Getting An Upgrade; How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus

While modern medicine is a miracle, one of its shortcomings is a cultural consequence that I call “fix me.” We have become accustomed to the idea of having bad habits and then, when things start falling apart, we expect modern medicine to fix us with pills or surgery. Too often, these “fixes” are only short-term and can lead to other problems since everything in the body is connected.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sytera Field. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Sytera Field began practicing yoga in 1994 to recover from breaking both bones in her lower right leg in a rock-climbing accident. The first in her family to graduate from college, Sytera began teaching yoga in 2001 and went on to study Thai Yoga Massage. She launched SyteraYoga in 2018 with help from a Kickstarter campaign, and grew her business during the pandemic, opening a second studio in November 2020. Sytera is the founder of the Nadi Ball Method for myofascial release and produces her own line of yoga massage balls, called Nadi Balls.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, and grew up with two younger brothers. My mother was a bus driver and my dad was a carpenter, and they both struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. We had a very modest and, at times, difficult upbringing.

In the environment I grew up in there was no talk of college or planning for the future. Most of the validation I received from my family was around my physical appearance. My mother enrolled me in pageants as a pre-teen. When I was 12 years old, I won Miss Pre-Teen Texas and then traveled to Disney World in Orlando for the Miss Pre-Teen USA contest. Ironically, this helped me realize that I didn’t want to play the part of being a pretty girl. I started to recognize that I could do more, but I had no clue what that might be. No one in my extended family had ever gone to college.

Like a lot of Gen X’ers, my parents divorced when I was young, so I was a typical “latchkey kid.” When I was 17 I left home and lived with friends. I didn’t have any good role models or much adult supervision, so as a teenager I spent most of my time doing stupid things. For half of my friends, it ended poorly — in death, drug addiction, eating disorders, teen pregnancy. For the other half of us, surviving all that crap made us stronger.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

In 1994, when I was 19, I fell off a cliff while rock climbing and broke both bones in my lower right leg. I spent months in a thigh-high cast. I had grown up dancing and had a lot of confidence in my body. So, breaking my leg and being in a wheelchair really shook me, both physically and mentally.

I had to find a way to regain my confidence and learn to trust my body again. With no money for physical therapy, I tried yoga as a means of redeveloping strength and mobility. Yoga quickly became more than just a means of healing. I saw it as a way I could take control of my life. It provided me with a framework of ideas and values that I did not have growing up. It was the first time that I felt like I knew who I was and what I wanted to do.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

That’s easy: my husband. We met when I was 17 and have been together for 28 years. He was the first and often the only person to believe in me. We’ve been through the roller coaster of life together, partners every step of the way.

We moved together from Austin to Washington, D.C. in 1996. He encouraged me to go to college, so I enrolled at the University of Maryland and became the first person in my family to graduate from college. Right after we were married in November 2000, I decided I wanted to study art history in Italy for a semester, and he was 100% supportive and helped me figure out how we could finance it. It was the first time that I was truly on my own — in a foreign country with no family or friends. I learned a lot about myself. During that time abroad I decided that, when I returned home, I wanted to become a yoga teacher. Again, my husband was very supportive. I remember clearing out all of the furniture from our small living room so I could start teaching classes to my friends; it was the only space I had access to that was big enough for a yoga class.

In 2017, with our three kids finally old enough to be more independent, I started thinking about opening my own yoga studio. My husband loved the idea, and we both jumped into it. He’s always up for making unconventional decisions and taking risks together.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

When I first started doing yoga to recover from my broken leg, I didn’t know anything about yoga, so I tried different classes and styles. As you might imagine, yoga in Austin (home of Whole Foods and many alternative health trends) in the early 1990s could be weird and wild. So, my very first introduction to yoga just happened to be a “clothing optional” class! After the first few moments of being behind someone while they were doing Downward Dog, I took my fully-clothed self out of the class. I then found an Iyengar yoga class that was very therapeutic, and it gave me an introduction to “real yoga.” However, after a few months, the teacher started hitting on me, hiding behind his guru status; and this was while my now-husband was attending class with me!

This is often how I had learned lessons in life up to that point: discovering who I did not want to be from the adults in my life. In this case, I learned that the “hippie” or “guru” idea of yoga wasn’t for me. Over time, I learned that I wanted to practice and ultimately teach a style of yoga that was modern, fun, and therapeutic, but without sacrificing the profound spiritual and community benefits of yoga. Realizing that mix in today’s yoga industry has been a big challenge.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Find someone, such as a studio owner or a teacher, who is doing something you admire and then do their trainings, go to their classes, ask them to mentor you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for their advice. Don’t sit on the sidelines, and don’t try to do it all yourself.

Don’t just do a generic yoga teacher training. Yoga is a craft, so if you want to be successful you need to find the right person to study with. People are too focused on credentials instead of who they actually want to learn from.

Also, make sure this person you admire is successful in other areas of life. For example, do you see yourself with a family? If so, find out if this person you admire has had success with that. Yes, the person you admire might have the kind of career you covet, but at what price? No one is perfect, of course. But look for evidence of a well-rounded, healthy individual who has achieved something admirable and has not done it at the expense of everything else. It has to be sustainable and ethical.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Darren John Main’s Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic. I read this book in the early 2000s, at a time when very few people were talking about how the principles of yoga can apply to the daily life of a person living in a modern society. Yoga in the west had always been about escaping from or even rejecting modern society. But you don’t have to live in a cave and be a mystic to realize the benefits of yoga. I studied with Darren as part of my teacher training.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Life is like a sticky mat; each circumstance in which we find ourselves is like a pose. Some poses are hard to hold; others are pleasant. But it is how we hold the pose that determines whether or not we will suffer or grow, and whether or not we will listen to the drama of the ego or the wisdom of our Spirit.”

― Darren Main, Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic

This idea is the reason why I practice yoga — not to honor the pose, but to honor the lesson that you learn about yourself on the yoga mat. It’s one of the reasons why I have an urban theme (brick and graffiti) in my yoga studios, because we’re not looking to escape our modern lives by doing yoga, but rather we do yoga to be happier and healthier within our modern lives.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Right now, I’m completely immersed in growing and refining a practice I developed called the Nadi Ball Method, which is a mix of yoga and myofascial massage, inspired by my study of Thai Yoga Massage. The method targets the fascia or energy lines (called “nadis” in yoga), the body’s scaffolding of connective tissue surrounding the muscles and organs. The technique uses smooth, pliable balls that I developed, called Nadi Balls (pronounced “nah-dee”), to target specific areas of the body and to serve as a vital source of biofeedback during yoga. The balls substitute for the connection we all need in a yoga practice: human touch. I launched the method shortly before Covid hit, and it’s one of the main reasons my business survived the pandemic.

The practice of the Nadi Method is a practice of understanding how to regulate your own nervous system. When you start to understand your relationship to holding tension in your body, you can start to modulate your response to stressful stimuli. Then you understand that you have a choice in how to react in any particular situation. This is when you start to see real, positive shifts in your body, health, and life overall. First, know that we get addicted to our tension. Your pattern and habits of holding that tension keep you distracted from dealing with the real issue. We have “issues in our tissues,” as I like to say. It’s when you allow yourself to really look at the tension that you can start to slowly dismantle it. What is left is space — space in the body and space in the mind to react to life in a way that serves you, not in a way that enslaves you.

Our minds and bodies can do amazing things, like run marathons, pull an all-nighter studying for a test — all feats that really push us to our limit. Our society admires this. But, what you cannot do is force your body to relax. And those of us burning the candle at both ends have a really hard time relaxing. In fact, you will never hear me say “relax” in my yoga classes. Of course, you don’t know how to relax! That is why you need yoga! The key is to shift your mind from “monkey mind” to “body time.” It’s like this: have you ever been to a tropical island where everything just takes longer, and they tell you to be patient because you are on “island time.”

Our mind is not anchored; it can jump from thought to thought instantaneously. However, our body is anchored to the physical world. Our physical body and tissues just have a different timeline than our minds do. So, we hold a pose that illuminates a strong sensation in the body. Then we stay with it and breathe. As you do this your mind will do what it does best: jump from one narrative or dialogue to the next until you can’t even remember your first thought. The key is to consciously fill the lungs, then empty the lungs slowly and completely until you start to notice the rhythms of your body starting to slow down. Heartbeat, pulse, breath. And then again. Now you are on “body time.”

Here is an example of our “monkey mind.” Many years ago, when my son was much younger, I was late getting him to a doctor's appointment. As we were rushing into the medical building he grabbed my hand and said, “Mom, just clear your mind and think about bananas.” It knocked me back to reality knowing that, if I was a few moments late, it would be just fine. I recently told this story to a private client, knowing that this sweet, disarming statement would give her a chuckle and help illustrate how we are too hard on ourselves most of the time. The reaction I got from her, however, was totally not what I expected. She responded, “I’m so glad I was not there! My first thought would have been, were the bananas not ripe yet? Were they too ripe? I have some overripe bananas in my fridge that would be good for banana bread. My mom loves banana bread. I’d bring some to her except, we are estranged and it fills me with dread to think about the reason why…” You get the point!

A simple story that was supposed to stop her in her tracks to see the light and humor of the moment turns from bananas to “dread of my mother!” This is what we do all day every day. So, how do you stop this monkey mind from controlling your life? You practice on the yoga mat.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Our habits are our health. When we think about training our minds and bodies, what we tend to focus on are the exceptions and not the rule. The exceptions are: “I’m training my body for a marathon” or “I’m training my mind for the LSAT.” But it’s our day-to-day activities that are actually training our bodies. We sit too much. We go to the gym and work out in one-dimensional ways. Through these day-to-day habits, we’re teaching our bodies to have a limited number of patterns and shapes. Meanwhile, most of the other things our bodies are capable of are atrophying.

The same goes for your mind. It’s the narrative and dialogue, the self-messaging, that’s going on in our minds 24–7 that is dictating and therefore limiting what we’re capable of. We forget how to be present in the moment, to be creative and joyful. We lose flexibility in our thinking.

While modern medicine is a miracle, one of its shortcomings is a cultural consequence that I call “fix me.” We have become accustomed to the idea of having bad habits and then, when things start falling apart, we expect modern medicine to fix us with pills or surgery. Too often, these “fixes” are only short-term and can lead to other problems since everything in the body is connected. When folks come to me and say, “fix me,” I tell them that I can’t but I can help guide them in fixing themselves. And such “fixing” is really just them developing the right habits of self-care, with a little guidance, support, and accountability from others.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I think of some limitations as boundaries, which can be healthy. A boundary is something you can and should recognize, and you can work with. You can have a relationship with that boundary, and it tells you something about yourself. Sometimes that boundary is useful to you and needs to be honored, and sometimes it’s just yourself getting in your own way.

Through the practice of yoga, I have been able to keep perspective, to keep focused and on track with what really matters for my personal and professional growth. It’s a philosophy of “inner body bright, outer body soft.” The inner body has the drive, will, and energy that serves as the power or fuel behind what we do, while the outer body is pliable, can adapt, and let go of the small stuff. So, it’s a balance between an internal intensity and an external resilience. Yoga shows you that you can “bend without breaking.” You can recognize your boundaries and make adjustments accordingly without extinguishing your fire and drive.

What a good yoga teacher does is create tension. When I mentioned that in a podcast some years back to another yoga teacher, she challenged me, “Aren’t we trying to help people release tension?” I explained that I set up situations where I know the client is going to feel a bit of stress in the body. Then I guide them through the process of making friends with that physical boundary (known as an “energetic block” in your nadi system). That physical boundary has a narrative to tell you. So, you pause, breathe, and listen. Then and only then will the tension leave. This is the relationship you have with your tension. You have stored it away from a previous incident, injury, stress, whatever. (Because who has time to really feel in our everyday life?) Then, just like a friend who had something major going on in life and just needs you to be present with her, the body will start to let go of the tension.

Ask anyone, would you be there for a friend who needs you? Of course! Then why won’t you do that for yourself? If you have gratitude for your body, you will. We often say “my bad hip, foot, etc.” And I respond, I didn’t see you limp in here. That means that, despite your foot suffering from some issue, it is working double duty to support you. That is a gift and should be met with gratitude. Shift away from looking at your body like an enemy preventing you from achieving your goal to a friend who truly wants the same thing as you do: to be healthy, pain-free, and totally capable to do the things in life that bring you joy. The simple fact is that everything that happens to you, physically and mentally, makes a footprint on your physical body. Learning to deal with that is learning to deal with life.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?