Back at Mahopac High School in the late-1980s, one of my absolute favorite people was a girl named Cathy Iannotta.
Cathy and I were in a handful of classes together, and she was just … different. On the one hand, all the standard popular-kid checkmarks could apply. Cathy was a cheerleader. Cathy was beloved. Cathy was smart. Cathy was voted “Best Looking” by the senior class.
And yet, something about her hovered above the fray. Even at an age burdened by zits and gossip and cliques, she maintained a certain glow (aka: kindness) that separated her from the crowd. Hell, a few minutes ago I dug up the ol’ yearbook to see what Cathy wrote on the pages of one of Mahopac High’s least-interesting graduates, and I found this:
Again—Cathy Iannotta was just different.
Through the years, we’ve kept in touch via social media. And what has really caught my eye is her career. Or, really, her walking away from a career. Cathy was a high-level project manager at multiple firms until (poof!) she was no longer a high-level project manager at multiple firms. She just gave it all up to raise her children and become a yoga instructor. Man, I love that.
After seeing her crazy, pretzel-like yoga poses week after week and month after month, I decided it was time to bring Cathy here, to Quazland, to talk yoga and life and why one surrenders a high-power existence for tranquility and zen.
Cathryn Vincentz—strike a pose. You’re Quaz No. 330 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So we attended high school together, and we’ve been Facebook pals for a while. And you’re being Quazed, in large part, because of something you did that I love. In short, after more than 15 years of devoting yourself to corporate America (project management), you said, “Screw it” and became a Yoga instructor. I love this. Love, love, love. And I wonder—why? How? And how scary was the leap?
CATHRYN VINCENTZ: You make it sound so rebellious! I did leave corporate America almost eight years ago and I am now a stay-at-home mom and yoga instructor. It wasn’t an abrupt “take this job and shove it” type of thing, though. It evolved. The construction project I was on (Goldman Sachs HQ in Battery Park City) was coming to a close. My company was downsizing and my entire department was eventually let go. The timing was perfect, though, because I was pregnant with my first daughter and was ready to make a decision on what to do about staying home with her versus continuing to work corporate. So the leap from corporate America actually came about so that I could stay home with her. I had always wanted to get certified to teach yoga and this was a perfect opportunity, although it happened a little later.
That leap leaving corporate wasn’t scary. It was a conscious choice. My husband Brian and I had made the decision that one of us was going to stay home when we had kids. He was perfectly willing to be Mr. Mom, while I continued climbing the corporate ladder. We decided though, it was more practical for me to stay home being that I was breast-feeding and had been let go. I feel very fortunate that we were able to do this. Being at home definitely was a huge transition, mentally and emotionally. Not only becoming a first-time mother, but also coping with the idea that I wasn’t a bread-winner anymore. Also, the way in which my day was structured changed dramatically. No more 9-5! It was now 24/7. My schedule, priorities and concerns completely shifted. My general role as a person changed so quickly and that was definitely something that took time to accept. (My yoga practice of course helped me deal with all of this.) The first year was so exciting and everything was so new, I didn’t even miss my corporate job.
Yoga, which was always part of my life, started to take a bigger role. I had been practicing for many years at that point and really wanted to get certified to teach. This was the perfect opportunity. After the birth of my second daughter and with the encouragement and complete support of my husband, I completed my 200-hour teacher training. This is when I felt like my life could take an amazing personal turn. When I completed my yoga certification, I started teaching a few times weekly and it has been so fulfilling. It’s an honor, really, to share this ancient practice and introduce it to people and help guide them. I love the people I meet and the chance to be able to share what means so much to me. I teach and speak from the heart and hopefully that resonates.
J.P.: In your bio you write that 15 years of Yoga has given you “valuable space to be able to work on finding acceptance, loving-kindness and compassion for herself and others.” I have no idea what that means. Please explain …
C.V.: I was honestly shocked to read that you have no idea what this means! This is what I work on continually, literally on a daily basis. I think we are all so busy with our jobs, roles, practical matters in life that we forego time for ourselves to regroup and observe. We don’t give ourselves any space to just be—no agenda, no responsibilities, no roles to play. The practice of yoga gives me this space: the opportunity to allow what is to just be. Even for just a moment in my day. It is within this space where I can allow myself to find perspective, calm my active mind, be silent, just move and breathe with no expectation or destination. This is when I can start to work on finding that acceptance, love, kindness for myself and others.
This doesn’t have to happen in a yoga class, either. It can happen anywhere and any time in your life. Let me back up and explain that yoga is not just made up of just the poses that you find in a yoga class. Yoga, as defined by Patanjali (an ancient sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras) is an eightfold path. As written so eloquently in Yoga Journal, these eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature. This path includes asana (physical poses), breath work, concentration, meditation and more. I use all of these to help me find space and freedom.
So when I take the time to do physical practice (move through poses or asanas), it gives me the chance to honestly look at myself and observe my tendencies, my meaning. What do I do and how do I feel when I am challenged or when I am at ease? Am I telling myself a story about how I think things “should be”? Am I labeling things as “good” or “bad”? Am I judging myself? Others? It is an opportunity to sit with what is and allow it to be. An opportunity to breathe and connect what my mind and body are saying to each other. I can ask myself questions and not need to know the answers. I can be as I am. No need to change a thing, be a role or keep up. I can just move and breathe, connect and observe. As I practice, I try to find kindness and acceptance of myself—without judgment (I tend to be hard on myself or push too much, so I observe this carefully). All of this translates “off the mat” and into my daily life. When different types of situations arise, I remember my observations “on the mat” and try to apply what I have learned. As my practice has developed, I also try to apply this non-judgment, acceptance and love towards others around me, whether I know them or not.
J.P.: You teach Yoga. I don’t get Yoga. I’m 45, I’m stiff, I have a shitty lower back and whenever I try it I’m uncomfortable and unhappy. What am I missing?
C.V.: I don’t think you are missing anything, Jeff. You’ve observed how you felt. Sit with it. Let it be. Hopefully you won’t let those fleeting feelings keep you from trying again. See above.
I am happy to explain how I came to yoga and why I am staying with it for life. I discovered yoga when I was living in Northern California’s wine country (a mini-break from corporate life, but still a construction job). Someone told me about a yoga class that was a really good workout. Since I was doing a lot of weight lifting at the time, I thought yoga would be a good way to complement that and challenge my body in a new way. That person was right. It changed my body and helped me with all other sports I was involved in; I became physically stronger, more flexible, my endurance and balance improved … I could go on and on. What I didn’t know is that it would change my mind, too. Yoga changed my perspective on how I dealt with everything in my life (and still does, as it is a continual practice).
I started listening more closely to what my instructor (a great guy named Alexei Brown) was really teaching. Yes, there were the poses, but there was an underlying message in every class. A message to connect your mind to your body through your breath. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings and try not to let them stay, as we are much bigger than just our thoughts and feelings. Pay attention, without judgment, without attachment and acknowledge what is going on in your mind and body. Observe how you respond to your thoughts and emotions with your body. (For example: does your breath change? How? Do you tense up? If so, where? Do you relax more? If so, how?) This connection of mind and body will teach you about yourself if you are willing to listen. It will deepen your human experience, inwardly and outwardly. It did and does—every day of my life. I will continue this practice as long as I can breathe.
J.P.: Cathy, this is not the reason I brought you here, but I have to ask this because, well, I have to ask this. So I might as well go with it: In 2005 you worked as a construction manager for the Trump Organization. Specifically, your focus was a high-rise tower in Chicago. Soooo … what was it like? What was the company like? Did you ever deal with our 45th? What can you tell me?
C.V.: Ah, The Trump Organization! Yes, I wanted to come back to New York City after living in California and was looking for a job to get me back. This is exactly how it happened. I called my mom (like I always do for advice!) and we simply started looking into different real estate developers and job opportunities . She said, “Trump is a developer, why don’t you call them?” Sure, I thought, just call Trump and you’ll get a job. But, hey, I figured what could I lose? So I cold called. Coincidentally, there was an ad out in Columbia University’s newspaper (I didn’t go there) looking for a construction manager. The woman who answered the phone quickly put me in touch with one of the vice presidents. I sent my resume and viola, I was on a plane to New York City to interview with Mr. Trump himself. So me, in my new suit, went to meet with Mr. Trump and got the job on the spot. Honestly, in those few moments in my interview, he was professional, funny and personable as we talked about Lehigh (I went there, and so did his brother) and my work experience. I didn’t deal too much with 45 after that, an occasional meeting here and there. In those cases, I found him to be opposite of my original impression: brash, intimidating and egotistical. My first day, I was introduced to Don Trump, Jr. as he would be my direct report. I started working both in New York City and Chicago. I did meet some smart, hard-working, professional people and had a great experience working with some of the team and the contractors. From my observations, the company was run like a small, close-knit family business. I was surprised that I did not find a corporate structure, company standards, strict titles (I chose my own) and roles, etc. Things were seemingly done at the whim of Mr. Trump. Those who were close to Trump stayed very close. Those, like me, who weren’t, didn’t. Without going into the gory details as it would take up this entire Quaz, let’s suffice it to say that my philosophy on how to deal with contractors was not in line with theirs. For one, I believe in structure, standards and paying fairly for completed work. Those felt like struggles. For another, I believe in open communication and respect. I felt anxious and on edge with almost every encounter. I chose to leave after less than one year.
J.P.: You’re probably gonna cringe at this, but back at Mahopac High School you were one of the “It” girls. Pretty, smart, cheerleader, etc. And from afar, from my geek-students newspaper perch, it was sorta like, “The untouchable Cathy Iannotta.” I don’t mean you were a jerk—you weren’t at all. But you were popular and cool. And I love asking this, and I ask you: Who were you really? Like, surface be damned, were you confident? Scared? Comfortable? Awkward? Do you look back warmly at high school? With dread? Both? Neither?
C.V.: So funny! I loved high school. I look back warmly, for sure. I was smart, but had to study for it. I loved skiing, cheerleading and the senior play. I did feel like I was popular and had a lot of friends. I can tell you though that I did not feel like one of the “It” girls. I felt as if I was just on the outskirts. I loved them all (and still do, keeping in touch mostly through social media) and I felt like they liked me and were my friends but I didn’t go to all the parties and had only a few really close friends that I hung out with. I was pretty confident in myself and comfortable in high school, although I had my insecurities like anyone else. I felt like I got a lot of positive feedback from my peers and teachers, which was important at that time, so that helped with my confidence. All in all I look back with great memories and have life-long best friends.
J.P.: Your resume is thick and fascinating, and one non-Trump gig jumps out. From 2001-2005, you built custom-designed estates in California’s wine country. It was seven projects, $22 million in construction. So—consider me the idiot that I am in this area. What does that mean? Entail? Is it exciting? Dull?
C.V.: Thanks, Jeff. California was such an amazing work experience. I went to graduate school for both architecture and construction management. I started working for a real estate developer in New York City, but thought maybe it was time for a change. I had always loved design and smaller scale projects were always attractive to me. A friend of my mom’s was building a home in Sonoma County, California and reached out to me because their builder was looking for a project manager. I don’t remember why they thought of me in New York City, but it sounded so appealing: building houses in wine country! I called, they were interested and I took a flight out to Cali to explore. I decided to take the leap and spent four years out there as a construction project manager building homes for some wonderful families. Basically, I coordinated with these families and their architects to help put together a budget and schedule to build their home. I saw the project through from the ground up; working with the entire team. It was fun to see these amazing homes get built and help people realize their dream of building them. I lived in Healdsburg, a beautiful wine country town and spent a lot of time touring the wineries and enjoying the laid-back lifestyle. After a few years though, I craved the New York City life and missed my family and that is when I moved back and started working for Trump.
J.P.: You post a good number of Yoga photos on Instagram, and it’s you doing these crazy poses that I couldn’t master were there a gun to my head. So how does one get to that point? That skill level? And, in Yoga, are you working toward poses? Like, do you see a pose someone does and make it a goal?
C.V.: Yes, I love posting photos! It’s fun and I love the Instagram community of yogis. It is inspirational to read their stories and perspectives. They are all so positive and supportive, too. But, no! There is no goal in yoga. No destination. Yoga is a practice. It is a continual journey in which we are always exploring ourselves—both physically and emotionally. It allows us to calm our mind and connect to our body. Asana practice serves as a way to go deeper into learning about ourselves and finding more peace in our lives as a whole. Now having said that, the more you practice, the more your body develops strength, flexibility, balance and the more you can explore the poses and deepen those as well. It is a lot of fun to “get into” a challenging pose that you’ve been working on, but certainly not a goal. Yoga is a great way to get physical, play and laugh at yourself, post pictures and see others having fun, too. Get upside down, you’ll feel it!
J.P.: You did a lot of work with Goldman Sachs—a corporation synonymous with “success” for some, “greed” for others. What says you? What’s your experience?
C.V.: Yes, I spent about five years working with the Goldman Sachs real estate and development team. I worked for Tishman Speyer, a real estate management and development company that was hired as the “owner’s representative” for Goldman Sachs. As part of this amazing team, I met the sharpest, most hard working, conscientious, goal oriented people I have ever come across. I found that the atmosphere at Goldman was intense and high level. They have high expectations and don’t accept anything less than the best. Most of the people I worked with were smart, engaging and supportive. I’m sure there were the big egos and the negatives, but being a step back and having perspective now, those encounters are far from my memory.
J.P.: Am I wrong in thinking that Yoga gives you a Zen I might lack? What I mean is—from Trump to climate change to the drought out here, I feel like I’m always JUMPING AROUND LIKE THIS!?!!?!? And … you … seem … very … chill. And I love that. And aspire to that.
C.V.: You are not lacking anything. You are complete just the way you are. You have an active, busy mind, which is completely normal as most people do! Yoga gives you the chance to observe your busy mind, your feelings and emotions allowing them to be. It provides tools to help you calm your mind and your feelings of “JUMPING AROUND LIKE THIS!?!!?!?” It makes me think of this Buddhist monk named Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who talks about something he calls the “monkey mind.” I love the way he describes our mind as being like a crazy monkey who just can’t sit still. It’s very funny and so true. You may not think of Buddhists as being funny, but they really are. Anyway, according to Rinpoche, our mind is like a crazy monkey who just chatters on and on and does not stop moving. We typically do two things to tame it. One, we fight with it to stop and/or two, we try to ignore it and push it away. In each case, the monkey just keeps at us, chattering. The way to calm the monkey mind is to make friends with it. Acknowledge it exists. Then, give your mind a job to do to train it when it gets crazy. Tell your mind to pay attention to your breath. As thoughts come in crazy or not, as they will, simply bring your mind’s attention back to your inhale and exhale. You can use this technique anywhere at any time and with practice, your thoughts become quieter and quieter and you are able to calm the monkey mind. Breath awareness (called pranayama), by the way, is one of yoga’s eight limbs.
I am not more Zen than you. I do have the tool of yoga, which includes meditation (another one of yoga’s eight limbs) to help me calm my monkey mind.
J.P.: I hate, hate, hate meetings. I can’t stress that enough—loathe. In your career, I’m sure you’ve been through tons. You’ve seen it all I’m guessing. So what are corporate meetings always so awful? And how did you survive them?
C.V.: Yes, I’ve been through tons. I guess I am so far removed from those meetings that the thought of them doesn’t evoke the same sort of hatred that you feel. Some were better and more necessary than others. However, I always felt like many of them were way too long, included way too many people who didn’t need to be there, included way too many people who just loved to hear themselves speak and there were way too many of them in the day. You survive them because you have to! They’re just part of the process with most jobs. Like I tell my kids, sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t want to do. That’s life. Try to find the positive.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CATHRYN VINCENTZ:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): grilled eggplant, Tony Toni Toné, ISO-14001 Environmental System, Noah Syndergaard, diner mints, Huntington Beach, Sue DeMarzo, the designated hitter, Bernie Sanders, Poughkeepsie: Huntington Beach, grilled eggplant, diner mints, Bernie Sanders, Poughkeepsie, Tony Toni Toné, Sue DeMarzo, ISO-14001 Environmental System, the designated hitter, Noah Syndergaard (needed Google for him!)
• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: 1. Lake Mahopac is lovely – take a boat out or go for a swim; 2. In the fall there are so many great farms to go apple picking – I have such great memories of this as a child and now taking my kids, too; 3. Check out all of the new restaurants (well, new to me as I just moved back up here); 4. Putnam Yoga is close by and you can take my yoga class; 5. In just a short drive away get an ice cream at King Kone.
• How comfortable are you with our mortality, on a scale of 1 to 100?: I’ve accepted it, but not so sure about “comfortable” so I’m going to say 75.
• One question you would ask Tim Pigott-Smith were he here right now?: Who are you? (OK, so I googled him, too. Sorry, Tim, I don’t pay much attention to actors, athletes or celebrities, but Google says you were great.)
• Your husband has the greatest beard of all time. What’s the key?: I know, totally! I guess the key is not to trim it too much?
• Best advice you’ve ever received?: This too shall pass.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. I’ve felt some bad turbulence and I always just think there is no way the plane will go down.
• I’m guessing you’ve worn many of those construction hats in your day. Do you, like, sanitize them first? Look for loose hairs? Or just plop it on?: Yep! That is one of the first questions people used to ask me: do you wear a hard hat? Funny. I still have my first one from my first job in Boston. When you’re on a job, you get your own so no worries about anyone else’s loose hairs! But if I am on another job site, honestly, I just plop it on.
• Five all-time favorite words?: love, peace, namaste, om, literally (my 4-year old uses this word all the time and it makes me laugh!)
• You live near King Kone. I love King Kone. Three best flavors?: I do, too! King Kone is all about the soft serve. So, chocolate, vanilla and chocolate/vanilla swirl.