“The only person who can open the door to inner truths and lead to the light is yourself.” – Baron Baptiste
I met Elena a few years ago while I was working on a United Nations Foundation campaign with Shot@Life. Like me, Elena was a travel blogger at the time and we were both involved in social good campaigns. We had stayed in touch over the years through a community of blogging friends and our paths crossed again two years back when Elena launched a new career as a life coach. She reached out to let me know what she was doing and invited a handful of friends to participate in her first group-based life coaching seminar. It was a six week program all done online and once a week our fantastic group of ten women came together for a live online talk with Elena leading us along the way through life coaching, meditation and yoga. It was a life-changing seminar for me which stirred many emotions I honestly didn’t know I’d had. I continued on after doing a summer session of 1:1 coaching sessions with Elena and have followed her work ever since. She is an incredibly inspiring woman who has reinvented her career three times, beat cancer at a very young age and is now working to help others like me chase their dreams. Naturally, I invited Elena to participle in my Inspiring Women series. Here is what she has to say.
Where did you grow up? What were some of your favorite activities during your childhood?
I grew up in Michigan after moving to the United States from Italy when I was 2 ½. My favorite activities were reading, playing teacher with my dolls, and playing tennis. Most of my summers (until I was in junior high) were spent in Italy with my grandparents, in Venice, at a beach, and in the mountains. I loved being at the beach and getting gelato with my paternal grandparents and being in the mountains and searching for “fragoline” (mini-strawberries) with my maternal grandparents.
What/Where did you study in college and what was your first career outside of school?
I studied International Affairs and Russian studies at George Washington University. My first job was as a study abroad liaison in Florence Italy until I returned to the U.S. and went to graduate school to pursue a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and eventually began a 12-year career as an elementary school teacher.
What shaped you into the woman you are today? Was there one defining moment?
Oh my goodness. I feel like there were several defining moments. Moving to Italy on my own after completing my undergraduate. Being diagnosed and then treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in my early 20’s. One failed engagement, the birth of my miracle baby daughter, my divorce, and then day I tried paragliding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Read about Elena’s experience here). If I had to choose one, it would probably be the process of watching my daughter become a young woman – she has always been one of my greatest teachers.
You are a cancer survivor and battled cancer at a young age? How did that impact your life? How did you get through the difficult times?
Yes, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1997 – I was 23. I went through six months of chemotherapy, spent 5 months in remission, and then recurred early in 1998 which led me to an autologus bone marrow transplant in June 1998. This diagnosis changed my entire life immediately. I’d gotten engaged just a week prior to my diagnosis, and being as young as we were – the treatment and implications for my future fertility were too much for us to endure. My ex-fiance moved out of our home the weekend of what should have been our wedding. In many ways, even though that relationship ended, I was exactly where I needed to be since it was his dad and family friend that helped usher me towards the best medical team possible and it was his family, in addition to mine that helped through that 18 month period. I ran my first marathon because my oncologist described lung damage that I might face (and did) as never being able to run a marathon. I met my first husband during that training, and had the daughter that I never should have been able to have because though we were able to choose a chemotherapy that had low impact on fertility for the first round, when it came time to transplant – all bets were off. So, as strange as it might sound – I am extremely grateful for cancer. Not that I’d choose it for myself, but I look back at that time with gratitude, because even the fact that my bone marrow transplant was autologus (meaning the cells came from me) offered the lesson that I’ve come to understand is part of my life’s purpose – to share that we have everything we need and crave already within us.
As far as getting through the difficult times…during those 18 months my mindset was focused solely on survival. I never really contemplated any other possibility, at least at the beginning. Optimism was my go-to. And while this absolutely helped me, I now realize that I missed out on a deeper level of understanding because I was so focused on the outcome of surviving, that I never gave myself permission to feel – to feel scared, to feel vulnerable. I’ve since learned that giving ourselves permission to feel the wholeness of an experience in the moment, rather than focusing more narrowly on the desired outcome.
One thing I truly admire about you is how you have successfully reinvented yourself and your career over the years. You’ve been an educator, a writer, and now you are a life coach. Tell me a little bit about each career: What were the highs and lows? What did you learn from each? How did you decided to change careers?
Oh my goodness. So much. The thing I wanted most in the world (other than being a mom) growing up was to be a teacher. When I was sick, this became even more important to me and I shocked my medical team by starting my graduate program in education just months after transplant. Teaching was one area of my life where I always felt confident. I loved encouraging my students to think independently, to brainstorm, and to be curious. I was always the teacher that loved back to school night – I came even more alive being able to speak to the group of parents and eventually found myself in the role of teacher leader creating both curriculum and leading staff development and workshops for our staff and the school district. My favorite subject to teach was writing and problem solving – and specifically in the generation of ideas. While I’ve never missed the bureaucracy that started to consume schools, I miss the relationships that I cultivated with students and families over the years.
Blogging came as a surprise for me. I started blogging for fun while I was still teaching full time. I made the decision to start on a day that I was home with my daughter (she probably had strep throat) and was in the midst of planning my second wedding. I decided that It was time to start telling the story. The story of being a cancer survivor and mom. As I explored the space, there was a momentum that built up within me as I found opportunities to travel and inspire others with stories of wellness, adventure, and social good and made the decision to leave teaching and focus solely on writing full time as a blogger and freelance writer. I’m so grateful for the 5+ years I spent blogging, meeting amazing individuals, and inspiring readers to live, do, and grow in distant lands and their own backyard. Interestingly, the lessons that I learned during this part of my life were about self-care. When I first started blogging full time, I felt a need to be everywhere online, at all times. Working for myself for the first time seemed to represent a need to hustle and what resulted was a sleep-deprived, sedentary version of myself. It was during a blogging trip to a wellness retreat where I refocused my habits, created a sleep routine, and took back my priorities. One of the highlights of that time period was creating a collaborative site called Just.Be.Enough where a team of inspiring women joined me to share the stories that remind us that we are more than enough, exactly as we are in the moment. Little did I know at the time that I’d stumbled on something that was truly at the heart of my bigger purpose in life.
My coaching work rose up from my writing and my days in education. I was trained as a coach while I was a teacher and had always had an affinity for asking questions and facilitating reflection. I’d thought about life coaching multiple times, but after leaving a career as a nationally board certified teacher, I was worried about how my engineer husband might respond to the desire for another pivot and the impact of that on our future. It turns out that coaching found me anyway, during a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming – where a combination of watching and then experiencing paragliding, and the healing hands of a massage therapist – I decided to take the plunge and find a coaching training program. Several years into this new part of my journey, I’m so fortunate to work with individuals and groups – and learn so much from every exchange. I never imagined that I’d be an entrepreneur – and though I’m not sure that is how I truly identify myself, I’ve had to learn what it means to say yes to myself rather than waiting for others to say yes to me.
It takes a lot of courage to change your life path. What helped you take the leap? What did you do when you had doubts about if you would succeed?
I suppose the fact that I’d done it once, leaving teaching for writing, helped me take the even bigger decision to dive deeply into coaching and entrepreneurship.
A few things crystalized for me to make this change: What I loved most about writing was the way that it could create and hold space for others to see themselves more clearly. Writing enabled me to bring stories, places, and experiences to life in a relatable way, perhaps even serving as inspiration for others to shift their mindset or feel empowered to try something new. At the core of my best pieces was a desire to highlight or share my own journey to discovering my inner lightbulb moments so that others could illuminate their own shine. Life coaching was something I’d dreamed of but never admitted it to anyone.
Paragliding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – soaring through the air with the birds and the clouds, noticing how it only took subtle movements to change direction – was the moment I knew for sure. It wasn’t about a destination as we flew. It was about noticing. It was about letting the wind move us and fully experiencing each shift with gratitude and wonder. By the time I reached the landing zone, I’d decided.
Doubts are a funny thing. I never really doubted that I was (am) an amazing coach. Doubts stemmed from fears of scarcity – of not meeting budget goals and the impact that my decisions were having on my family’s financial future. I was lucky to have a life and a family that allowed me to experiment – but the fear of whether this was a sustainable path was real. What helped me was to cultivate a mindset of abundance and gratitude – because the more I focused on what was going right, the more went right. Mindset and gratitude are powerful tools for countering fear and scarcity. Another thing that helped me was realizing that I’m not alone. I’ve had my own coach and organized a mastermind partnership with a friend and colleague as a way to stay focused on what is important and stay accountable.
Tell me more about your business now as a Life Coach. What is your week like? What do you love about it? What are some of your challenges?
Where to begin. :)I consider myself a guide. Sometimes I wear seemingly different hats (life coach, speaker, yoga teacher) – but at the core, my work is an invitation to unearth and attune to inner strength and wisdom. I inspire individuals and groups to get out of their own way, remove self-imposed obstacles and life fully in the NOW led by their inner wisdom.
Each week looks a bit different. The bulk of my work at the moment is with 1:1 clients, using virtual platforms for coaching sessions. I also teach 3 yoga classes each week and speak to groups or facilitate workshops or live events a few times per month. One of my favorite things is to organize and facilitate in-person retreats or experiences, which I’m working on building into a more consistent offering. And…as of this fall, I’ll be creating a weekly podcast (stay tuned!) for anyone that needs a nudge to get out of their own way and reconnect with their inner strength and wisdom.
It sounds cheesy, but I feel so incredibly grateful for what I do. I am continuously in awe of my clients and the way they show up for themselves and find that I receive so much energy when I work with groups. Hard days happen as life does, usually stemming from thoughts like “this won’t last” or “this isn’t sustainable.” I’ve learned that my triggers for getting in my own way show up by thinking too much about the future, or when expectations start to creep into my thinking. In those moments, I come back to my mindset practices. I tune in to play, gratitude, and ways to align myself with the way I want to feel – and what it would look like to feel that way – and then play the game of “acting as if” to make decisions from that place.
What are your words of advice and inspiration to someone who would like to take the leap of faith and try something new?
We can and will always find reasons not to do or try something. It is scary. It isn’t the right time. I don’t know enough. But the truth is that all those stories stem from past and future thinking, relying heavily on judgments of the past and expectations of the future. Living fully in the now happens when we get out of our way and give ourselves permission to be curious, and decide to be present with a mindset that cultivates determination and process rather than expectation and outcomes.
The other invitation I’d offer is that our inner strength and wisdom are our best teachers. Sometimes we need to get out of our way or slow down long enough to hear the inner knowing, but the thing I know for sure is that we have everything we need and crave within us. Even though you may not be able to see the other side, a life guided in the now, by inner strength and wisdom, is always the right path.
Fun facts: What are your favorite hobbies, foods, sports, and places to travel.
Travel is at the top of all my lists: anywhere where there is water and even better if there are mountains and water. Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico is my go-to sand vacation where I am ok with a week of reading and not much else. British Columbia and the Saguenay region of Quebec made an impression on my heart. Chilean Patagonia is a place I cannot wait to explore more. Istanbul, Turkey feels like a place I could live. I have several places I’ve always wanted to travel to – starting with Egypt which I’ve wanted to explore since I was in the 5th grade and had to write an essay in conjunction with a Kiwanis travel documentary series that I attended.
My favorite hobbies are yoga, stand up paddleboarding, hiking, and reading. I played tennis as a child and young adult and miss it. A few years ago I decided I wanted to learn to surf….what happened instead was that I learned to fall, epic belly flop style.
Elena Sonnino is a sought-after guide for living fully in the now to step into the spotlight of your life. As a life coach, speaker, and yoga teacher, her work is an invitation to unearth and attune to inner strength and wisdom. She inspires individuals and groups to remove self-imposed obstacles and explore the unexpected. ElenaSonnino.com