As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany Cruikshank (@tiffanycruikshank), the founder of Yoga Medicine® (@yoga_medicine), a community of teachers focused on fusing anatomy and western medicine with traditional yoga practices to serve the medical communities. She has trained thousands of teachers around the world, graced the cover of over 15 magazines, been featured regularly in major media outlets, authored 2 books, and released over 150 classes on various topics on YogaGlo.com. With a background in Acupuncture and Sports Medicine, Tiffany has worked with celebrities, athletes, and corporate professionals alike in her own private clinics and Nike World Headquarters. Tiffany also founded and continues to run two nonprofits — one conducting research on yoga’s therapeutic benefits and the other supporting a shelter for women rescued from trafficking in Delhi, India.
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?
Growing up, I was a bit of a rebel and yoga was a big part of what helped pull me through some difficult times. It helped me feel more comfortable in my own skin and finding something that I was passionate about at a young age helped me focus energy on something and gave me a sense of purpose. I found the meditative aspects of the practice helped keep me focused and healthy. Later on my career in the healthcare industry showed me the noticeable impacts that yoga and meditation practices could have on a patients’ mental and physical health. As my teachings evolved, I founded Yoga Medicine® to create a resource of yoga teachers trained more deeply in anatomy, physiology and pathology to serve the medical communities. Through Yoga Medicine® we have over 1500 hours of training for yoga teachers to fuse education in both western anatomical information and research with the traditional practices of yoga. I’m also really excited to be offering classes online this fall on our website (www.yogamedicine.com) so people can have access to some of our brilliant teachers from the comfort of their homes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
During my teen years, my parents sent me away on a wilderness program that changed everything. There, I was introduced to an herbalist who taught me how to use the environment around me as medicine. This ignited a passion to heal and help others through holistic means. Once I started doing yoga, which was a great way to keep me feeling athletic, I couldn’t get enough! I ended up graduating early and started college at the age of 16. I started teaching yoga when I went off to college to get my pre-med degree and then study Chinese Medicine.
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?
For sure my husband, his support and encouragement have been pivotal to my growth as a person and business owner. He works in the tech world and his perspective can be extremely helpful and refreshing. Plus, he’s an invaluable asset whenever I need any tech or business advice.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Stay close to the things you love about your job, find ways to magnify the positives. I feel so lucky to have my dream job, however with that in mind even the best job comes with stress and overwhelm at times. I love what I do and so I tend to take on more and more which at some point can be too much. Learning to find balance and say no is part of it of course. However, I find that the point at which I start to see the struggles and stress more than the passion is where the burnout begins. The first step for me is to look at what I don’t need on my schedule and make some tough decisions and then reignite the passion for what I do (however big or small it is). For some people that could be a passion outside of your work or a sense of duty or service that is provided by your job or to your family. Connect to the positives and make sure you carve our time for self-care!!
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Culture is everything to me!! I have a small team and our relationships are pivotal, however because of that we’re also all super busy. Finding the right people for you and your business needs is crucial. I’ve been managing a team remotely for years now and the key for me is having a team I trust implicitly, letting them run with their work and ideas (I hate micromanaging), remembering to share the excitement and appreciation for their work and checking in regularly.
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?
- Meditation is huge. During challenging and stressful times — whether those challenges are due to work, family, uncertainty and more — meditation provides so many benefits including a chance to quiet the mind, renewed mental clarity, the opportunity to step back and see the bigger picture, and the perspective we need to manage discomfort. Finding even a few minutes to meditate in the way that works best for you each day can be a game changer. One visualization I often find helpful is to close your eyes, breathe, and imagine that every sensation in your body is like one brushstroke in the painting of your entire experience in this moment as you step back to look at the whole picture. Taking a moment to do this regularly can help develop the ability to zoom out and look at things in their entirety, including many things still working in your favor and things to be grateful for.
- It is no longer a secret that quality sleep is paramount to our overall well-being, including our mental health. Yet so many still struggle to get it. There are numerous factors that can both positively and adversely affect sleep, but one think that I have seen over and over is the inability of the nervous system to transition from a state of “awake and alert” to one of relaxation and sleep. There are many strategies I use to make sure my sleep quality is high including powering down my electronic devices a couple of hours before bed. A simple legs up the wall pose can also be helpful in easing yourself into a better sleep mindset. Dim or turn out your bedroom lights and begin sitting with your right side up against the wall then support yourself so you can gently lie down on your back with your hips up against the wall. Extend your legs up the wall as you allow your torso and head to lay back into the floor and relax. If your hamstrings are tight, feel free to move your hips away from the wall a bit until you are comfortable there, then close your eyes and try to relax your entire body. As you begin relaxing, take note of your breath. Once you feel relaxed, begin counting your inhale and exhale without any tension or gripping. If you can relax into it, try lingering a couple of seconds longer on the exhalation. Continue at this pace for about 3–5 minutes. Next, let the breath be natural for a few minutes before you slowly roll onto your side and carefully crawl right into bed.
- Helping others has incredible power not just to make the world a better place to be, but in your own mental wellness as well. Doing things that give back asks us to step outside the demands of daily life and find ways that we can help others. It helps build our awareness, broaden our perspective and increase our gratitude. There are so many ways to give back with large gestures and small. I grew up working at a homeless shelter my mom ran and was able to realize from an early age how important it is to give back. Now I’m so fortunate to run my Yoga Medicine Seva Foundation where we raise money to help rescue and rehabilitate women and children rescued from trafficking in India. I can truly never state the impact this work has had on my life. Consider causes that you feel passionate about and look for ways that you can help in your community. Many cities and towns across the country have volunteer organizations and more that can help match you with opportunities that are a fit. And remember that you can also find ways to do small kindnesses for those around us every single day. Sometimes even the smallest of gestures can make a world of difference for someone.
- Finding movement each day is another key element of our overall mental wellness. I do my best to start my day with some kind of movement-based practice. Movement and exercise improve circulation, coordination, body/self-awareness, balance, mobility, strength and more of our physical well-being, but they also help us increase mindful attention, mental focus, compassion, emotional intelligence and mental perspective as well as boosting mood. All of these are critical to good mental health. Pick a form (or forms) of movement that work for you and practice them regularly.
- Leaning into a positivity bias is really helpful for me personally. Our brains are wired for survival and tend to focus on the negative events, so it takes attention and practice to shift our perspective and ultimately shape our reality. My favorite, simple way to do this is in the evening as my husband and I transition from our work day to our night (whenever that might be, often as we cook dinner) we’ll each think of 3 positive things that happened that day and then think of 3 things we’re looking forward to in the upcoming day ahead. Short, sweet and powerful!
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.
- Find a new passion — We all need something that brings us alive and studies show that seniors live longer and live better when they have something that gets them out of bed in the morning. With a lack of work life structuring your days, you ideally have time to explore new things — from art classes to dance classes to gardening. Make sure to keep a few things in your calendar a week to look forward to. Nourish your inner fire, and in return, it will help keep you feeling younger!
- Surround yourself with people who stimulate you — While relationships might be harder than ever to invest in with social distancing, make your friendships and family relationships a priority, even if it’s just a weekly FaceTime call. Keeping your brain stimulated through unpredictable conversations is invaluable to keeping you mentally sharp.
- Stay active — It’s no secret that physical wellbeing is directly related to mental wellbeing. As we age, it becomes more and more important to make fitness a part of our lives. Conversely, sitting around all day has extremely damaging effects on your mental health. As mentioned previously, after retirement, you can much more easily carve out time to dedicate to physical fitness. This doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym and pump iron! Find activities that you enjoy and know you’ll make time for — from swimming to yoga to walking regularly. Physical activity releases endorphins in the brain to help you feel happier and more energized.
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?
- I mentioned them before, but I had several experiences as a teen that really helped me stay on track with my mental wellness. One was being introduced to an herbalist that really ignited my passion for healing and ultimately led to my chosen career. Finding something you are passionate about — be it a sport, an artistic expression, and more — can be key. And you don’t have to know right away. Try things. Explore! Find and develop the talents that really speak to you.
- Movement and giving back can also be very powerful for teens and pre-teens when it comes to their mental health. Getting away from social media and other screens to get some physical movement in can have a powerful impact — like it does for adults. As can taking some time each day to do something kind for others. Again, these things can be big and organized or small. The benefits are still there.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I am a huge reader and have been impacted by so many of them. Most of the books I read are nonfiction — I like to read to learn so most of the books on my overflowing shelves are educational. Some that stick out to me include: When Breath Becomes Air, The Brain that Changes Itself, Molecules of Emotion, Anatomy of an Illness, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, The Spark in the Machine, Siddhartha’s Brain, The Sensitive Nervous System, Human Heart Cosmic Heart, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life and so many others.
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. 🙂
Yoga as a part of standard healthcare!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Just do it! Even before I worked at Nike it always felt like these words resonated with me. I ended up working at Nike for over 6 years at their World Headquarters and it obviously meant even more to me after that. I’m not one to sit around thinking about doing things. I prefer taking action and getting things done!