Sarah Petroski has felt deeply connected to nature her entire life. Growing up in Pennsylvania, she had free reign to run and play on her family’s land; her closest friend was more than a mile away, and trekking there was just another way this strong, sleek trainer and yogi immersed herself in movement outside.
After high school, without a clear picture of her future, she went to the University of Utah, filling her days with snowboarding alongside a major in parks and recreations, studying everything from animal tracking to wilderness survival. But after racking up six concussions snowboarding, Petroski started Googling how to heal her cognitive function. Meditation popped up, and Petroski followed that first nugget toward her current work.
When a job offer from ESPN in NYC emerged after a fortuitous networking experience, Petroski followed that, too. She first worked as a talent coordinator, and later became a producer. After moving to another production company, though, she noticed her thoughts often drifted to her daily workout, or what good food she’d eat. Eventually, a fitness professional reminded her of what she’d always been connected to: movement.
Now, after years of gathering multiple certifications and studying various modalities, Petroski spends her time helping clients dig in to her dual passions of personal training and Kundalini yoga. Read on to hear more about her approach’s unique connection to nature and how she finds balance between the two areas.
SBS: How did you make the switch to becoming a trainer?
Sarah Petroski: I was working a desk job, and I felt like a prisoner inside my own body. My cells were screaming to move. I felt this inertia, like I was wasting away. I wanted structure for my own workouts, so I hired a trainer for a year. He could see how complacent I was with my job, and he noted I wasn’t passionate about producing. He told me I should be a trainer: I had so much awareness. He said he barely had to do anything in our sessions. And that was it. So around 2006 or 2007, I went to the Swedish Institute, and later, I also enrolled in a yoga teacher training at Equinox for my first round of yoga training. I also got my NCSF training certification.
SBS: You’ve gained such a wide range of certifications. Which ones are still prominent in your work?
SP: I’ve been through a massive continuing education parade, and what stuck is personal strength training. That’s my 101: functional fitness.
I also love Thai massage: I don’t do it that much in one-on-ones, but it’s a great modality. It puts the muscle in a stretch, using what’s called marma points. I use that normally before a workout because it’s done with clothes, so it doesn’t work as well once the client is sweaty. Doing 10 to 15 minutes of Thai massage is a great way to get to know someone’s body, their kinesthetic awareness, the tone of the muscles and range of motion.
SBS: What’s your style as a personal trainer?
SP: I incorporate everything. I do Kundalini yoga with all my personal training clients, even if it’s only three minutes of breath work to get them energized and in their bodies before we work out. Usually I leave it to that in a noisy gym, even though I would love to meditate with all my clients.
I also look for what makes the most sense for where this person is in their life and what season it is of their life and year. Our bodies respond differently energetically to different seasons of year. In winter people are hanging on to some sadness, and they’re eating more because of the holidays. So that’s a good time to do kidney sets, which addresses fear and density held in system. That’s also a time to work on hypertrophy because you’re sedentary and eating a lot; that’s a good time to put on muscle.
With my female clients, I’ll look at their menstrual cycle, even using apps to track that. During the week they’re bleeding, I’ll keep it slow and mellow. In total, I combine elements of nature, the individual’s esoteric nature and physical sport science.
SBS: What should clients look for in a personal trainer?
SP: It’s great to have mastery in something specific, but sometimes with that level of mastery, people can become dogmatic. So if you’re bringing ideas, questions or discussing your preference for SoulCycle or whatever with a trainer and they shame you, that’s a red flag. An unwillingness to work with you as an individual human is a problem.
I also don’t buy into the tests and quantitative tracking of progress so much. It’s more qualitative. You’re interacting with another human, and you’re going to be more vulnerable with this person than anyone other than your therapist! You need to be able to be comfortable talking about your period or anything that interests you, and those things need to be counted as part of the process. It should always be a conversation, not them shutting you down.
Also, a lot of trainers will hate me for this, but anyone who tries to sell you any particular type of diet or supplement…that’s also a red flag!
SBS: How would you describe Kundalini yoga?
SP: It’s meant to work fast, changing your energy and state quickly. It’s supposed to tap into the latent, creative energy everyone has. It can lay dormant, but through meditation, breathing, stretching and ecstatic dance, it can be accessed. You don't have to be a monk in a cave practicing for years.
Every single class, for the most part, should have an element of physical exercise, pranayama breath work and meditation. That trifecta is a little jewel. It’s interval training for your nervous system, plus relaxation. We’ll work really hard with something intensely physical for a period of time, from three to 20 minutes. You heat up all the nerves, ask your nervous system to push past your comfort zone…and then deeply relax. Then usually, you’ll come out of it again and do more work!
SBS: What are your tips for those new to Kundalini?
SP: When you walk in, it will look different than other yoga classes. Many people will be wearing white, but you don’t have to. It’s suggested that instructors wear white as part of color therapy: White reflects all the colors, or in other terms, all the energies, so the white will bounce energy back like a mirror. That extends the aura and it’s also a protection for the teacher.
Also, the teacher is up on the platform and doesn't come down or touch students. There are no hands-on adjustments: It’s a meditation even when you’re moving, so as soon as someone touches you, it would make you jump out of it. Students can see the teacher demonstrating everything, and the instructor can watch everyone. So the class might look a little funny to you, but these subtle specifics help it to move fast, using color, sound and breath.
SBS: What value lies in cross training between strength and Kundalini for you and for your clients?
SP: Strength training has always been my first love, and it works the best, in my opinion. You’re getting so much circulation, working the whole body and adding external stress through weights. It gets your heart rate up, and you have to focus, so it becomes meditation in itself.
Then, Kundalini, which is best practiced in a group, tunes you into group vibration and community. Sometimes in Crossfit or classes, it can be competitive. That’s not as high vibration or as positive as when you get to come together as a group, singing as a unit and meditating outside the physical plane. That elevates your consciousness, which all comes back to nature: You’re meditating on the elements and earth.
Strength training is grounded on this earth, and it helps you get in your body. Then you go to Kundalini, and it takes you up out of the heaviness of the daily grind, calming your nervous system.
But if you’re just doing Kundalini and not strength training there’s a slang term: ‘kind of looney.’ If you’re not grounding, you can be pretty spaced out. It was said martial arts should be practiced (for grounding) with Kundalini, and the strength training has the same effect.
Sarah’s NYC Faves:
Healthy Restaurant: Inday
Splurge Restaurant: Vinegar Hill House
Nightlife: House of Yes
Calming Activity: Anytime I can catch the sunset and go toward the water.
Fun Activity: I like to get out of New York and travel somewhere like Montauk or Vermont. Also, my partner got me into singing lessons.
Yoga Studio: Katonah yoga
Fitness Studio: The Fort NYC
Athleticwear: Athleta and Sweaty Betty
Sarah’s Sticky Be Mantra: Be bold. That’s what I'm stepping into the most right now. We’re meant to be here to shine our light. There’s no use in keeping your light small.
The Best, Zaniest Part of Being Sarah: My dance moves! I can’t not move. If there’s a beat, I have to dance. Working out, I’ll do a dead lift set and then bounce and dance in between.