Michelle has been a student of yoga for over 10 years. A consistent practice allowed her to see life from an entirely new perspective, find stillness, be mindful, and let go of what wasn’t serving her. She is a Yoga Alliance Certified Teacher with additional trainings in Trauma-Informed Yoga. In the last 6 years, Michelle has had the honor of teaching powerful humans who have dealt with sexual assault, depression, addiction, PTSD, anxiety, sex trafficking, cancer, incarceration, and much more. She now serves on the Executive Board of Prison Yoga Chicago as the Director of Marketing and Development. Michelle is passionate about people and finds happiness in inspiring others to open their hearts, find contentment, and reach beyond their perceived limitations.
Soulivity Editor-in-Chief, Brian Westley Johnson, sat down with MIchelle for a few moments to ask her about her life, including discovering yoga at an early age, and one of her passions, the Chicago Prison Yoga Project.
BWJ: Thank you. Michelle! Thank you for being part of Soulivity. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
MB: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I’m so excited.
BWJ: Well, you’re an amazingly interesting person.
MB: I don’t know about that but thank you.
BWJ: Wow. So, tell me. I mean, let’s just jump right into this. You’ve been practicing yoga and teaching yoga for a long time now.
MB: I have. Yeah.
BWJ: How did you discover yoga?
MB: Well, I discovered yoga years ago when a friend of mine asked me to join her. And I remember it just kind of being 100 degrees in the room; and, the teacher saying words I really didn’t understand. When I left, yeah, I realized, for 90 minutes I had focused on nothing else than how I felt. I was completely present. So, yoga became a vehicle for me to find presence and live in the moment. And, I didn’t really expect to kind of experience that. But, I was hooked right away, and I didn’t know why I was hooked. Because I was like, “It’s really hot. And those postures are really hard. I just don’t understand.” But, I really loved how I felt after. So, I just continued to go.
BWJ: Well, how old were you then?
MB: I want to say I was about 16…15. Yeah. Yeah. I really enjoyed it. So, I won’t say that I had a consistent practice until [later]. I’d say, I hopped around to different studios around that time, but want to say by the time I was 18…19…is when I started practicing it consistently.
BWJ: So, is this what you mean by when you say that, “yoga helped sculpt the person that you are today?”
MB: Yeah. I guess I’ve been—when I first went to yoga, I didn’t expect to experience that ability to kind of heal the emotional traumas that were within my body and my mind. And, through a consistent practice, through yoga, it’s kind of allowed me to see life…and people…and my surroundings, from a new perspective. To be able to find that stillness, that mindfulness, and most importantly, really just letting go of things that weren’t serving me. Right?
BWJ: Wow. Letting go is really important. Right? I mean, it seems as though we carry with us…you’re talking about emotional trauma and drama. We kind of carry that with us even though we may think that we’ve kind of moved on to kind of carry it with us. So, you’re saying yoga helped you move through those times to kind of find yourself?
MB: Yeah. I think we all have so many layers to us; and, our experiences throughout our lives add even more and more layers. And, sometimes those layers can be barriers built around our heart. Sometimes, those can be just the noises that our mind creates. And yoga, for me, at least helps me strip back those layers kind of like an onion, right? Peel back those layers, so I can be who I truly am, at the end of the day. Yeah.
BWJ: Well, and I’m glad you said that because “being” is very important to you– I could tell, just by talking to you in the past, that is paramount that you have that level of internal integrity. What does “being authentic” entail for you?
MB: That’s such a great question. I would say it is more of a feeling than it is something that’s tangible. So I would say– those moments when you feel like you are aligned with everything that you say, the things that you communicate to yourself and to others, the goals that you set for yourself and how they relate to the actions that you actually take and the things that light you up, the things that make you so happy and that feeling of bliss. I feel like when you’re at inauthentic space, when you are completely cool, you want to be and who you set out to be, that’s authenticity to me. It’s like living and breathing your truth no matter what anybody else thinks, no matter what anybody else says, no matter what happened in your past, no matter what worries you have for your future. Living in your truth at that very moment, is what I feel authenticity is.
BWJ: Wow. Is this why you say– even this is on your website, where you talk about that yoga isn’t just a job for you, it’s who you are. Is that why you kind of say that too because yoga– this is now become an integral part of your core.
MB: Yes, completely, I say that, and thanks for checking out my web. I haven’t updated in a while [laughter].
BWJ: There’s some good stuff on there.
MB: Thank you. I need to add onto it. But, yeah, when I say that yoga is who I am– it’s not a job because I live and breathe that every day. And what I mean by that is–I think I may have mentioned this to you in the past–yoga was ever like a physical practice that was all meditative and mental. So really, you can sit in your bedroom and not move at all and you are doing yoga. As long as you’re being present, as long as you’re focusing on your breath, as long as you’re letting go of those things that don’t serve you, those things are yoga. And so, for me, I feel like it’s a constant practice that I do throughout my day when I’m at work at my desk and things are stressful. I have to remind myself to sit there and breathe for a second. So, little things like that is what I mean by yoga. But, who I am “now,” it’s not “what I do.” It’s me.
BWJ: Wow. That’s amazing. I think everyone really needs to find that one thing. I mean, it’s kind of what Soulivity is about, right? And, it may not just be one thing, but something that touches your core in that kind of way where–I’m sure that there’s days which, like all of us, you have challenges, and you want to move through that day the best way you can—and, here’s that thing that’s at your core that can remind you of who you really are, right?
BWJ: Now, you also teach–
MB: I teach.
BWJ: –which is important part. Yeah. So, which is an important part of this for you. As a teacher, what’s the most important thing for your students to learn?
MB: There’s so much for them to learn. But, at the end of the day, I’m just passionate about teaching my students to be able to find happiness by opening their hearts and finding contentment and kind of reaching beyond their perceived limitations, right? I want my students to be the highest version of themselves on and off their mat, and I want to help them get there as much as I can.
BWJ: Wow. Well, I want to take that too. I’ll steal that from you too. [laughing].
MB: You’re doing the same thing [laughter].
BWJ: Thank you. I definitely feel that way. Now, in terms of that kind of sentiment, in terms of people being the best that they can be on and off the mat, you’re doing some important work in Chicago with the Prison Yoga Project. Tell us a little bit about what that is and what it does for the inmates in Chicago.
MB: Yeah. So, I’m a part of a nonprofit called Prison Yoga Chicago. And, we’re actually run by all volunteers, and really our main mission is to bring yoga to Cook County Jail. I know, that’s so simple. That’s not our mission statement. But, at the core of it, that’s really– our main goal is to be able to provide that trauma-informed yoga to this community, so that they can utilize it as a different tool to go into these environments, and/or, go back into these environments…or even back into the world to be able to process things differently. And, in return, hopefully, react differently.
MB: And then, to kind of answer your second question as far as what that really does for this community is– I think a lot of the time the question that I get is, “Are you changing their behavior by teaching them yoga?” And I get that question so often. I don’t think the goal—or, at least, my goal is to change any of my students of who they are, beyond just kind of offering them a tool for self-care. So, for me, it’s offensive to me, at least to kind of suggest that someone who is incarcerated necessarily needs to change any more than any person that goes to my class in the studios – right? – Without knowing all the information and without really even considering the social context we live in. So, I guess that I do believe that yoga is a tool for them to process differently and react differently, and I always tell them peace is an inside job. No matter the environment you’re in, if you can control your mind, I think you can ultimately find freedom, and that’s really what I want for my students (at the jail) is to be in a space, where they’re so confined, to be able to find freedom just by utilizing their minds. Yeah.
BWJ: It’s funny because in many situations where I’ve talked to teachers and healers and practitioners of fitness in many different ways, maybe, mindfulness, physical activity, whatever, all of them consistently talk about this concept of you have a poverty of options – right? – where these people who find themselves in the situation where they are in prison, a lot of times, it’s because of circumstance and because there’s this belief that they can only make one or two decisions about something because that’s the way that’s the tool that they had. It feels like you’re offering them something different – right? – where you’re offering them, “Hey. Here’s another way of dealing with whatever is going on in your world.” Right? That there are other opportunities. There are other possibilities of how to live your life and that you’re giving them that bridge – right? – where they can go from a poverty of options to, at least, one option that’s more positive, that’s more—and, I don’t mean “positive,” in terms of society. Like you said, it’s an inside job. Positive, where they feel positive about their life, who they are, that we all make mistakes and we all can change. You all can change from the inside. So, applaud that. Applaud your work that you’re doing…
MB: I love how you explained that so eloquently. Yeah. 100%.
BWJ: I think what’s more eloquent is the actual work that you and the other volunteers are doing because it’s absolutely, positively necessary.
MB: I love that and appreciate (it).
BWJ: Yeah. I won’t go off into the tangent about how I feel about how we treat the incarcerated, but that’s a whole another thing.
BWJ: Last question for you. Your mantra, it seems, is, “to starve the ego and feed the soul.” What feeds your soul?
MB: That’s a really good question. Let’s think about it. There are so many things that feed my soul. Right? This may sound extremely cliché, but I love helping people. At the end of the day, for me, if I can utilize my experiences and my knowledge to help others in their transformation, in their growth, in whatever stage of life they’re in, if I can just help one little bit, that to me feeds my soul. So, the reason why I do what I do is because my students, they feed my soul. People may think that I’m–or they may applaud me to go into jails and teach and things like that–but really, I learn just as much from them, as I teach them. And, that really that feeds my soul being able to see that– to help people see that light at the end of the tunnel.
BWJ: Wow. Amazing. Michelle, thank you for your light. Thank you for the love that you give to all of us. And I appreciate you being on Soulivity today.
MB: Thank you, Brian. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. And thanks for doing all that you do in bringing the light into this loudspeaker to share with the rest of the world. So, I appreciate that.
About the author(s)
Brian Westley Johnson
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