September is a month of new starts. After a total summer reboot, I was re-energized and focused. I could not wait to get in to New York City for a series of private sessions with celebrity fitness instructor Kristin McGee. Some might ask why the heck would I need to go all the way to NYC for a work out when I have amazing yoga and Pilates coaches right here in Western Massachusetts? Why bother with the 3 hour journey to Grand Central Station when I live only 5 minutes away from Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox?
The simple answer is that I wanted to learn how savvy New Yorkers define a work:life balance as part of a healthy urban lifestyle. What better way to sate my curiosity than to team up with Kristin McGee? Kristin has lived in New York City for over twenty years since first arriving to study acting at Tisch School of The Arts. Her dream of becoming an actress morphed when her love of yoga revealed an opportunity to move from teaching yoga at Crunch Gym to teaching it as MTV’s Bendi Girl in 2002. She has since produced over 100 videos, acted as yoga consultant for The Nanny Diaries, and appeared on 30 Rock as Floyd’s fiancé, Kaitlin, who as a ‘yogaerobics’ instructor and ab model, is remembered for saying “I don’t have a lot of girlfriends because, you know – my body.” Amusingly, Kristin’s abs were featured in every one of Kaitlin’s costume changes so Kristin needed abs of steel and a sense of humor for the role.
Like many New Yorkers, Kristin knows her stuff. Manhattan is a land full of top-notch professionals, spread out over a grid of gutsy leadership, trendsetting, risk-taking and accomplishment. It’s not known as a place for ‘softies’ but make no mistake, Gotham has a soft side.
The New York City I revisited after actively avoiding it for nearly twenty years was a kinder, gentler Gotham than I ever knew when I lived and breathed it in my early thirties. Was this rekindled flame and regained fondness for The Big Apple down to the change in me, the change in the city, or being around Kristin every Thursday and Friday in September? The answer is: all of the above.
I met up with Kristin for a private Pilates session each Thursday in September. We spent time together afterward and would then meet up again the next day for her 10am yoga class at Equinox Gym [67th and Columbus]. I confess, I was anticipating a group yoga class modeled after a subway ride, something that when perfectly timed provided a quick entry, a bit of elbow room, as few stops as possible, and a well-positioned exit. It wasn’t like that at all. Each group session was an absolute pleasure. There was a quiet, friendly calm before class. Ladies chatted and stretched and put their phones away. Despite a full class room there was no jostling for space. There was room to breathe. There were no ‘loud New Yorkers,’ just one huge mea culpa on my part. I had got it all wrong and quickly ditched any remaining pre-judgments at the sound of our first shared om.
Kristin is an amazing teacher. It’s no wonder she has A-List clients like Steve Martin, Tina Fey and LeAnn Rimes but even great teachers need to learn from their students. I watched one morning as a student approached Kristin and together they walked outside the studio to talk. Minutes later, Kristin started the class on time and with a song. We joined her in something that felt and sounded so good, and beautiful, and filled with light. Kristin moved around the room adjusting us as needed, letting us know she was aware of each and every one of us.
After class, Kristin explained to me while in line at the Equinox salad bar that some of the students were disappointed that she was doing the class and not spotting them enough, adding “…and they’re right. I haven’t been doing my own practice in my own time. I’ve been combining it with my teaching to save time, and that’s not the way to do it. What a great wake up call.”
Now, this was a beautiful New York moment for me to witness. One person respectfully expressing her needs, another honoring those needs, no crazy body language or raised voices, and both of them pointed towards the same outcome. Kristin was grateful for the feedback and graciously admitted “I respect the students in my class. In the end, they are the ones who teach me.” This is the power of yoga. It teaches us to inhale-and-receive and then exhale-to-release so that we can let go of what holds us back and embrace the gifts that propel us forward, closer to what really matters.
Kristin leads a busy life, but I never once heard her say “I’m so busy.” She's been very busy indeed providing healthy tips and poses as a contributing fitness editor at Health magazine and as a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Mind Body Green, Bliss, and YouBeauty. She recently travelled to Berlin, with her “baby on board” to make her latest video for an international market.
Get out of town! Kristin travels frequently and so does her 15 month-old son, Timothy, who goes on every business trip with her. Kristin’s get-up-and-go attitude towards motherhood is admirable. Motherhood hasn’t slowed her down, but it has made her re-evaluate the way she spends her time. She WANTS to be with her son and she builds her private sessions and classes around his schedule. Travelling with her baby is just part of her job and she makes it all work by keeping her focus on what matters most. When she and I were on the subway heading to a mother and baby casting, Timothy was hungry and without a second thought or a big fuss she nursed him on the C line and quietly got the job done. It just goes to show you that Kristin’s not just ‘bendi’ on the yoga mat; she’s ‘bendi’ in life, too.
Whether Kristin travels to her home town of Pocatello, Idaho or to Los Angeles or to Europe she always incorporates some healthy habits: She walks as much as she can. She tries a local activity for a new way to exercise and she doesn’t eat every meal out. Instead, Kristin brings in healthy, organic food from a local farmers’ market or a health food shop.
Are yoga instructors even permitted to freak out or have meltdowns? What does Kristin do when travelling, teaching, writing, producing videos, being a mother, a wife, and a friend start to add up? She stops. She focuses. She catches her breath, centers herself, and then continues on. She might also call her mom and dad in Idaho. Staying connected with her parents and hearing their voices always helps to remove her from the proverbial hamster wheel.
Keeping calm and being able to steer clear of Meltdown Mode is a positive by-product of daily choices that are guided by Kristin’s yoga practice, which incidentally does not begin and end on the mat. Her practice remains a natural, continuous flow of checks and balances…invisible, unbreakable, ‘bendi’ threads woven throughout her daily life. For Kristin and countless others, this is the most profound gift of one’s own yoga practice, the ability to focus on what really matters by getting rid of what doesn’t matter.
Life will always be unwieldy at times no matter who you are or how much yoga you do. The regular practice of Yoga reduces stress build-up and can help to prevent meltdowns and system overloads. In this video Kristin shows us three stress-busting poses she uses to bring her back to center.
Kristin’s message as a teacher is less about getting “a perfect body.” It’s more about gaining inner strength, balance, flexibility and the ability to be present wherever you are, whatever you are doing. For as strong and impressively ‘bendi’ as she is, I suspect it is Kristin’s positive outlook that keeps her closest to center. If you ask about her childhood, her face lights up as she talks about her family, growing up in Idaho and their family troupe, K.C. and The Sunshine Kids. Her memories of singing and dancing with them are as joyful and uplifting to her as they are grounding. The foundation her family provided early in life is easily mirrored by the yoga she discovered later in life as a young adult far away from home and family. Young students arriving in New York City can seek out many things for comfort. Kristin chose Yoga to be her guide and it has never left her side.
When I finished up my last session with Kristin, I wished I didn’t live so far away. I wanted to take her class every week. As I walked away from class, away from the west side, through Central Park and down to Grand Central Station, I was in a gloriously good mood and for the first time in my life, New York was all warm and fuzzy. I left town with a greater sense of how Yoga has the ability to gently wrap us up in its teachings much the same way a loving parent might guide a child to all that it might love - inside and out - and that the journey there is all very wonderful, and wonderfully ‘bendi’.
‘Bendi’ has new meaning for me now. It’s not just an MTV neologism and it’s not about whether or not we can transform ourselves to look like a New York pretzel. Being 'bendi" is about staying focused on what really matters. As human beings, we are all ‘bendi’ and ever capable of becoming even more ‘bendi’ if we strive to go with the flow on the mat and off. Yoga teaches us the ways to become more ‘bendi’ in our bodies, in our hearts and in our minds. The 'bendier' we are, the more we breathe and the better we breathe, the more room we have to navigate whatever Life throws our way.
My time with Kristin showed me that where you live does not define who you are. A work:life balance whether it’s in the city or in the country boils down to the choices we make to keep ourselves focused on what matters most. The more ‘bendi’ we are, the more manageable, meaningful and joyfully balanced life can be.
As I left Grand Central Station and pointed west towards home, the giant billboard that greeted me along the tracks spelled GRATITUDE in huge letters and I smiled to myself and said, “Yes, that’s exactly what this is.” Thank you, BendiGirl. Namaste.