Sadie Nardini is no stranger to death. The 43-year-old has sustained a head injury, been wrongfully diagnosed with Stage IV leukemia and even died once in the ER. Not one to give up easily, Nardini's persistence to live a full and abundant life has led her on the path to rising stardom as an Internet-famous, internationally acclaimed yoga teacher.
Known as the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa, the Brooklyn-based teacher has also launched a slew of online offerings with the education platform Udemy, making her more accessible to her global audience than ever.
Nardini's unusual approach to yoga is unique, much like her platinum blonde mohawk and supercool rock star attitude. Inspired by an extensive study of martial arts, Nardini drew from the parallels that have long existed between yoga and Zen, with emphasis on the "deep core line" of the inner body.
But Nardini's anatomical focus on core strength isn't so much about getting six-pack abs as it is "igniting that ninja-like superhero feeling in our practice," in her words. Nardini will attest that when basic physics are applied to holistic, intuitive movement, yogis can become much stronger, burn far more calories and sustain less injury.
MindBodyGreen recently spoke with Nardini about yoga, death and ninjas. Here are five questions from that interview.
MBG: How did you decide that you wanted to become a yoga teacher?
SN: When I was 13, I had a severe spinal cord injury when a grown man cannon-balled onto my head in a swimming pool. It knocked me out and gave me seizures. After my head trauma improved, my doctors didn't know why I still couldn't move properly. My diaphragm was spasming all the time. I had panic attacks. I got really dizzy while walking.
I found yoga because I had to do something to move and heal my body. I was told that I'd probably have to be in a wheelchair and I would not be a viable part of society. I was told I'd have to get an easy job. But I don't take "no" for an answer very easily. I began practicing yoga, meditation, and eating better. I had to start with total restorative yoga, but I actually started to see an improvement in my breathing and in my nervous system. I thought that if I could change that a little, maybe I could change it a lot. For a decade, I did more every day until I could finally walk into what I thought was a gentle yoga class, but turned out to be Ashtanga.
After three years, I was able to do a whole class. [When my teacher] moved to India, she asked me to take over for her. I sort of got shoved into yoga teaching. It terrified me, but I loved it so much. But then I started injuring myself because I was doing strong classes and I didn't know anything about anatomy. I was frustrated with why I was getting injured and why my students were getting injured, so I studied intensively with anatomy masters like Leslie Kaminoff, Tom Myers and Paul Grilley.
How important is a regular meditation practice to you?
There are so many different ways to meditate. It doesn't always just entail sitting, though I try to do that every morning before I get out of bed. I just think it's crucial. I used to favor asana over meditation, but I've learned the importance of meditation in human interaction, relationships, knowing oneself and ceasing to suffer with every experience that life throws at you.
I think one of the foundational responsibilities we have as spiritual practitioners is to be able to sit in that space with yourself and listen to the wisdom that arises — but also train yourself to be still and strong enough to not be reactive.
We have to be able to go into that inner inquiry, as Byron Katie would say. Listen to yourself among all of the voices in the mind, to just know what your truth is and move from there. I call it "death practice" because we die every day in some way. Things are always being taken away from people, but we're also being recreated.
Do you think that people struggle with letting things go because they're afraid of dying?
That's a natural, knee-jerk reaction — you feel for a moment like there's no ground beneath you. Our fists grip. We freak out. It's an animal reaction. Any time you're emotional, you want to blame someone, grab a drink, anything. But what if you learned to not do that and just open your palms and sit? The closer we can get to that part of ourselves, the freer we can become.
I died once too, and it's great! People don't assume the best about dying, but it's awesome. I had a bad reaction in college to a medication and I died on the table at the ER for a few seconds. But it was the most relaxing thing I ever felt! Knowing that death can be a positive experience has released me from a fear that a lot of people have. I want to help people feel that kind of relaxation and freedom now — I can't watch people or animals suffer.
Have you ever felt exhausted by having to be a constant source of inspiration for your students?
Yes. I went through a couple of years when I was getting more well-known and getting more requests — I felt like I had to say yes to all of them. I wanted to experience everything I could, but it led me to constant travel. I met amazing people, but I was also packing and running around. I had to learn how to say, "No." That's hard to say to yoga students who are excited to see you.
However, I have to take care of myself. I realized that if I want to extend this experience to others, I have to make healthy space [for myself]. My practice today is looking at the places where I am over-giving or being overgenerous. I have to find a balance. I work on that every day.
Is there anything in a yoga class that annoys you as an instructor?
I don't like it when people talk loudly during my class. I will separate them!
And once, I shouted at a guy at a workshop because he was on his phone the whole time. I kept getting distracted by him. But it turned out that English wasn't his first language and he was actually using a translator app! I felt SO bad.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Photos courtesy of Pao Sanchez & Tony Felgueiras