With a positive and playful attitude, she empowers individuals to explore their everyday choices and incorporate a mindful approach to all they do--starting first on the yoga mat and then pervading every aspect of life. She is passionate about inspiring others to bring more balance and purpose in their lives.
Stacy is an internationally-trained Yoga Therapist, Exercise Physiologist, Holistic Health Educator, and owner of Enlightened Fitness, LLC. She received her master’s degree in Exercise Physiology, Health Promotion, and Performance Enhancement/Injury Prevention and has a bachelor’s degree in Health/ Physical Education and Athletic Training.
Discovering deep meaning from her own personal life challenges, Stacy founded Empower Yoga Project—a service dedicated to connecting those who suffer with addiction, trauma, and mental health conditions to effective healing practices and reconnecting to their wholeness and spirit.
Stacy’s motto is to share joy and inspiration -- one breath and smile at a time!
You can connect with her on Instagram @enlightened.fitness and www.enlightenedfitness.net .
This story is part of our two-month dedication to the theme of addiction, which wraps up at the end of September.
The lights were dim. The faint smell of incense lingered in the air. Soft, relaxing music was playing, and the gentle sound of rain could be heard dancing down the windows. It was the perfect setting for a morning yoga class, and I was reveling in the bliss.
Yoga had become my therapy, my medicine, my path towards wholeness. Over the last few years my yoga practice had evolved from a way to relieve my body of the physical pain from several troublesome injuries into the vehicle allowing me to navigate deep inside myself, a place I had vehemently avoided for most of my life until lately.
Often during past practices, thoughts, memories, judgements, comparisons, to-do lists, and any number of things distracted me from being mindful and connected with my body, breath, and the present moment. As a trauma survivor, tuning in to the sensations of my body and feeling my breath was a challenging encounter. But today, my mind was in a state of calm focus, permeated by a warm feeling of connection to my intuition, heart, and the flow of my breath, feeling it emanating smoothly, deeply, and rhythmically. I was truly experiencing a state of contentment.
As a class, we finished the last few asanas (postures) before our final pose, Savasana. Planning to read a passage for our reflection during relaxation, the teacher revisited the theme she had skillfully woven throughout our entire practice: Acceptance.
Based on the teachings from Yoga philosophy, yogis strive to practice an attitude of acceptance, as if everything that happens is what we choose for ourselves. When we can connect with the full range of experiences in life as if it was a gift from the Divine, without getting caught up in our attachments or expectations, it helps us to feel more peaceful and balanced in life and reduces the amount of suffering we experience.
I had personally been exploring the practice of acceptance earnestly for the last few years in recovery, and I was excited for the opportunity to receive the wisdom she had to share.
The teacher prefaced the reading with, “Now I know none of us in here are criminals, addicts, psychos, or murderers... or are even friends with those kinds of people... but try to understand the context in which this was written for the deeper meaning to be revealed...”
The teacher haughtily laughed and tossed her hair from her shoulder, preparing to deliver the passage to us.
Everyone in the class laughed. Except me.
My heart stopped beating. My breath caught in my throat. I felt as if I was suffocating, and everything went black.
I couldn’t move.
I didn’t hear her read the passage. It didn’t matter. The message I interpreted in that moment was:
if you have one or more of these labels, your worthiness is seriously in question here. Identifying with multiple labels she had listed, I was mortified. The relaxing pose I had been savoring moments before suddenly became torturous.
My heart started racing, my breath shallow and rapid. Thoughts swirled in my mind so fast I couldn’t even make sense of them – What am I doing here? I don’t belong here. How could I have been so stupid to think my past was behind me? I felt physically ill.
What previously was a safe and welcoming community was now threatening. I sensed a stark reminder of my unworthiness creeping in as my stomach, jaw and neck tightened and my hands and feet went numb. I felt unwelcome, unsafe, and scared. I felt judged. I was angry. Hurt. Confused.
I wondered if I could ever come back to this studio. I wondered if something like this would happen at other studios. As yoga practitioners, weren’t we supposed to extend the practice of acceptance to others and not just to the situations in our own lives?
The very purpose of attending yoga class in a community setting was to connect to my innate worth as a human and share that connection with others for continued growth and self-awareness during my recovery. While I used to suffer alone, isolating myself from any means of support and encouragement, I now craved the nurturing atmosphere and inspired hope that filled the yoga space. But that sanctity was just compromised by the judgmental laughter from the teacher and class members.
I felt subject to mockery and ridicule, as if the teacher was implying that “those people” she labeled were in a different category from everyone else, not worthy of the same respect and not allowed the privilege yoga provides for everyone to heal and grow.
Laying there in Savasana, I recognized that my triggering was due to the personal relationship I had with those labels and my intense fear of anyone using them to define me. I began to reflect, watching where my thoughts went and observing the sensations and emotions as they surfaced in my body.
My original addiction was one that people never noticed; in most cases, it was even praised by society. I am a recovering perfectionist, over-achiever, and people-pleaser.
As a young girl (and before I knew anything about being an empath), I realized I could feel and sense things other people didn’t seem to pay attention to. I acutely experienced people’s emotions and energy and sought out ways to help them attain comfort and serenity.
I adopted people-pleasing habits before I understood what was happening. Additionally, living in a household that prided itself on outward appearances and expected things to be done perfectly the first time, I became overly focused on external validation. With years of practice, I was thriving as a top-notch overachieving people-pleaser.
Most of my life, these qualities afforded me many friends, involvement in countless activities, numerous note-worthy achievements, plus praise and high responsibility from bosses and co-workers. But along with these accolades came a never-ending list of things to do and balls to juggle. When people asked me how my life was going, my response, without hesitation, was a resounding, “Busy!”
In my jobs and personal life, I was the person people would come to when they had a life crisis, relationship question, health issue, needed to vent, wanted a laugh and healthy dose of inspiration, or were overcommitted and needed practical help or a project done well. Quite predictably, I would humbly acquiesce to their requests and demands, setting aside any priorities of my own to accommodate theirs. While it brought me joy to be able to give to others, I lived in constant fear of letting someone down and not being perfect. I was training myself to believe that other people’s wants, needs, and feelings were more important than my own.
I had struggled internally with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness since I was a teenager and mistakenly developed the belief that my self-worth was determined by what other people thought of me. I thought that if I accomplished more, helped more, succeeded more, then I would be worth more.
So I searched for outside validation, and that validation affirmed my beliefs, feeding my addiction. The more success I accomplished and praise I received, the more I depended on it. The more I shared compassion, attention, and assistance with others, the less I had left for myself. My boundaries were non-existent.
This was not sustainable, and inevitably my feelings of unworthiness spiraled into a complete lack of self-love and total disconnect from myself. I found more destructive ways to numb out and disengage from my feelings, fears, and needs. After sleepless nights, I used caffeine as a drug to wake up in the mornings, and chronic insomnia led me to self-medicate with alcohol to wind down in the evenings. Tuning out the messages my spirit was gently whispering, I continued down a path of self-destruction. Accompanied by a series of abusive relationships and encounters, plus on-going harassment in my work environment, I disconnected, isolating myself further instead of finding support. I stopped caring completely and fantasized about leaving this painful existence.
Giving so much of myself to others left me feeling depleted, overwhelmed, exhausted, and at times even resentful. The precious time for the self-healing I desperately needed never occurred. Agonizingly aware something wasn’t working in my life, I was clueless how to change it. Instead, I continued blindly driving myself deeper into the addiction of trying to be everything to everyone.
My life was spiraling out of control. My tolerance for drinking had increased as had my consumption. This proved to be a volatile combination when paired with an undiagnosed mental health condition, the wrong prescription medication, and not realizing I was a black-out drinker.
I hated to look at myself in the mirror and hated who I had become. This wasn’t me. I felt stuck and scared. This was all just the beginning. As with many situations in life, things only got worse before getting better.
I got arrested. I was indicted. I was forced to resign from my jobs. I was on house arrest for a year. I had a public trial. I spent 14 months in prison. I lost my reputation, everything I had worked so hard to achieve, and my freedom.
By the time I had hit rock bottom, I had nothing left to lose.
Remarkably, this meant I had everything to gain. With no options left, I was forced to stop and feel.
My journey to wholeness and healing was when my yoga practice began its transformation to a life-changing, therapeutic modality. Yoga enabled me to see that like everyone else, I am a work in progress. I don’t have to get it right the first time. I reminded myself that babies crawl before they learn to walk, falling time after time in the process. Why did I think I wasn’t allowed to fall a few times when I was trekking through life? By practicing the ancient art and science of yoga, I learned to accept and implement gradual changes in thought and behavior, facilitating the ability to successfully stand on my own two feet.
I became acutely aware of the self-criticism in my mind as I attempted challenging poses and judged myself harshly for my less-than-perfect execution, noticing how I interpreted the teacher’s praise of another student’s performance as a criticism of my own not being good enough. I came to understand that by telling myself these stories, my mind preferred to keep me trapped in self-sabotage, but having the perspective to recognize that was becoming more natural and offering me an understanding of my thought patterns. Something deep in me yearned to learn more.
A pivotal point in my recovery occurred when I registered for a Yoga of Recovery ® course designed from ancient practices like yoga and Ayurveda combined with modern 12-step principles to guide those who suffer in overcoming addictive tendencies. It was brilliant. I learned, when we are out of balance, we crave things that keep us out of balance, and our addiction cycle continues.
For example, when I used to pull all-nighters to finish my over-committed responsibilities, I fueled with caffeine in the morning to continue to function as a perky multi-tasker. The caffeine buzz inevitably led to an energy crash later, and without the energy and insight to clearly say no, I would again over-commit myself, even knowing I could not possibly complete the tasks up to my high standards in the tiny amount of time allotted. This behavior continued to feed my feelings of inadequacy. As the cycle continued, my lack of self-worth led to the need to seek approval from others, overextending myself, giving away my energy, and not taking care of myself.
This course provided me vast insight into my habitual method of operating, presented practical ways to structure my days, and offered self-care practices and lifestyle modifications to help me function from a place of strength and balance. Understanding and loving myself were no longer foreign concepts. It introduced everyday tools using yoga practices like breathing and chanting to effect change in the physiology of the body and mind, intervening when feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, depression, shame, fear, and unworthiness surfaced. I was empowered to break the destructive cycle of addiction and self-sabotage, cultivating love and acceptance for myself.
Integrating the wisdom gained in this course and connecting with others who were also on a recovery path, I made significant progress. Now that I knew better, I could do better for myself. Feeling worthy of my love and attention for the first time as an adult, I opened to showing myself the compassion I had so often offered to others at my expense. It was a starting point, and I viscerally felt a significant enhancement in my connection with peace throughout the day, honestly yearning to reconnect if I couldn’t sense it.
Noticing progress in my healing, I felt a strong desire to share the therapeutic methods yoga provided so that others could benefit as I had. During the first yoga class I taught in the local county jail, I was surrounded by a group of highly skeptical incarcerated women of various ages and races with a myriad of labels, among them “criminals, addicts, psychos, murderers.” Sincerely committed to serve these women, I had to overcome a major hurdle: my fear. Standing in front of the group, I noticed uncomfortable looks on their faces, and afraid of their judgment, I doubted my ability to transfer these impactful teachings.
But then it struck me. I am like them. There was no difference. I had been quite literally in their position not long before, questioning my own worthiness since acquiring the “criminal” label that attempted to define me. Recognizing this connection reminded me that we are all human; we all feel fear, shame, regret, frustration, confusion, sadness, hope, joy, and love.
In that moment I chose to see the worth inherent in everyone and see these women in their wholeness. Doing so had a profound effect on me — it intuitively spread, affirming my own sense of worth.
By the time we finished the class, defensive attitudes had shifted and gratitude glowed on their faces. I felt warm tears of joy forming as we silently gazed into each other’s eyes, hands in a prayer position at our hearts, and in unison bowed to each other. Whispers of “Namaste” (I honor and respect the Light in you that is also in me) echoed in my ears long after class had ended, reinforcing my revelation that no label can define our worth. We are all already worthy.
Yoga taught me that addiction is something that happens when you forget who you really are –when you forget your worth and feel separate from everything and everyone around you. When we look outside of ourselves for fulfillment, we suffer.
During my early recovery, as my daily practice developed with consistency, I activated a genuine union with all parts of myself, welcoming back elements of myself that I hadn’t connected with for many, many years.
I no longer saw the challenges and difficulties life presented as a reason to tune out and disconnect but to truly feel and heal. When triggers occurred, I chose to stay with the sensations, feelings, and thoughts, and quietly breathe. I didn’t have to seek an immediate escape or impulsively react to keep myself from feeling. I now had potent tools to develop self-awareness, self-love, and self-acceptance.
Confronted daily with the choice to feel disempowered by labels used to outwardly define my worth, I choose to define my worthiness using my own internal standards. I do not have to react from a place of fear, guilt, and shame. I can be vulnerable and open the space for love, acceptance, and honest growth. I can feel into my genuine authenticity and I can look appreciatively at these labels as stepping stones, directing me on the path to becoming the best version of myself each day.
As that triggering yoga class was ending, the laughter in the room invited familiar feelings of emptiness and worthlessness, but I had been training for surprise attacks such as this and I now knew how to traverse the turbulent waters calmly using the tools I had been crafting. I took a deep breath.
The mantra “I am worthy of my love and acceptance” sweetly sang through my mind. Connecting with the labels from a different perspective, I wondered what it would be like to not have had any experience with addiction and all the roads it transported me down. I found a new form of acceptance for the teacher and students in that moment and gratitude for this profound learning experience.
Just as living out of balance is a self-perpetuating state of being — when we are living in balance, we seek what keeps us balanced. When we love ourselves completely, seeing our genuine value and significance, we attract love and acceptance from others effortlessly, and consequently, we stop searching for external validation. The cycle is broken.
It takes intense bravery and courage to look addiction square in the face and ask the hard questions we have been evading. What am I trying to avoid with this behavior? What is this addiction replacing? What would my life be like if I didn’t have this habit? What would it take to look at my life or situation differently and therefore respond differently?
Through this process we gain acceptance for what is and for what we can’t change. We accept the time and process required for lasting healing and growth. We accept that everyone might not understand things from our perspective.
When we are quiet enough to know what we are really seeking in life, when we stop distracting ourselves from feeling uncomfortable emotions, when we learn to ask for help and empower ourselves with healthier options, when we are able to feel at home in our bodies, minds, and hearts... then we experience the freedom of remembering we are enough.
Labels are only superficial and can serve to suppress and degrade us if we choose, but just as my yoga practice allows for a space to soften and be present for the vast experiences of being human, the daily remembrance of my value and worth opens my heart to the grace of acceptance and healing. We are all worthy of our love and acceptance, exactly as we are.