and all of the things that you've been faced with throughout your adult life, and longer.

I find that having tools, such as a simple breathing technique, having a visualization of something, that's really safe. Calling the body into safety is so important. I, as an adult later in life, you know, when I was married, went through a lot of experience with my ex husband. And I do say that yoga saved my life.

So, I calmed my anxiety down or my fear because there was constant fear. Being grounded, I'm actually, I just took my slippers off, I'm talking to you and put both feet on the ground. So grounding. 

Jessica Fein: I'm going to do that too. I too am wearing slippers. I will take them off. 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Feet flat on the floor and grounding through the tailbone, your sit bones and sit up nice and tall and relax your shoulders.

And so, even changing the stance. Standing up as tall as you can, whether you're in a [00:35:00] seat or standing on your two feet, is creating more space to breathe. We breathe in our hearts a lot, and there's more to it than that energetically, but for stress breathing, it is all up here. And I feel like it's, we want to keep protecting our heart with as much breath as we can.

That's my take on it. So the first thing we pay attention to is bringing our awareness back into our body. So placing one hand on your belly. and one on your heart. The first moment or two is focusing in on how you're showing up and what you're working with and you might notice your heart starts to beat faster and that's really common.

So it's recognizing without judgment how you're showing up and that's the first step in everything and letting your breath land your inhales and exhales without really changing or altering how the breath is entering the body and leaving the body. It's understanding and following where the breath is coming and going.

And if available, inhale and expand the belly. So pushing the belly into your bottom hand, and then exhaling, to the spine. [00:36:00] You might even feel yourself grow a little bit taller. And as you exhale, simply soften the heart and draw the navel to the spine. And again, inhaling and exhaling, and for anyone listening, you don't have to wait for me to instruct because you really want to breathe.

So you keep breathing at your own pace, inhaling into the belly and heart and exhaling, softening the heart and navel to spine. And maybe there's a little bit of a shift. Just that one moment. I do this when I wake up in the morning to set my day. I do this during the day. I do this at night. And that's yoga.

Jessica Fein: That's yoga. I love that there are these little things. It doesn't have to mean the 90 minutes in the hot yoga class. As we wrap up, can you give us two or three more things anybody in any situation can do? And frankly, it strikes me that people don't even need to know you're doing it. You could be in a meeting that's stressing you out and be doing that.

I mean, I probably wouldn't close my eyes, but you could be doing some of that breath work. Even when you're in [00:37:00] stressful situations where there are other people there, what are some other things for people who want to get started? Are there a couple of other tools that we could take and start this evening?

Michelle Itzkowitz: Absolutely. That's a great question. So the breathing is number one, and there might be a technique that your listeners also know and that they like. And I say around the breath, 10 rounds is good. Ten inhales and exhales, it does wonders for your system. Standing on two feet, sitting with the feet on the ground, and grounding is the second piece.

Notice when you're leaning into a hip when you're standing, or how you're holding your arms, or anything like that. Your body language is really important, so having more of a relaxed stance. Something I learned that I think is really powerful for a lot of us who work online or are on our computers all day is every 20 minutes, stand and look outside at nature for 20 seconds.

And do that every 20 minutes, you know? And so it's simply connecting to nature again. I remember the first time I heard that is connect [00:38:00] to nature. And I'm like, I'm not an outdoorsy person. I love the beach, but I don't like to be outside. I don't like bugs. I don't, you know, that kind of stuff, but it's really connecting with the essence of nature and connecting with the energies of nature.

I know nature is a really powerful tool for settling and reconnecting. So we have our breath, we have nature, and then some kind of movement. You do have to move your body. And it might be shoulder rolls and half neck circles, without going all the way around, half neck circles, shoulder rolls forward and back, wrist rotations.

Jessica Fein: By the way, if 

anybody hears any ancillary noise, that's the crickling and crackling. When I do that shoulder roll, like we just did, or the head roll, I hear all kinds of snap, crackle, pop. 

Michelle Itzkowitz: Exactly. Breath, work, meditation, and movement. Those are always the answers to every question. Like, how do you get through this?

Breathe, settle, you know, it's always the answers. So this practice of opening the joint to what we're doing now with the neck and then standing and moving through the knees and doing figure eights with your hips and rotating the ankles, like all of these [00:39:00] things, it's operating through the bigger joints.

That does magic for your whole being. So, you could stand, if you do sit at a desk all day, I highly recommend you get up and do this every hour, and if you have an Apple watch, it goes off and tells you to stand anyway. So, every hour, you could stand up for a minute or two and, and do this joint work, and it helps tremendously.

It helps get rid of some of that static in the body. 

Jessica Fein: And it feels doable, even for somebody who is a little intimidated or is so busy or has so much responsibility. We can all do those things.

Michelle Itzkowitz: We overwhelm ourselves. We create this bigger idea of like, Oh, I can't go to yoga. I can't, you know, it's a half an hour to get there and it's a 90 minute class and it's half an hour after.

You don't have to, you could stand up and just take some nice big stretches in the morning and bring your hands through your heart, just these big circles and, and just start to awaken through the body. It does wonders. There's another tool that I found really helpful, and it's having a positive mantra for yourself.

I have one in Sanskrit that I practice that brings [00:40:00] my whole being into calmness. Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya was the first mantra I ever learned. My brain, I think, is programmed from learning Hebrew, that it was so easy to learn Sanskrit. Having something that you say to yourself that's positive, like, I love myself, I love and accept myself, I've got this, or whatever it is, and maybe making a sticky note and putting it on the mirror.

in your bathroom or on your fridge or somewhere in the house. I think having some sacred space in your house doesn't have to be anything. My, one of my girlfriends had a little closet she set up and would go in there and sit in her closet and it was all had little lights in it and it doesn't have to be anything big.

You know, it has to be yours. That's it. So it's all of these little things that do add up.

Jessica Fein: I love that. And I love you. So thank you so much for sharing your grace and wisdom with us today. It's so great to learn from you. 

Michelle Itzkowitz: And thank you for having me. This is what it's all for, you know, it's to share and to help everyone be in the collective, be happier and live their lives from a place of kindness to a place of joy and always seeking and understanding that the things that [00:41:00] happen along our path, we can handle better because we have the tools to do it.

Cause we get so wrapped in our heads, me included. 

Jessica Fein: Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Michelle. Number one, curiosity is about wanting to understand without making assumptions. It's the question that leads us to the seeking. Curiosity happens when we're free from judgment. Number two, the mat practice is only one eighth of what yoga is.

That was totally surprising to me. Number three, kindness leads to joy. There are a lot of steps in between and there's no shortcut. Number four, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose and it can lead into meditation. Number five. Rest and digest is the opposite of fight, flight, or freeze. Number six, there are tools we can use right away that will benefit us, including breathwork, grounding, nature, and movement.

Number seven, self talk in the form of a mantra you repeat to yourself can do wonders for calming anxiety. I know the holidays can be particularly stressful or challenging for many of us. And I hope you took something from this episode that will help. [00:42:00] If you know somebody you think would benefit from it, forward it to them right away.

I want to thank you for taking the time to listen to my show. I know we have so, so, so many choices of things we can listen to, and I'm really grateful. One of the best ways to ensure that the show continues to grow is if you would take a minute to leave me a review. I hope you have a fabulous holiday.

And I will talk to you next time.