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Instructor Spotlight: Michelle H.

What brought you to yoga?

When I was growing up, gymnastics was the center of my life for a long time. With that sport comes the potential to break your body, so I had a lot of injuries, the worst being a back injury that forced me to have to quit. I first injured my back at 13, and when I was 15, the doctors told me I needed to stop. They wanted to do surgery on my back to fuse my spine. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted for my life, so somebody told me to try yoga. I really gravitated towards it. It was destiny.

What made you want to continue and ultimately teach?

I continued doing yoga not only because it made me feel better in terms of my back, but also because it allowed me to bring gymnastics into my life in a healthy, noncompetitive way. I was finally doing that type of movement just for me, not for anyone else or for the sake of competing. And then I saw a flier at Vibe about teacher training and thought it sounded like a good way to spend my summer. I thought I would just take the training for myself, but towards the end of training, I got a fire lit under me and applied to teach.

What do you think is next for you in terms of yoga?

Eventually, I want to bring my yoga into a clinical or medical setting. I’ve always wanted to work in cardiac or cancer rehab, utilizing my Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. I’d like to bring yoga to the medical world for people who might be offered just medication or generic treatments. I want to expose people to yoga because it helped me when all those other things did not.

How would you describe your yoga style?

My initial approach is to make it safe. I want to move safely and apply the science from my educational background. When I practice on my own, I get a little carried away. The gymnast in me comes out, and I end up having a lot of fun, but then I wake up the next day and have to crawl to the bathroom. So I’d say my style is very flowy. I really like when one movement can feed into another without putting much thought into it. My body just kind of does it, and that’s where the meditation comes in for me.

What’s something unexpected that you’ve found through yoga?

I think a lot of people come to yoga because they are looking for a way to treat either a physical injury or maybe something internally, and I sometimes pick up on those things when I’m teaching. I sometimes pick up on people’s anxieties, and the more I get to know a practitioner, the more I can tell the fluctuations in their moods. I wasn’t prepared to have to process that, to have to sit not only with my pain but also with other people’s. It’s empathy. I guess I always knew that there was a huge layer of empathy in yoga, but being exposed to it as a teacher forced me to confront it and utilize it in different areas of my life, not just in the yoga studio.

How does that empathy show up in other areas of your life?

When I encounter a stranger who is rude to me. Yoga creates an awareness when you’re around others so that you don’t just react based on your emotions. You think about where someone else’s emotions stem from. It’s made me less of an asshole.

How would you describe the purpose of yoga?

From my experience and from watching others, I think that it helps clarify your personal path. It makes you feel a little more comforted in the trajectory of your life. For example, when I started yoga, I felt like my whole life was ripping at the seams because I’d been doing gymnastics since I was two, and it was taken away from me in a way. Over time, by just moving my body and not being in my head so much, yoga helped me accept where I was going in life and have more trust. I think you develop that in the practice itself. You can’t anticipate what’s coming next. You’ve got to trust that the teacher is leading you to a safe place. And everyone’s practice is unique, individual.  

Do you have a specific mantra or focus you like to work with?

My personal practice these days is all about radical acceptance and trust. Instead of getting flustered when things don’t work out the way I expected or wanted, I stop myself in my tracks and say, “That’s the way it is. Just do something else. Go clean out your car. Move on. Just keep living life.” For me, radical acceptance means accepting what you can’t change rather than thinking about all the ways things could have worked out differently.

What’s something you want people to know about yoga?

It’s not just a physical practice. You can practice your yoga at your day job, when you’re talking to kids, when you’re approaching a stranger, when you’re going on a walk with your dog. It shows up off the mat, and it may take a while to realize that. The soul nuggets that teachers will drop while you’re practicing, or that philosophical layer, that’s what the real practice is off of the mat. It’s a classroom. You learn the material on the mat, but you actually practice it when you’re in the other avenues of your life.

What do you want people to take away from your classes?

First, I want people to feel free to be their own authentic selves in my classes. When I first started teaching, I thought that class had to go a certain way, and then I broke away from that and started to be more myself. Sometimes I can be a little goofy and awkward. That’s just who I am in my real life. I used to try to mask that, but now I’m just like “screw it.” So, I like it when someone giggles in class or responds to something I say or just chimes in when they need.  Second, I want people to get an experience from my classes. I like bringing the ambiance to it. You know when you walk into a spa and feel a little easier. They’ve got the music going, and you can hear trickling water, and the lights are dimmed. You’re only focusing on the sensations that create positivity and leaving some of those negative sensations out.

What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far as a yoga teacher?

I can think of two experiences that really solidified my belief that what I’m doing is right in terms of my job. One of them was a day when I taught chair yoga at the Meadowood Retirement Community and only one man showed up. When I sat down to start teaching him, he said, “I want to let you know that I just put my wife into hospice this morning,” and he broke into tears. He wanted to stay for the class even though he was the only person there, and that was extremely rewarding because I got to teach someone who really needed space that day. The other time was a couple years ago. I used to teach a group of elementary school teachers every Wednesday in their school’s gym. I could tell mid-week that they were all so stressed out. How could you not be? Being able to watch a shift happen from stress to calm, that’s the most rewarding thing.

Would you share a fun Michelle fact with us?

I have a dog with one blue eye, and I’m very into the metaphysical and supernatural. Someone once told me that a dog with two different colored eyes is a spirit dog and that they can see both heaven and earth at the same time. I believe that every day when I look at my dog Blue.

Any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Yes, one more thing about yoga—I used to show up on my mat only on the days when I was feeling good. I’ve learned that the days when you’re not feeling so good are the one’s when you really need yoga the most. But that’s also when showing up is the hardest. Know that you’re going to feel better afterwards, and that yoga will help in other areas of your life too.