Written by Lisa Malin
Joanna Cohen is a health and mindfulness coach, and a yoga Instructor at Y7. Joanna has been teaching yoga to groups of 20-200 at Y7 for the past 5 years and launched their health coaching program, Vibe Higher, to help people improve their habits, mindset, communications and relationships. Joanna is also a regular contributor to Medium, an open digital platform where she shares her thoughts on mindfulness, mental health, yoga and other health related topics.
In 2015, after working four years in the start-up industry, you pivoted and took a deep dive into yoga, wellness and spirituality. Can you tell me a little about that journey?
Those early years of my career in the startup world were such a rush. As a young adult right out of college, I assumed I’d climb the corporate ladder. But unexpectedly I found myself at an early stage startup (I didn’t even know what a startup was before I joined). At a company like that there’s no ladder, and you’re given a ton of creativity and autonomy and opportunity incredibly quickly. It was all-consuming, exhilarating and, after some time, fairly exhausting.
When that company collapsed I experienced a wave of both emotional and physical relief. It truly was like stepping off a treadmill. I suddenly had an effortless ability and desire to change many of the habits I’d built over the 4 years prior: I stopped eating meat, I stopped drinking for a while, I started sitting for long meditations. I deeply felt a need to step away from the pace and intensity of the startup world and to spend time moving much more slowly. It felt like my only option: after putting work before everything, it felt like a now-or-never opportunity to prioritize my health or I’d permanently move in a destructive direction.
Then you started working as a yoga instructor at Y7 in NYC and created their coaching platform, Vibe Higher, which focuses on healthy habits, mindset, and communications. How do communications tie into optimal well-being, personally and professionally?
I think “communication” more subtly means “relationships”. Having a strong and honest line of communication with myself (in other words, a trusting relationship) is imperative to my well-being. It was only when I was able to develop this relationship that I was able to deepen the relationships with the people in my life. And this, in so many ways, contributes to my wellbeing. I didn’t have a strong line of communication with myself, or a healthy Self-relationship of any kind, before I really dove into yoga.
As I started teaching yoga I witnessed the same void of honest communication / relationship to Self in so many of my students. Vibe Higher spoke to people’s intuitive understanding that developing the relationship we have with ourselves is really important. Yes, we talked about things like nutrition and sleep and money, but the underlying approach was always that we were learning to be honest and committed to ourselves by opening lines of communication about these topics and simultaneously establishing a deeper relationship with ourselves.
How did Yoga help you develop strong, authentic communication with yourself?
Being on a yoga mat sparked the first internal dialogue I ever really had. Your body and your mind start to work in unison in a new way when you have to do all these hard physical postures you’ve never seen before. Most of us are used to spending time in quite a disconnected existence: we move physically without thinking about it; we spend time in our minds without paying attention to our bodies. Yoga changes all that.
Once I was familiar with that experience of mind-body connection I became more and more interested in yoga philosophy. It was a fairly natural progression, and through the study of philosophy I entered a whole new world of exploration about what it means to be connected to myself. There is so much depth in yoga philosophy, and it’s all focused on self knowledge and connection.
What does spirituality mean to you in the context of wellness and how does it play out in your daily life?
To me, the idea of “Self-connection” is another way to describe Spirituality. And once we understand Self-connection on a deep level it connects us to something deeper than our individual physical existence which opens an enormous, magical way of existing in the world.
In my daily life it plays out in the form of as many things I can possibly throw together to strengthen my Self-connection: meditation, a physical yoga practice, exercise that keeps me present in my body, foods that keep me grounded in my body, intentional moments of connection to other people or the environment. Our modern world seems designed in almost every way to move us away from this type of Self-connection, so these practices serve as my resistance to that.
How do you coach clients seeking to create a spiritual practice? What does that look like in a coaching relationship?
I try to work with the client to suss out their personal vision of what spiritual connection looks like. Many people think they have to have a meditation practice to be spiritual. But if sitting for meditation does nothing for that person, I’d argue that that is not the appropriate avenue to them establishing a spiritual practice at the moment. Maybe they feel most deeply connected to Self when they’re cooking, and taking the perspective that their time cooking is their spiritual practice is the key. Or maybe they love long walks and learning to treat that walk as a spiritual practice is what makes sense.
Can you share 3 things readers can do now to create a spiritual practice in their own lives.
Ask yourself when you feel most present in your everyday life. What are you doing, where are you, how does it feel?
Apply intention to doing that thing regularly, and treat it as your spiritual practice.
Take small steps towards studying spiritual practices more deeply. Maybe you love going to yoga class in a studio, so you look for a book that helps you understand the origins of postures a bit more thoroughly. Maybe you’ve grown up as part of a traditional religion, and you seek out a deeper understanding of some of the spiritual practices (remember: the things that develop your relationship to yourself). Maybe you love being in nature and you explore something like forest bathing. I think the key here is to push yourself into slightly unknown spiritual territory every so often, and to be open to what you learn.
You wrote two very beautiful, personal essays for Medium describing your relationship with depression over the past three years. Can you share some of the most powerful lessons you’ve learned from your experience which may help others living with depression and/or the emotional fallout of COVID-19.
First and foremost, I think I learned that all of us may/will experience depression.
Second, I learned that depression alters our set point. It basically resets your baseline to a place that’s much heavier, darker, and pessimistic than a more “normal” baseline. In my experience that didn’t mean I had to live there all the time, but that I was starting there and constantly having to fight out of it—which was often impossible—to experience a level of enjoyment or motivation that previously came effortlessly.
Third, I learned that although my everyday “healthy habits” couldn’t make the depression go away, they were the thing that gave me a fighting change to face it through other methods (therapy, and circumstantial life changes that came as time passed).
In our conversations together, you told me that one of the most powerful things you have given yourself is a daily practice. What is a daily practice?
To me, a daily practice is intention activity that bolsters the relationship we have with ourselves. It goes back to what we discussed earlier about having an open and honest line of communication with ourselves, which is the foundation of a healthy relationship to Self. So a daily practice is any activity we do everyday that contributes to the maintenance of this communication and relationship.
How can someone develop a meaningful daily practice?
Start simple. Find something in your day that makes you feel connected to yourself. It should be something that’s yours—not something you have to do for someone else, or something you feel obliged to do. Then do that thing everyday, make a point of it.
What can they expect from committing to a daily practice?
I think this will be different for everyone. I find a sense of accomplishment, a renewed sense of safety with myself each day, and a daily revival of curiosity about myself and the world.
What are you up to now?
I’m back in the startup world at an education company called On Deck, working on the Experience team. I help entrepreneurs make the most of their experience in our programs so they can build amazing companies.
How are you finding time for self-care and connection now that you are back to work in a more traditional 9-5 job?
It’s truly an everyday challenge, one that I take very seriously! For starters, I’m really organized with my time. I make sure to create space in the morning for exercise and personal things. Meditation is (more than ever) imperative for me first thing.
I’ve had to move some things around to account for the way my mind is occupied in a different way with fast-paced operational work. For example, I used to listen to a podcast during lunch. Now I find that placing my podcast in the morning with my coffee helps keep my mind off of what I need to do work-wise before I dive into the day. Movement serves as a more suitable break in the middle of the day, to get me up and force my mind into a different place. I’ve started doing quick one-mile runs in the middle of the day.
I’ve also started to plan out fun dinners to make on weeknights, and I try to really step away once I’m into that part of the evening. I’ve needed to implement meditation at night as well, because otherwise my mind has a really hard time slowing down enough for me to fall asleep.
Where can people find you and learn more about your services?