Welcome to my new, exciting series! Each month, I’ll be interviewing someone I find inspiring- to find out their take on health and lifestyle, and what “being healthy” means for them.
This month, my beautiful friend Sigrid Pichler has generously agreed to be my subject!
Sigrid (among other things) is a kick-ass yoga instructor here in NYC. She grew up in Austria, and because she works for the Austrian Tourist Office, frequently gets to return to her homeland to visit. She has a fantastic accent. But more relevent, having grown up in Europe, and having spent a contrasting 17 years living here in the city, she also brings a provocative perspective to this idea of “being healthy.”
We lucked out with a gorgeous, sunny, fall day to sit in Central Park and chat about what healthy means to her…
JS: So to start, I thought it would be good to talk a bit about your background- being from Austria. How do you think being raised there influenced your concept of health and wellbeing?
SP: Well, I’ve been here for 17 years now. I was 27 when I moved, so I was out of my formative years. That whole concept of “healthy”- it was never such a big deal in Austria. It was… a little bit more natural. It was more like- “Eat right. Be healthy. Have a piece of chocolate.” And it wasn’t even “work-out.” It was more- “Move your body! Do stuff outside.” It was just part of what you did.
Same thing with the food- generally the food was just healthy… and then you got treats, which didn’t really matter, because overall everything else was healthy. And I think Europe has changed a bit since then, but that whole thing that exists here now, with the “buy organic, buy local”- It came a bit more naturally where I grew up.
I mean, we never had soda at home. It was always just the apple juice from the farmer next door, and if we didn’t drink the bottle of juice within the week, it had mold on top, because there was nothing else to it! Or, I remember sometimes my father brought home those glass bottles of Coke- like once or twice a year- and that was a super treat. I drank like 3 sips and a saved the bottle. And it absolutely went flat, but it was a treat.
That was normal. It shaped me, and now I see it. Looking back, I see that what we did growing up is exactly what is such hype now, and why Whole Foods is making all the money it does. I should have brought that concept over 17 years ago, and I would probably be super rich now!
JS: Did you find that things changed a bit when you moved here- your eating habits, or activity habits?
SP: It was interesting. In the beginning- I really didn’t take to the food in America. A lot of people, when they move [here] from Europe, they gain a lot of weight. And I actually lost weight. I was never into fast food, thank god! So that didn’t really appeal to me. And I’m totally a spoiled brat when it comes to sweets, you know – having grown up in pastry heaven… So anything I tried here really didn’t really do the trick for me.
JS: Pastry heaven…. I want to go there. So, how did you adjust?
SP: I definitely got a little more exploratory- sort of seeing what New York had to offer. I got curious about new foods, and trying new things. As international as Vienna is, to an extent, you still have a hard time finding, say, an Egyptian restaurant, or even good Indian food- that hasn’t been watered down for the Austrian taste buds. I think when I discovered the international food scene, and all the stuff available in New York- I branched out a little bit and enjoyed it.
JS: So you probably wouldn’t have fared too well in a distant suburb…
SP: Uh….probably not. In New York we are very spoiled with healthy options and restaurants. For me it’s always about where it comes from, or the quality of it. I drink wine. I eat meat. But I try to know where it comes from. If I know that it’s a good, quality product, I have it! We are blessed with that. There are plenty of restaurants that have local farms as food sources, and it’s even trendy now!
But this is what I have always seen in Austria. I mean, even a menu. Menus always changed seasonally. You would hear- “oh we are out of that because that was the last little piece of ____ that we had, and the farmer didn’t have anymore. So… sorry!” And now, here, it’s a thing– “we have a seasonally changing menu.” And I think- really? You don’t have strawberries in December? Hmm… big surprise!
Even in Vienna- Vienna isn’t huge, but it still has about 2 million inhabitants, and it was the same story. Even in bigger chain supermarkets you wouldn’t find strawberries in December. I mean, nowadays things being available [year round] has changed [internationally] a bit, too. But I think people there are still very much aware of what is available right now at the farmer’s market.
JS: Let’s shift to the whole yoga thing. How long have you been teaching?
SP: I’ve been teaching for…8 years now.
JS: And how did you come to yoga, as part of your healthy story?
SP: [Laughs] As part of my healthy story? That was actually very funny. This was in 2003 or 2004. A friend and colleague of mine did Bikram yoga, and she was always talking to me about it- this yoga, that you are doing in 100-and-something degree heat… And I was like- you’re crazy! I mean, that’s impossible, and you’re insane! And yoga- I have to be honest, I was like- oh, it’s just a bunch of hippies ohm-ing and meditating.
And when my colleague started laughing at me, I was like…no, screw that! I’m going to come with you, because I just need to experience it… So that I can full-heartedly say that you’re insane!
So I went with her to class, at the Bikram studio in Union Square that doesn’t exist anymore, and… I was hooked. I still remember what I wore that day! And that it was a Friday night. And we went for drinks afterward…
And I went back on Saturday…and I went back on Sunday… I didn’t even tell her! I was embarrassed, you know? Because I called her insane…and then I went back over the weekend. So…that was that. Still to this day’s she’s like, ”yeah…I created that monster.”
I did Bikram on and off for a while, and eventually, I discovered more about different styles of yoga, and then I did a teacher training with Jimmy Barkan in Ft Lauderdale, and the rest is history.
But really I got into it by a fluke- By wanting to prove to my friend that she was nuts. There was no deeper motivation… nope.
JS: With the study of yoga today, you can kind of go down a rabbit hole of philosophy and teachings. You’ve kept yoga in your life for years, and even made it part of your career. What part of it speaks to you?
SP: You know… it’s hard to put my finger on it. It’s not that I do not agree with certain people, or certain “types” of yogis, but some modern-day yoga teachers can umm… get a little too “yoga” for my taste…
It’s like they are living in 4th century India, but we are in the 21st century, right? We are modern yogis. And I totally give you that what we call “yoga” today in the western world is not what originated in India so many millenniums ago.
But because we live in the 21st century, we adapted something to our lifestyle and our needs. When you say “yoga” today, everybody thinks of pretty poses, and tight leggings and whatnot… which is…part of the modern yoga “style.” And [In the ancient Indian tradition] the yoga poses are only a little part of the philosophy. But what it did for me…the physicality of the practice. It was good for me that I got thrown into Bikram yoga, because the intense physicality of the practice is what I liked.
That’s how it happens, now. I think a lot of people- I dare say at least 90% of everybody who starts yoga- gets into it because they hear about it’s physical benefits.
But once you start practicing it regularly- even if initially you were only there for the physical benefits- then all of a sudden, other things in your life start to shift, too. You become a little bit calmer. You become a little more patient. You have a higher tolerance for, you know, bull***t with your family, or work, or whatever it is. It kind of seeps into your life. The lady on the subway stairs that you want to curse at if she doesn’t move any faster…you become a little bit more tolerant and aware. Maybe she just had surgery, maybe she is ill.
You become less reactive.
And becoming a teacher, connecting with people- it’s rewarding on a day-to-day basis. To help people improve their health…their lives…attitudes… There are little rewards with every class you teach …and sometimes even big rewards!
JS: The next thing I want to talk about is… body image. From an outsider’s perspective, you have an amazing sense of body image and awareness. I’ve seen the booty shorts! [that she typically teaches in]. But talking about coming from a different country, and seeing the image situation we have here in America… You are strong and muscular [SP: “Sturdy” as some would say]. And at least outwardly, you project this comfort with yourself, this strength and fierceness…
Did you always have that? Were you born with it?
SP: …No. No, I did not always have it. I’ve never been like ‘skinny-skinny’ and my family aren’t either. I always…not struggled…’struggled’ is too strong, but we all go through it. We all want to be this ‘model type,’ and as a teenager, for girls especially, it is always: “this boy doesn’t have a crush on me because my ass is too fat, or my thighs are too thick, or…or…or…” Where this originated, I have no idea. But this is what it was when I was growing up, too. And I did it as well. But I never did it to an extent where it was unhealthy, or interfered with my life, or damaged me emotionally.
If you look at it historically, that “image” has changed so much. It was funny, on a recent trip to Vienna, I was at the museum of Fine Arts. They have one of the biggest collections of Rubens and Bruegels, and all the Dutch masters- whose ideal woman is like, totally voluptuous with big boobs and big thighs and I mean- not obese, but what we nowadays would consider heavy. This was the ideal woman back then- representing fertility and strength and all of that.
And this brings it back to the yoga world of today. The body image- or the perceived body image of a ‘yogi’- is skinny and flexible and looking great in those tight spandex pants and skin-tight tank tops [sigh]. Yes, people like this exist, and that’s okay! But it is just wrong to portray yogis like this exclusively, because it prevents a lot of people, especially women…from trying to do yoga.
And personally, I think a little bit of me…you know… being out there, and not trying to hide any of my curves- it is my goal to show women that you don’t necessarily have to be twigs or ‘skinny’ to do yoga, or to be comfortable in your own skin.
It boils down to health and lifestyle choices. If you move- doesn’t matter if it’s yoga or biking or running…pick your own thing, right? If you move and if you eat well- and no, that doesn’t mean you are chewing on kale leaves and chia seeds all day- you do the right thing for your body and you’ll feel good. And the more you feel good the more you project that you feel good.
Then it doesn’t really matter anymore what your body shape is like, and your image will change.
I see so many women struggle with body image and there’s no reason for it. I mean, they may want to lose a couple of pounds. But they’re really suffering because of what society imposes on us- “this is what ‘a yogi’ does.” For example-vegetarianism and veganism in the yoga world. I get it, and there are ‘right’ reasons for doing everything, but the bottom line is- Do what is good for you …not because you are ‘a yogi’ or a “health nut,” etc.
There is a huge discrepancy between what people really feel and want and what the media and society tells them they should feel or they should want. It’s hard, and it’s alienating. Does that answer your question?…I don’t even know where we started…
JS: [Laughs] We started with- did you always have good body image?
SP: Oh right…Well…it took a while. It took a little while.
JS: What are the healthy routines or habits that you feel good about in your day-to-day?
Sigrid: Well, it’s still sometimes a struggle to get to the studio or class. We all have a million excuses. But for me it helps to think about how I feel afterward, and wanting that feeling, so I just do it. A lot of people think – I don’t have time for yoga, I don’t have time to exercise. And to a certain extent they are right! Our time, our schedules are tight. But if you treat your exercise like an important work meeting, and you put it in your calendar that this is what you are doing…it’s doable. And I’m not saying that you have to work out 7 days a week…actually that’s not healthy either…you need to give your body a bit of a rest to recuperate. But yes, move! Get your body moving.
Stay away from junk food and too much refined sugar and I mean…have days where you go out and you indulge. Say you’re at a party and there are fancy cocktails and cupcakes …I mean …have some! Maybe be a little more conscious the next day. Everything in moderation- including moderation. A cocktail or a cupcake doesn’t screw you over. It’s if you do it everyday that it becomes a problem.
I try to make conscious, smart choices. I think over the years I’ve become much more aware. You learn to feel what is right for you…and feel is the crucial word here. You’re body will tell you what it needs. You can learn to understand your cravings, and start to understand what your body is telling you. The more you’re willing to listen to those signals, the more you become aware of how ‘good’ feels- and it will help you make the right food choices.
JS: So, if you had to sum up your current healthy philosophy in one sentence…
SP: Actually it’s what I just said… everything in moderation, including moderation. Neither nutrition nor exercise should be a chore. It should be fun, because if this doesn’t apply, then you won’t be doing it. And if you’re always so concerned with every little bit you put in your mouth, food is not fun anymore.
Oh wait, that’s more than one sentence…
As I gave a hearty thank you to my dear friend for being so candid and open to this interview, I switched off my recording device, and we gathered up our belongings to head out of the park.
SP: Okay, so now that we’re off the record…how do I get my six pack?….
[…We simultaneously dissolve into laughter].
Photo credit for this article: Cary Davis, www.humanstories.photography