Since a young age, I have always been an investigator. My mother jokingly says, “Carola, you ask as many questions in a day as your sister does in a year”. Throughout my life, I have had an inner force or, for the neuroscience nerds, my Default Mode Network (a group of brain regions activating during mind-wandering, fantasising and self-referential thoughts) guiding me. I felt I was here with a purpose: to help others and reach greater depths of consciousness. I was lucky to cross the path of inspiring individuals with provoking out-of-the-box ideas who believed in my potential. They shook the ground under my feet. Yet I found new roots. I first trained as a yoga teacher and therapist to help people. I am now ready to bring the investigator out of me to expand my impact - this has led me to the SPI Lab, the research lab behind Inspire the Mind.
Trauma as a Door to Self-realisation
Trauma is not an event - it is the body-mind's response to the event. I believe trauma can be the catalyst for change. Gabor Mate - a well-known Canadian physician who survived the holocaust - argues that healing from trauma can transform into a spiritual experience and bring about awakening. I have inherited a hefty dose of transgenerational trauma. This sorrow translated into me knowing who I did not want to become. Personal and transgenerational trauma has, of course, been challenging. Yet it taught me the value of finding purpose, agency and owning myself. This understanding led me, at 17, to leave Italy, where I was born and raised, for the USA. I came back changed, wiser and knowing Italy was not for me.
Happiness as pleasure and purpose
My first idea of purpose was to become a diplomat or humanitarian worker. At 19, I relocated to London to study International Relations and Social Policy and Development. My enrollment in Paul Dolan’s Happiness, Behaviour and Public Policy class at the LSE was pivotal. He changed my life and taught me that happiness is made by pleasure and purpose. What you spend the most time doing in a day must balance both. According to Dolan, money doesn't buy happiness. Instead, health, living in a safe neighbourhood, nature, and not being married is more critical to happiness.
What I learned from Dolan stayed with me. I became a successful growth hacker in the London start-up scene. If you are wondering what a growth hacker is, it is a multi-disciplinary professional often behind start-ups' hyper-growth, tied to business development and marketing. I was good at it, yet I felt no purpose. I often felt empty, sad, paranoid and tired.
In my spare time, I ran a charity, Women for Rwanda. It all started as an action project during my BA. I pitched my final assignment to Aegis Trust, who loved the idea - yet they told me I needed to go to Rwanda to understand. Together with three other classmates, we started planning. Eight months later, two of us conducted ground research in Rwanda. The reality was different than we thought. Much rawer. It brought me plenty of joy and a sense of purpose. I later worked in the charity sector and became aware of its corruption and hypocrisy. The people around me did not mirror the morals that brought me to the profession. I knew this was not my final call. My search for personal purpose continued.
The moment of truth
I continued looking for the purpose (without much success), travelling, partying and changing numerous jobs.
Eight years ago, I joined a local yoga studio as a student. My first class was a strange experience. I felt torn: deep down, I was inspired to become a teacher, yet my mind was resisting and in denial: “This is not for me. Someone with my background should not be a yoga teacher”. I was battling with my prejudices, indoctrination and social expectations. After three years of practice, I decided to lead my classes and start teaching others. Eventually, I embarked on a 200-hour yoga teacher training, and something started changing: I realised I had been living a life without purpose, without joy.
I left growth hacking and started teaching lots of one-on-one yoga classes. I had a purpose and enjoyed teaching. The more I taught, the more I realised I did not know much. My clients, behind aches and bad posture, had an ocean of suppressed emotions, trauma and mental health challenges that my 200-hour yoga training could not address.
Then, at a workshop, I met Mark Stephens. He changed how I teach and introduced me to yoga therapy. Seeing him in action inspired me to look further into yoga therapy. I dove into a 2-year yoga therapy diploma to learn how to use yoga therapeutically. Yoga Therapy is a contemporary evolution of yoga, informed by physiotherapy, somatics, counselling, psychology, neuroscience, anatomy, physiology, pathology and holistic medicine. A client-centric and science-based therapy modality promoting self-care, functional breathing and movement, and behavioural change.
The Power of Emotions
The more I applied the yoga therapy framework and methodology, the more I became curious about why it worked. Why do people get better? Why does the breath help clients become aware of emotional blockages? Why does paying attention to sensations bring about transformation? Why, if we become aware of how the breath mirrors emotions, do these become less overwhelming? Can repressed emotions transform into disease? This awareness brought me closer to understanding my purpose: I am here to be a bridge and help people connect with their feelings.
Shortly after, I started looking into psychoneuroimmunology for answers. Fast forward 2 years, and here I am, finishing an MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and conducting clinical yoga research at King's College London, studying yoga's effects on attachment and mental health in pregnancy.
Succeeding in this endeavour showed me that I could be a bridge between Western and Eastern medicine. This realisation drives me and gives me pleasure and purpose. In yoga philosophy, this drive is called Dharma. Dharma is the reason you are here. As yoga has shown me, as I live my Dharma, I also guide my clients to find their Dharma to enjoy more fulfilling and happy lives.
The future, hopefully, will allow me to fulfill my Dharma. I want to bring Mind-Body Therapies, such as yoga, on the table of evidence base care. I hope to continue this journey as a PhD and beyond.