Last Thursday we sat down with Natalia Petrzela, just after attending her intenSati class in New York’s West Village. We were already impressed by her awe-inspiring résumé – which includes scholar, writer, teacher and wellness activist – and our conversation left us even more motivated to share some of Natalia’s journey with you. Because in addition to her outstanding (even intimidating) accomplishments, Natalia is an exceptional human being and this is what immediately resonates upon meeting her.
From the moment Natalia introduced herself to our class at Equinox Fitness, her vibrant energy overtook the room. She shared a personal anecdote about body image that made us smile and asked our thoughts about the newly released more diverse edition of Barbies (suggesting we take it to the next level – why not have Ken with a vacuum cleaner?). Her warm and engaging presence was followed by an intenSati workout that lifted our spirits, challenged us physically and had us sweating our hearts out. And our post-class conversation only confirmed that Natalia Petrzela is a uniquely inspiring and brilliant woman who is all about authentic connection and positive change.
Writer + Wellness Pioneer. We could write a long piece dedicated solely to Natalia’s accomplishments; as a writer, she has contributed to prestigious publications like The New York Times, Slate and The Huffington Post, and she writes a bi-weekly fitness history column for Well + Good. Meanwhile, as a wellness activist, in 2011 she co-founded HealthClass 2.0, an experiential wellness education program that inspires young people in New York City public schools to eat, exercise and engage in new and exciting ways. (HealthClass 2.0 currently works with over 700 students annually to bridge a wellness gap in public school education by connecting university mentors with K-12 students.)
Historian + Author + Professor. As if this wasn’t enough, last year Natalia (who also goes by her full name, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela) released Classroom Wars, a highly acclaimed book in which she explores the roots of culture wars in American public schools, specifically amid heated battles over sexuality and bilingual education in California. (The book is currently available online here.) She is currently working on a book that combines her passions for history and wellness through exploring the development of wellness culture in America since the 1950s. (Sounds like a perfect fit for Natalia. Stay tuned on this!) Meanwhile, she is also assistant professor of history at The New School in Greenwich Village.
A native of Newton Massachusetts and the daughter of two literature professors, Natalia recalls having a peaceful and happy childhood. She was naturally drawn to academics and excelled in the classroom, receiving her undergraduate degree from Columbia University and later her PhD from Stanford University, before re-settling in Manhattan, where she currently lives with her husband and two children.
Natural Educator. “It wasn’t famous actors or athletes who fired my dreams about the future; it was the authors and teachers throughout my schooling who wowed me with their expertise and inspired me to develop my own. Participating in formal educational environments as both teacher and student so powerfully shaped my identity and interests that my first book, Classroom Wars, takes up a series of schoolhouse battles as a lens through which to understand our broader political culture.”
Early Passions. Aside from loving school, Natalia recalls living for writing and telling stories. She would read and re-read books so often that, as an 8-year-old she made this very sweet New Year’s resolution: ‘I promise to read slower so my parents don’t need to buy me so many books.’
Finding Fitness While Trying to Avoid It. One subject in which Natalia had no interest as a teenager was physical education. For some reason, she had internalized growing up that she simply wasn’t athletic. She was more or less okay with this notion because she was confident about her schoolwork and had many friends, but Natalia just didn’t think sports were for her and was in fact nervous about being being embarrassed in gym class. So when she discovered she could potentially opt out of taking gym at 17 years old, she went for it. Natalia’s high school reluctantly agreed to let her substitute PE with classes at the local JCC, where her family was a member. What she never would have guessed was that she would fall completely in love with her group exercise classes, especially step aerobics, very popular at the time (mid-1990s). Natalia began taking more and more classes and became addicted to the feeling of becoming stronger and more fit. Her passion for fitness continued to develop and eventually inspired her to pursue a ‘side career’ to accompany her academic one, as an intenSati Leader. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that sometimes when we least expect – and even reject – something, the universe may throw in a surprise.
intenSati (and dissertation writing). While working on her PhD dissertation back in New York, Natalia took a fitness class taught by Patricia Moreno, founder of the intenSati method, and found herself incredibly inspired. (For those who don’t know, intenSati is a life transforming workout which combines fitness, dance, martial arts, yoga, nutrition, meditation and spiritual practices’). Despite being instinctively turned off by this type of mind-body-soul movement, Patricia’s sincerity and ability to connect had a strong impact on Natalia, who was soon inspired to become certified in teaching intenSati. “While delving into dissertation writing, I sought diversion from the enormity of this task at the gym. Unexpectedly, I found there a mind-body class called intenSati that provided the same kind of purgative sweat that had sustained me for a decade, but which eschewed the rhetoric of body hatred for declarations of discipline, enthusiasm, and self-acceptance. Though skeptical of the personal empowerment industry from which this class drew much of its inspiration, I couldn’t deny how great I felt afterwards, that the dissertation was actually getting done, and that I was somehow less affected by the massive anxiety that has become synonymous with graduate school and job-searching in the humanities. By 2007, I was a certified intenSati leader, bracketing my days of writing with packed pre-dawn or evening classes I taught around New York City.”
Living Her Truth. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Natalia Petrzela enjoys teaching the work of philosopher John Dewey, who famously said, “To possess all the world of knowledge and lose one’s own self is as awful a fate in education as in religion. Our identities shape how we produce and consume knowledge; acknowledging and embracing these connections stand to make our scholarly and activist contributions more powerful and original and to enrich our inner lives.” These words surely resonate with Natalia, whose life and career demonstrate the truthfulness of Dewey’s words.
We applaud and thank Natalia Petrzela for her commitment to being a force of positive change. Through her writing, teaching (in college classrooms and fitness studios), her weekly podcasts (see here) and every day life – she inspires us to learn more, do more and to work at really being our best. We wish Natalia continued success and look forward to staying up-to-date on her latest – and to attending another kickass fitness class soon!
* Check out weekly Past Present Podcast on iTunes.
* Song For This Moment: “The Cure” By Lipstick Gypsy.
“The Making of a Celebrity Fitness Trainer”, article in Well + Good by Natalia Petrzela: http://goo.gl/o3jLR2