In Stories of Alchemists, we interview inspiring women who have taken a step back from their day-to-day life to reflect on what’s really important to them. With passion and purpose, they are now following their heart’s desires.
This past year we met Sophie van Aanholt, who runs Destress Lab, a meditation platform. We spoke about her past and how she got the idea of starting Destress Lab.
Sophie has worked in the finance field for over 15 years, and during this time she experienced burnout. Even after recovering from this, she noticed that her patience would run out easier and she just wasn’t enjoying life as she used to. This was the point where she decided to do something about it. Describing herself as hyperactive, she never thought that meditation was for her. In her search for inner peace and freedom, she did a Vinyasa yoga teacher training, and then came across a meditation training in Santa Monica that she thought was the perfect fit for her: simple and accessible.
Can you share a little bit more about yourself and your upbringing?
“I grew up with my parents and sister in the south of France. I have ADHD, but back then we didn’t know that. For them, I was just a child with a lot of energy and I was lucky that my parents found a way to channelize that energy. They encouraged me to find a way I could use that energy, in sports, so I could focus on other things, like school. I had quite a religious education, which opened a door to spirituality for me. And as both my parents were ex-pats in a way, it triggered the need to leave my hometown too. Now, whenever I go back to France, I feel at home; when I go to Greece and Cyprus – where my grandparents were from – I feel at home, and here in the Netherlands I also feel at home.
I’m more of a world citizen than belonging to a certain place or country. I receive from every place I visit and also leave a little piece of my heart everywhere.
There are good things everywhere, no matter where we are, and it’s great to discover them. Of course, there are always things we don’t like, but once we get over the point of acceptance, and surrender ourselves, we start to appreciate things for what they are. That goes for almost anything we do. When we start something new, we often experience some kind of resistance, and it comes in many forms. When I moved to the Netherlands it showed up as getting used to the weather, the different mentality, and customs. Now I find that the Dutch are so down-to-earth, effective, and direct, which creates space for freedom. I love it.”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MORNING RITUAL FOR A BALANCED AND POSITIVE START TO THE DAY?
“I start my day with meditation. It is my home. It’s not the dream-like idea of meditation, but meditation adapted to real day-to-day life, with two young kids. My teacher, davidji, is the founder of the RPM technique: Rise, Pee, Meditate, and Beditation. At the moment, that’s the easiest way for me to create space for my morning practice, and I think it can be for everybody. When you get out of bed and start getting into the motion of the day, into the doing of things, chances are we’re not going to stop and sit down to meditate. So, I start my day by sitting in bed against my headboard and I meditate for 15-20 minutes. For me, it’s really important to have an intention and to ask myself: How do I want to feel today? What’s intention will my heart carry for this day?
I have two young children, and they can challenge me sometimes. I have to repeat things ten times because they’re looking for limits. Of course, I’m not perfect, and I do get angry sometimes too. But now, when I feel it coming, I remind myself of my intention: Okay, today is going to be about being calm, finding a connection or feeling love, or whatever I chose in the morning. It creates space for me to take a breather and choose a mindful reaction.
This works with everything and certainly with ourselves. It’s about creating time and space to listen to ourselves, not ignoring that we’re tired or hungry or hurting. When I practice yoga or meditation, I do it to practice self-love and not to achieve something. See, the line here is so thin because of course, I want to improve my practice, but I need to do it from a place of love and not to force my body into doing something. With meditation, I’ve learned to observe myself, my internal dialogue, and the energy it creates. This changes everything. This may sound a little woo-woo, but it isn’t at all. It really is physics. Everything is energy, even our thoughts.”
What is the greatest lesson you have learned from when you started this path?
“Trusting myself. Trusting my truth. Trust is always here, it’s inside each one of us. Only growing up we learn to challenge everything, and our painful experiences can leave us anchored in doubt. Learning to trust and to be confident in yourself is a gift to you but to the outside world as well. It certainly was for me, because self-doubt and hesitation clouded my energy and prevented me from opening up and from sharing what I wanted to share with the world. Trusting and believing in myself shifted my energy. And I found out that when you start to shift your energy, everything around you starts to shift: people and circumstances. I became a different person.
I just turned forty and it took me quite a while to figure this out, but I think the younger generation is starting to realize this even earlier. It’s a beautiful thing, and I see a big change in the world.”
What is an epiphany that you’ve had in the past 5 years?
“I’ve had many! I have an epiphany every day! [laughs] You know, one of the biggest things about meditation is that it’s so simple. No need to sit cross-legged for three hours. It’s simply taking a moment to sit down and create some space and silence. We all have an inner-self, intuition, but we can’t hear it without space, without the silence. Meditation has seriously changed my life, and many people I meet now have no idea I have ADHD. Like many people, I used to run the whole time, feeling stressed and rushed. I had a busy job, multiple appointments, I wanted to go to the gym, and I wanted to be present for my children. When I got stressed, my children became stressed too. I’m guilty as charged. So really, carrying this intention to create a moment of stillness and silence, I was finally able to slow down.
That’s when the shift happened. It made me understand that whoever I had been until then, wasn’t going to bring me where I wanted to be. I needed to create the change, and space and silence allowed me to feel what I needed. My intuition guided the way to this new version of myself. Everyone has their own way of doing that. For me it’s meditation, for others, it can be walking outside in nature. But it’s about cutting out the noise, and especially the noise that is inside our heads.”
Besides sitting down for meditation, in what moments do you apply your practice?
“All the time! [laughs] That’s what meditation is all about. A lot of people think about meditation as something mystical; seeing colors, hearing voices, seeing entities coming from the sky, and out-of-body experiences. That can happen, of course. But most of the time it doesn’t. It’s just you and your breath. Meditation practice is about redirecting your attention, again and again. Our brain is fascinating! It has the ability to physically change and adapt so when we engage in a behavior over and over, we become better at it. It’s called neuroplasticity. There are a lot of medical studies related to meditation. Modern science has even shown that it can slow down the aging process.
For example, the part of the brain responsible for memory and executive decision-making shrinks as we get older, but scientific studies show that 50-year-olds who meditate regularly have as much grey matter in that area of the brain as 25-year-olds who don’t meditate. Amazing right?“
What is the next step you would like to take in this field?
“My biggest dream is to have a physical pop-up meditation studio, where meditation is taught in a way adapted to our modern life. A place with a variety of amazing local teachers, and teachers coming over from all over the world. Every teacher is different, and brings their heart and energy to a class; therefore, each teacher brings something else. We are all different too, our needs vary per day, and so does our meditation practice. So, I hope to welcome many teachers to this studio, so we can reach many, many people.
I think that everybody can use meditation. In the United States, meditation and breathwork have reached the popularity that yoga has reached here. It’s used in business, the medical world, law enforcement, and the army. My teacher, davidji, even taught Marines so they can keep their cool in difficult situations. That’s my goal: a space where everyone feels welcome, an inclusive practice. I don’t want it to be reserved for spiritual people. Because it really isn’t. Anyone can meditate and feel the benefits.
The benefits of meditation aren’t only showing in while we are seated and meditating. They show afterward when we are awake. Meditation trains us to hold that space, that calmness, and to take it with us throughout the day. In our thoughts, our conversations, and our actions. It feels so good to be relaxed, and everyone deserves to feel that way. I’m determined to share meditation and to reach as many people as possible, and I truly believe this is the way we can make the world a better place. When we feel relaxed and happy, we automatically project that onto the world around us.
At Destress Lab, Sophie teaches a wide variety of meditation classes with a no-nonsense approach. Try out meditation with her at www.destress-lab.com