Sadie Nardini was 13 when she received her death sentence. Stage 4 leukemia explained the sudden seizures, inability to walk, and sky-high fever that refused to break. And it gave her just two months to live.
Two weeks later, the doctors revised their diagnosis: Nardini didn’t have leukemia but rather a severe case of viral meningitis, an infection of the spinal cord that typically occurs in children and young adults.
The good news was that she would live. The bad news was that because the meningitis had gone untreated, she would likely never walk again. Invest in a wheelchair, doctors advised.
For a teenager, the new diagnosis was practically worse than death. Nardini returned home a depressed rag doll, unable to move and suffering from panic attacks.
“My mom was ready to try anything,” Nardini recalls, noting that her family was low on cash and resources. “We were on food stamps. We didn’t have money for doctors or anything else.” But Mama Nardini did have a book: Richard Hittleman’s Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan, and she pulled it off the shelf, thinking it might help her daughter.
There’s no way her mother could have predicted just what a radical difference the ancient practice would make.
Nardini, now 39, has grown into a yogic force to be reckoned with — as a New York City–based yoga instructor, host of Veria Living TV’s Rock Your Yoga, and author of the new book The 21-Day Yoga Body.
Forget life in a wheelchair. Clad in combat boots and yoga pants, with a firecracker personality and red hair to match, Nardini has her sights set on revolutionizing what it means to “do yoga” and be healthy.
Q & A With Sadie Nardini
Experience Life | Your new book is The 21-Day Yoga Body. The phrase conjures up a specific image — lithe, slim, and bendy — but you seem intent on changing that. Can you explain what “yoga body” means to you?
Sadie Nardini | It’s not about how skinny you can be or how much weight you can lose. I think it’s really important to reclaim the idea of what it means to be healthy. We can improve without punishing ourselves or feeling bad for being imperfect. Really celebrating our bodies inside and out — that’s the new healthy.
EL | You discovered yoga after a severe illness when doctors said you would never walk again. It takes a certain rebellious spirit to fight against such a grim prognosis. Where did you find that courage?
SN | This might sound depressing, but I decided that I could always kill myself. With that knowledge, I thought, “Let me try everything else humanly possible before I think any more about such a final step.”
That gave me the courage to try anything. In Tibetan Buddhism, they call it “death consciousness.” Instead of depressing you, it should make you focus more fully on the present moment, be more grateful for who you are and what you have — to have the courage to try some radical new possibilities in your life instead of just existing in the same old discomfort, illness, or dysfunction.
EL | Your recovery took a long time. You were paralyzed for two years, and it was a decade before you had the strength to go from doing yoga at home to practicing in a class. Didn’t you ever feel like giving up?
SN | I could tell there were micro-improvements happening. I would do a restorative yoga practice, and then I would sleep a little bit better that night or I would have one less panic attack that day. I could tell I was breathing more smoothly. I had a tiny bit more energy on some days and I could see glimmers of hope.
EL | You’re not the stereotypical yogi, and in the book you write that each person needs to learn to “do you” — to find yourself. What do you mean by that?
SN | If there are 7 billion people on this Earth, yoga is 7 billion doorways to fitness, to confidence, to harmonizing your relationships and finances and everything else. For each person, the approach to yoga has to be modified. It has to be unique.
I really want to be an advocate for individuality and encourage people to be sensitive to their own needs and to stand up for their own truth, even if someone else is telling them what they should do or how it should feel — to own your own experience above all others. To me, that’s true empowerment and that’s the meaning of a yoga practice — to unite you with your best self ever.
EL | Your philosophy of embracing individuality — of “doing you” — extends beyond the mat. You write in the book that you eat steak and chocolate and enjoy good wine — a far cry from stereotypical yogic asceticism. How do you balance nutrition and indulgence?
SN | For me, healthy eating and pleasurable eating can be the exact same thing. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Nowadays, you can get amazing, pleasurable, slightly hedonistic healthy food like the chocolate macaroons in my new book — God, they’re decadent! (Find the recipe at ELmag.com/sadienardini.)
EL | What advice would you give people who want to transform their lives but feel so stuck they don’t even know where — or if — they
SN | An old yoga saying is “Yoga is the practice of seeking obstacles to your health and vitality, and dissolving them, removing them.” The agreements you’ve made, the mindset you have, stories you tell yourself, the relationships, the job, the things that don’t feel good in your life — immediately take a look at those and say, “Why doesn’t this feel good to me? Can I think differently about this? Can I take a step in a different direction?” There are always baby steps.
EL | In addition to yoga, you study the martial art of ninjutsu (Japanese ninja techniques) and call yourself a “yoga ninja.” What does that mean? Can anyone be a yoga ninja?
SN | The philosophy of the ninja is that you train in really finding your center. You train in containing your power and putting it only where it is most necessary, most needed. Every time we say yes when we don’t mean it, or we do something that’s unnecessary, or we say, “Yes, I’ll watch your cat” when we’ve got too much stuff to do already — it’s another energetic paper cut.
So the practice of the yoga ninja is really to find all those leaks, start plugging them, and being mindful of where you’ll give out the precious energy and where you won’t. I think everyone can really cultivate his or her own inner badass.
Maggie Fazeli Fard is Experience Life’s staff writer.