№001 — Allie Stark, Notes from a Wellness Warrior

The first in a series of interviews with the brightest, bravest, most unorthodox people in wellness.

Allie Stark is the first to admit it: she does not fit whatever idealistic projections we may have for her as a face of wellness.

I want to be very clear in saying that I still feel like I don’t know anything. I am a lifelong student committed to letting go of my attachments of what I think is “right” to what is true moment to moment. This is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process that requires a lot of trial and error and picking myself up after I’ve fallen down. So, all of this is to say, for anyone reading this, we’re in the same boat and you already have all of the answers you are seeking inside of you.

If one thing tipped you off to a path in wellness, what was it?

There were two major moments. One. I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona. When I was 14 years old I worked at a popular bakery that was located right next to a new yoga studio. Because we were neighbors, the bakery helped advertise for the yoga studio and any employee that worked at the bakery was allowed to take unlimited classes to help them spread the word. This was about five years before yoga had become a super hip industry. So, as any young teenager thinks, the word “free” got me interested.

I took my first yoga class, got hooked and started practicing regularly. I was never a very athletic kid, nor competitive, and yoga was something that was not only physically easy for me, but I noticed it made a massive difference in the way I thought about myself and the world around me—all at an age where it’s normal to feel lost, insecure, anxious, and overwhelmed. None of these feelings went away, per say, but my relationship to them changed.

When I was 16, two of my favorite teachers (who are also married) asked me to take their teacher training and offered it to me at half price because they knew I would be paying for it myself. This has always been a huge theme in my life — having older mentors that believed in me to step up into my highest self. I jumped at the opportunity and then proceeded to teach yoga from the ages of 17 to 30. To this day, even though I am not currently teaching or practicing, yoga has been the single most influential force in my life.

Two. When I was 18 years old I got into a car accident. The stress of the accident led me to get strep throat, which then led me to have my first flare of guttate psoriasis — a type of psoriasis that is specifically triggered by strep. I was covered in psoriasis from my neck down and about to go to college. My mom was always incredibly health-minded and had me work with a naturopathic doctor, change my diet, and the rest. I was pretty resistant to it at 18, but the years that proceeded this accident were filled with an onslaught of new autoimmune diagnoses. I didn’t really have the choice of being on the path of wellness — the path chose me. I had to learn to take really good care of myself in order to function on a day-to-day basis.

You have several autoimmune conditions — what have these experiences taught you?

I have celiac disease, Hashimoto’s disease, and Guttate psoriasis. All these of these diagnoses are considered autoimmune and they have been my wisest, most profound teachers.

People who have autoimmunity often look healthy even though they feel like shit. They’re mustering every last ounce of energy that they have to send an email, buy groceries, put their kids to bed at night. But you can’t really tell because you can’t see it. Living with autoimmunity has taught me to never trust that what is being shown, told, or taught to me at face value. It has forced me to stay curious. There’s always more, there’s always a story. I want to know what is really going on so that I can be more compassionate with myself and with others.

We are all imperfect, filled with flaws, and trying to do the best we can do (which is sometimes really mediocre!).

In my experience, the western medical model has a way of treating people with autoimmunity as if they’re crazy (making up symptoms that aren’t real), or giving a diagnostic label that puts people into sick boxes. I fell victim to this for a really long time. None of the doctors that I went to believed that what I was feeling was true AND when I was finally diagnosed, it was like I was supposed to wear a badge on my jacket that said “celiac — proceed with caution”.

What I’ve learned with age and time is that any symptom you feel to be true is true for you. Even if it’s psychosomatic. I’m not inside of your body and therefore, who am I to say what you’re experiencing or not experiencing?

What I’ve also learned from being put into a sickly person box is that I am boundless. A diagnosis is simply that — it’s a label given to you at a single moment in time. We all have bodies that are in a constant process of regeneration. If you believe you can heal, you can. When you upgrade your story, you upgrade your life. I very rarely get sick or have an autoimmune flare up anymore.

You’ve said being sick is what makes you good at your job? Tell me more.

In my opinion, being sick has allowed me to grow my muscles of empathy and authenticity. I don’t look at life like a Pollyanna with rose-colored glasses. I’m a realist that has experienced profound suffering. And I believe in magic.

I believe in the goodness of people. I believe in taking big risks and trusting that no matter what, the universe has my back. I believe that the truth will set me free even if it’s painful as hell. I believe in the profound healing power of love. These values and belief systems are the bedrock for my work. Whether I’m working one-on-one with a client or giving a keynote to 500 people — I show up in my realness, unafraid of what other people will think of me.

I don’t really believe in the way we as a culture have defined professionalism. Instead, I openly share with people what is going on in my life, whether that is feeling lost, struggling with money, or going through a breakup. I think people are often disarmed by how raw I am and how often I use the ‘F’ word as a leader in the wellness world. These are things that I believe make me good at what I do. (My mom was recently listening to my podcast and said I should experiment with not swearing as much. So, this one’s for you Mom!)

Who taught you the best lesson in self-care? What was it?

I started working with a therapist when I was 15. At the time I was struggling with body image issues, depression, and low self-esteem. This therapist and I worked together for a few years. Before I left for college, she handed me a $100 bill. She told me that this was a ritual that had been passed down through many generations of women and was meant to serve as a supportive reminder that if I ever needed help with something and I didn’t know who to turn to, I had a little bit of money and the inner-knowing that this lineage of women had my back.

As I got older, I realized that one of the things this money could have been used for was, should I ever need it, an abortion. I have been very fortunate in my life to not have to go through this experience, but it awakened this idea that I have complete control and choice over my body.

To me, this is the most powerful lesson in self-care you can be taught: my body is mine. It’s sacred and whole and I get to wake up every single day and choose how I want to treat it.

I do my best through my actions, words, thoughts, and feelings to treat myself with kindness. This woman is another example of a profound mentor in my life. We still keep in close contact and I have yet to find the woman that I get to pass $100 to.

First thing you do in the morning—what is it?

About a year ago I remember reading a blog post about some wellness guru’s morning ritual. She drank her homemade turmeric-sprouted-almond milk, did her ten sun salutations, washed her face in rose water, did a meta meditation for herself and everyone who was suffering in the world, and had the perfect, most healthy bowel movement all before 8am.

Maybe this is true for that guru. And I am well aware of how my judgment and possible shades of self comparison are coming out in this statement, but fact is, I just don’t buy it. Unless you come from ultimate privilege and don’t have the responsibility of making money, I believe that self-care and ritual come in small incremental moments.

I am deeply committed to getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night and when I wake up in the morning sometimes I drink tea. Sometimes I rush out the door to make it to a class at my gym. (This is probably the most common.) Sometimes I make a list of the priorities I need to accomplish that day.

My most constant thread is that I do everything in silence until 8 or 8:30 every morning. I don’t read the news. I don’t listen to music. I don’t call anyone on the phone.

And I try my hardest not to send emails or look at my phone. (I am successful with this one most of the time.) The morning is sacred and I deeply value the quiet stillness that comes when the world is waking up.

Last thing you do at night—what is it?

I do have a major night time ritual! I am big into skincare and I think my two favorite things to do at the end of a day—possibly in life—are wash my face and take off my bra. My skincare routine takes about 10 mins, you know: wash, spray, serum, lotion, tweeze, the whole shebang. Then I floss and brush my teeth, take a few supplements and excitedly get into bed.

I love bedtime. I love sleeping. Oh, and I also wear a bite plate because I grind my teeth and a retainer and a night mask. It’s totally insane and super sexy.

What’s your best advice for a mid-day pick-me-up?

Stand in the sun! Get away from your desk, off of the computer and go outside. Even five minutes can make all the difference in the world.

As a wellness coach, people probably have some pretty big expectations of you — how you live your life. Are you living as perfectly as we imagine?

Ha. The best example I can share is what happened a few weeks ago: I am currently going through a really painful breakup with a wonderful man that I was in partnership with for three years. Two weeks after the breakup we had a therapy session with our couple’s therapist to provide some closure for the relationship. The session was incredibly painful… filled with loss, sorrow, grief, anger — you name it.

When I made it back to my brother’s house (which is my temporary residence post break up), I curled into the fetal position on his couch and wailed, I mean straight up guttural, snot-filled crying for hours. It was so long that my brother and his wife would come into the room, sit with me for a bit with their hand on my back, and then leave me to get on with their night.

Finally, after I couldn’t cry anymore, I grabbed a spoon and a bottle of Nutella and crawled into bed. I woke up the next morning with a spoon on my chest, an open bottle of Nutella next to me, and swollen eyes. This time it happened with chocolate, I would be lying if I said it hasn’t happened with gluten free pizza before.

There is no such thing as perfect. And in my humble opinion, perfect is boring. Embrace your messiness. Embrace all of the dark stormy parts of yourself. Feel all of the feels. It’s the only way to find the magic.

A plant you depend on — is there one? And why?

There really isn’t! I used to be doped up on a bazillion supplements. Now I take a probiotic, Vitamin D, a multivitamin, drink tons of water, and eat lots of fruits and veggies. That’s about it.

What’s your best piece of advice to a lead a healthy, happy life?

Get weird. Be vulnerable. Feel your feelings. Break the rules. Let go of your attachments. Stop giving a shit about what anyone else thinks about you. Play often and in nature. Breathe. Sit in stillness. Embrace the mess. Give warm hugs. Talk to strangers. Cry often. Use your voice. Dance in your underwear. Laugh at yourself. Take big risks. Eat your vegetables. Drink lots of water. Move your body. Listen to your gut.

Trust the universe. Trust yourself.