"Confidence is the basis for everything."

Amy Eller with Dr. Barb

Amy EllerAmy Eller, an award-winning environmental designer and founder of Triple Space Design, learned by experience the importance of aligning outer presentation with a strong structural foundation. As an integrative lifestyle consultant and creative director, she works across industries and disciplines to help others align health, bodies, spirit, style or expression, and environment.

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Barb: Welcome to the Fullness of Midlife, where we talk about health, love, life, and meaning. I’m Dr Barb DePree of MiddlesexMD. Today my guest is Amy Eller, founder of Triple Space Design. Amy has become known for her exceptional eye and her ability to make the average become extraordinary. She is a lifelong student of art, style, culture and health and she brings to her clients and work her unique experience and expertise.

Welcome Amy!

Amy: Thank you Dr. Barb, it’s a pleasure to be with you, always!

Barb: Good. I’m going to start out by saying, in reviewing your background—it’s amazing. The things you have done and accomplished are somewhat staggering. So, I’m just wondering how you ended up here and what the influences were that brought you to this place.

Amy: Well, I am a very, very lucky person… of the biggest influences in my life, it was travel. In the 1960s in New York City my mom was a single mom and that wasn’t really as popular back then as it is today. My nuclear family was my mother and her parents, and my mother worked. She worked in the design industry. She had a very open door and open table policy. All we ever did was talk about food all the time. In my family you could not get through a meal before you were talking about the next one. We’re Alsatian Jews, and so we’re just genetically predisposed to fixating on our food. So her table was always filled with all kinds of interesting and creative people of all shapes and sizes.

My grandfather believed that the best education he could give me was to show me as much of the world as possible so that I could experience that really we’re all the same. That we may speak a different language or eat different foods, but we are all human. So I learned to live in a judgment-free zone, and that has really stayed with me to this day.

Barb: So was it with your mother and—or your grandparents that you were able to travel and really see some of the world as a child or a teenager?

Amy: Yes, it was with my mother and most often my grandmother and grandfather would go in and out as his schedule allowed. It started when I was very young, when I was two years old we were traveling in and out of suitcases all the time.

Barb: And today, is travel still an important part of your work and life?

Amy: Yes, you know travel is really such an important part of who I am. I think I’m happiest when I’m a tourist. And I think that travel has really informed my perspective as a person and as a designer.

Barb: Well, that leads me to my next question about, whether or not or how design influences the world, and can it make it a better place?

Amy: Well, that’s a good one.

Yes, I think that design can make the world a better place. I do believe that we all live by design and to me, good design is a series of decisions made consciously based on the need, the circumstance, and the ease of use, so that we can accentuate the positive attributes and compensate for any weaknesses.

I believe that the human body is a miracle of design with all its strengths and all its flaws. So to me, design of it is every move of every day, and how we choose to eat, what we choose to eat. How we create our environment, how we present ourselves. Taking all those positive aspects and elements that work, along with the flaws, and that’s why I called my company Triple Space Design.

Barb: And how exactly did you arrive here professionally? Was it your mother’s background in fashion design that piqued your interest generally in the design world? What was some of your path in getting to where you are today?

Amy: Well, I was very fortunate to be exposed to art and design from a very, very early age. And encouraged to look and talk about what I saw, rather than being taught what I was supposed to see. And I really wanted to be a set designer. Growing up there was a set designer named Ming Cho Lee and I just wanted to be Ming Cho Lee. And I went to school I went to Bennington College  and I majored in set design.

And I got out and I was styling freelance jobs and got a call to work on a sales film for a building that was not yet built. And we did it, it was a series of twenty-four hour shoots and trying to mimic views and light and props and the whole thing. The film won many awards and at the end of that season, the developer called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to be his creative director.

I was so intimidated and I didn’t know what to do and I didn't know what to say, so I said no, I don’t know how to make anything permanent, I only know how to make a facade. He rattled off the list all of the benefits that would come along with the job and all the freedom and the exposure and the entree to so many different things. And all I could hear was my mother’s voice saying, “If you don’t take that job I’m coming in there,” and so I accepted the position and he was very kind. He said, “Honey, engineers are a dime a dozen. I need ideas and you have ideas.”

So for many years I worked on office buildings, restaurants, hotels, medical offices, anything that at the time was called a public space. My job was to humanize public space, and I had a blast!

Barb: Interesting, and you know, as a consumer and just moving through the world, I think it's hard to imagine how important public spaces are to our overall experience. And the next time I’m in a public space, I think I need to take closer note of the details and what’s there to make the place a kinder, gentler space.

Amy: Well, hopefully if we’ve done our job correctly, it will just be a part of your experience. And really, I was so fortunate because I was young and eager and it was everything from creating a building from the ground up, designing the uniforms for the staff, taking—he liked—and okay, there was a little sexual harassment thing there before I even knew what it was—but he preferred to have an all-female staff, because he said women cared more than men. So not only was it designing their uniforms, but very often it was training young women on how to dress and how to put it together. And creating the logos and designing the stationary and the signage.

It was at the time where all of a sudden smoking was restricted in areas. So we had talking ashtrays and my job—I got a phone call one day saying, “I want you to make an ashtray that sings,” and I said, “You’re kidding right?” And “No, I’m not kidding; you have three days.” And so I made ashtrays that sang. So that you were told, you know, it worked on a sensor basis and it could sense by heat if someone was near it. And it would sing and tell you to put out your cigarette, it wasn’t good for you. {laughter}

Barb: I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those.

Amy: Those are over now, because you’re not allowed to smoke in public places.

Barb: True. So, in my profession, obviously I’m speaking with women day in and day out. And because of being a health care provider, oftentimes they are presenting to me with their concerns and with things that aren’t going as well as they could. And I think that the focus sometimes isn’t on prevention and seeking optimal health. So, I’m interested, I know you’ve had some experience in aligning the mind/body/spirit, and how women can be more intentional about doing that. I’m wondering if you can give me some insights and thoughts about encouraging and communicating to women about being intentional and seeking more wholeness and engaging mind, body and spirit.

Amy: Sure, you know it’s my thing. I could talk about it for a really long time. And I think that I know for my own particular journey, that by the time I hit 50, I was so wrapped up in doing all the things that I thought were expected of me by society, by schools, by parents, teachers, partners, employees, employers, that I really… lost sight of what I wanted from myself. And I was very disconnected. I think that a part of that is natural.

There’s a part of life in our youth—exuberant and excited and we dive in without thinking about the consequences, because we don’t know what they are. We get to a point—I got to a point—where so many of those relationships no longer existed for me for so many reasons. And my body was changing once again, and I didn’t know how to react to the changes in my body, and all of these changes forced me to physically, emotionally, and spiritually to take a step back and think, uh oh. I don’t like the way I feel, I don’t like the way I look. I don’t have the energy I want, and why not?

I think that the biggest challenge for me, and it is the biggest challenge I see in so many of my friends, colleagues, and my clients, is: It’s very difficult, often, to ask for help. It is so important to find people to help you. I think that we all need to connect, particularly I know for this midlife time for my generation.

You know I grew up with a land line and a remote control, so the advent of the cyber society can take me to a place where I feel isolated. I see that as a trend. So, I think it’s important to reach out, I think it’s important to connect. I think whatever it is that you’re curious about—is it yoga? Is it meditation? Do you have a religious community? Do you want to take an art class? Do you want to learn to cook? Do you want to learn a new language? Do you want to travel? What is it you want to do and reach out and connect with people that are like-minded. I think that it is a time of life to release what no longer works, what takes from your energy—the drama and the chaos that I certainly found exciting in my twenties and thirties and even my forties, I just don’t physically have the energy for it. And I found for me, and it’s something that I suggest and work with my clients is to find a meditation practice.

When I say a meditation practice, it does not have to be sitting in the corner with your legs crossed and eyes closed waiting for God to find you. That doesn’t work for me, I have a problem sitting still. So I was taught, by a fantastic teacher named, Amy Gross, the art of walking meditation. Where I walk for a minimum of ten minutes and in that ten minutes I pay particular attention: How does it feel on my feet? How does it feel on my ankles? I do a whole body scan, and as I do that, I am able to identify areas where I am holding tension. I am able to release, even if it is only for ten minutes, those thoughts that might interfere with my ability to take a step back and breathe and relax. So that when I am finished with my walking meditation, I am feeling clearer, I’m feeling more energized and I’m feeling like I can make better decisions. And I can do that going from one appointment to the other.

Barb: You know that’s interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the concept of walking meditation, and when I speak with women and we speak about meditation almost always the immediate response is, “Well, I don’t really have time for that.” And in our effort to get women to move, I think it’s an interesting idea of incorporating meditation with movement. Although I think it’s great if you can accomplish it in the quiet and silence and stillness, but I think so many women think that if they can’t do that—they can’t do it. So this idea of doing it with movement is intriguing.

Amy: Well, trust me it works a lot better in the park or on the beach that it does trying to cross 42nd Street. But you know, for years I’ve studied with Joe Loizzo and the Institute of Contemplative Science. And it's based on Tibetan Buddhist studies, and for years I would sit on the floor on uncomfortable cushions in Tibet House and think, this is going right over my head. Or I would get so involved in the imagery of Tibetan Buddhism and the Gold Buddha that I couldn’t concentrate on what they were telling me, and after three years in a course of study, I still, I wasn’t finding Nirvana and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. And a friend suggested that I try this class with Amy Gross.

And I love Amy Gross. She was, for many years a very successful writer and editor. She was the woman that Oprah went to she launched her magazine, O and it wasn’t going. Amy turned it around and then one day she said, “You know, I don’t want to do this anymore.” She had been studying mindfulness meditation, which is the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, for many years, and she decided what she really wanted to do was teach it. And I took her class and I said, you know, I feel like I’m doing something wrong, and she immediately dispelled the notion that you could do it wrong.

And right there, I was so relieved that when I explained where my challenges were and she suggested how to be in touch with my body while in motion, I felt validated, I felt renewed, and I felt liberated. And so I think it's this, this idea of, especially if you’ve been working and raising families and doing all the things that women do to keep searching, If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right and when it feels right—you know.

And there’s a point where I’ve learned, and I know, we need to be in touch with our bodies. Our minds and our bodies must work together or we’re not going to accomplish the goals we’re going to set for ourselves. We don’t have that same ability of  sheer energy we did in our 20s and 30s, it’s just the way it is. I don’t like saying it, I don’t like accepting it, but it’s the truth.

Barb: Yeah, I think you just said it very well. So, in part of your coaching and consulting, are you also teaching some of those meditative techniques or encouraging or directing in that way?

Amy: Part of my private coaching practice, I have an extraordinary—here’s an old word—rolodex of practitioners and therapists and stylists that do a lot of work. And over the years through my own curiosity and study, I’ve learned a lot of techniques that I can share with my clients. Things like combat breath. Do you know about combat breath?

Barb: I do not!

Amy: Oh my God, Barb! This is such a great thing and I wish I had invented it, but I did not. It was actually invented by the military for SWAT team players, because as you can imagine, if you are a SWAT team member, you’re under so much pressure and stress and you have so much anxiety. That is a breathing technique that’s based on the count of four. So you breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold it for four, release it on four, and remain empty for four. And then do it four times. And what that does is it oxygenates your blood. It pulls down your psoas muscle, because when we are anxious we tend to breath in a very shallow fashion and we want to be able to take in a big deep breath. And the beauty of it is, you could do it in your car, you could do it at your desk, you can do it in line at the market, you can do it while getting your hair done—and it works.

So I have learned a lot of little tricks like combat breath over the years, and I’m very happy to share those, but part of my belief in my coaching practice, is that I want women to reach out, I want us to connect with other women, to find a source that works for you and share that with someone in your circle. I think we all need to connect, we all need to know each other and I think that’s what makes a happier life.

Barb: Again, you’ve said it so well. And I think women at this age and stage, sometimes have a hard time breaking out of some of their familiar patterns in life. And haven’t thought about the idea of taking an art class or cooking class, just because they’ve never done it before. It is an interesting time to encourage women to try to discover something new, so I think you’re encouraging in your words of direction. 

Amy: Thank you.

Barb: What about our media and culture’s focus on health and beauty? How would you advise women in their own quest of feeling beautiful, but yet in this context of expectations being put upon us?

Amy: You know, having grown up in the design industry, I really feel like, when we’re in our 20s and 30s and we’re all striving to look like whoever is on the cover now, I think part of the liberation of midlife is—acceptance. I think it’s part of learning what works for us. I see a lot of women who are still wearing the same hairstyle that they wore in college and now we’re in our 50s. And it’s highly likely it’s not going to work, and if you look in the mirror and you feel good, that’s really all that counts. But if you look in the mirror and you don’t feel your best then that sense of low self esteem is what you will manifest and what you will project.

So I think, I believe that everything is connected, and I think it’s really important to have your secret stash of professionals that help you. You like your friend’s hair? Go to her hairdresser. Get a good haircut, the world is a better place when you wake up and you like the look of your hair. Ask Michelle Obama {laughs} you know, she’ll tell ya.

Barb: I couldn’t agree more. You’re absolutely right.

Amy: Release what doesn’t work.

I know that back in the day, when I was running all over the place, every morning I’d suit up. I’d put on my Spanx and stockings, oh my god, and stilettos. And all kinds of stuff. The thought of doing that now, first of all, I don’t think I could reach to do it, and the thought of not being comfortable—I think so much about midlife is about ease and comfort and feeling good and looking good. It’s very, I think I sound like a bit of a broken record, but it starts with what you eat, I think it goes to how you live.

Are you choking back a smoothie and a bowl full of supplements in the morning before you head out the door? Or could you sit down at your table and eat a bowl with yogurt and berries and nuts on it, and if you’re by yourself could you Facetime a friend? And actually have a human connection with a person that you care about and cares about you? And put on clothes that make you feel good and that make you look good, so you go out that door and you feel confident. And whether you’re going out the door in the morning, we’ve become, when I was a slave to the industry, I ran out that door at seven o’clock in the morning and I didn't come back until eleven at night.

It’s different now. Now you go from the yoga mat to the meeting. So, how is it that you pick and choose your wardrobe, whatever your budget is, that is easy to use, that you feel like you look good. That you can wear if you don’t come back until late at night. Can you put a different lipstick in your purse and another pair of earrings and know that when you change your lip and your ear and maybe your shoes, maybe not, that you feel good, you know you look good, you feel good and you’re confident. I think confidence is the basis for everything. And I believe that your bed should be soft and comfortable, as you have shared with me, and you’re so right, “If you don’t sleep, nothing works.” So you should be sleeping on a soft, comfortable sheet and wake up and look at something beautiful.

I believe in the science of feng shui. And all those pictures of all those people, take them out of your bedroom; your bedroom should be your sanctuary where you dream. Where you’re intimate. Whether it’s intimate thoughts with yourself or a partner or a spouse or whoever it is. Really think about how you surround yourself, how you eat, how you live, and how you present yourself. Is that getting you where you want to go in your day? And if it’s not, then what’s working, and what’s not working; and where do you need help so you can get to where you want to be?

Barb: Well said! Details matter.

Amy: They do!

Barb: So, what is your one go-to health practice each day?

Amy: This is one of my favorites, you know, I learned this at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Positive Psychology, at a time where the proverbial you-know-what was hitting the fan. And I’ve been practicing this for ten years and I urge everyone to try it. I live in a state of gratitude, because every night in that moment after I’ve turned out the lights and the room is dark, I think of three positive things that have happened that day and how I’m grateful and why. Some days it’s more of a challenge than others. Some days it flows really easily and by incorporating that practice into my life, I have changed the set of my brain. So, I go to sleep where my last thought is something positive, and I believe that it affects my attitude when I wake up in the morning.

Barb: I have to say, just listening to you and your voice and your way of communicating... you share gratitude some way in the way you communicate.

Amy: Thank you. You know we get to this place in life. And we’ve all had our ups and our downs and by now, we all know nothing is promised. It's just a matter of learning, and I’ve had so much, I’m so fortunate to have access to wonderful professionals to help me on my path. I take that forward, because I think one of the things that I’ve noticed about being a woman at this age….

When I first started working, there was only one other woman who was an environmental designer in the Northeast. And when I met her, I was so excited, and I was so in awe of everything she had accomplished. She completely dismissed me.

So many women get to a place and they pull the ladder up behind them. I don’t want to be one of those women, I want to reach out. I want women my age to feel that there’s someone who’s been there too, and I want younger women, my goddaughters, their colleagues, their friends, to realize that it’s a process. For each one of us it’s different, but I believe that it’s about connection.

Barb: You’re right. Someone I spoke to recently talked about this as a second family and discovering other women to be your second family who you know can encourage you and support you and love you. But also be there to give you honest feedback and help you in your journey. I think we sometimes think about encouraging or mentoring those coming behind us, but I think some of the women beside us at our own age and stage, still have their own struggles and areas of discovery, so just being there for our peers is, I think a gift we can offer as well.

Amy: I think it is, I really do. And I love the way you say at this age and stage. Because for me where I’m standing on the track and there’s a freight train coming with the number six-zero on it, I really believe that there’s so much to learn, and the process of learning is so exciting and sharing that knowledge and hearing of other’s knowledge makes the journey so much more exciting.

Barb: In closing, a question I’d like to pose is: Where do you find richness at this stage in your  life? I feel like so much of this conversation you have shared that, but I wonder if you have any final thoughts around that, Amy?

Amy: You know, I think, I find, I make an effort, I make a conscious mindful effort to find it in everyday. Everybody has their thing, and with the diagnosis of breast cancer, I really am reminded that every day is a gift. I have so much to be grateful for, so I choose how much stimulus I can handle. I don’t watch the news any more after election day. I don’t read my newspaper, I read the Skimm and the broadsheet and the art section. Some days I just have to walk around chanting the Serenity Prayer in my head and just hoping it will all go away and eat chocolate.

Barb: I think that sounds like a good recipe to make life more rich as you would say. So, good! Well, thank you for your time today Amy. I appreciate what you have to offer, and I think you’ve triggered or opened some new ideas to some subtle changes and some not-so-subtle changes that we can make to align our mind, body, and spirit.

Amy: Oh, thank you Barb. Thank you for making the time for me today. I appreciate it and I so appreciate your guidance and advice when I’ve needed it—and it stays with me every day. 

Barb: Good. Thanks Amy. 

This podcast was produced by MiddlesexMD. MiddlesexMD.com is a resource for women’s sexual health in midlife and beyond.

 

 


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