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The Fullness of Midlife

"Through yoga you can really come into a different place of calm."

"Through yoga you can really come into a different place of calm."

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

Michelle Shaw with Dr. Barb

Michelle ShawMichelle Shaw is a former coach and high school English teacher who came to yoga instruction at midlife. She holds Yoga Alliance Certification through Kia Miller and Tommy Rosen in Radiant Body Yoga. Radiant Body Yoga is a holistic approach that combines physical posture, breath work, kriyas, meditation, and chanting to increase strength, build vitality, and create mental clarity. She is also a certified Kripalu Yoga in the Schools instructor, for a curriculum developed in partnership with Harvard Medical School, and is interested in bringing the benefits of yoga into the educational system and more.

Dr. Barb: Today I’m speaking with Michelle Shaw, a certified yoga instructor. Michelle came into yoga after being a coach and a high school English teacher. Her certification is in Radiant Body Yoga through Yoga Alliance, and in Kripalu Yoga in the schools. Welcome Michelle.

Michelle: Thanks Barb. Thanks for the opportunity.

Dr. Barb: I’m so glad you joined us. My audience is interested in this topic, and I’ll be eager to hear more about your journey and your instruction in yoga. My understanding is that you came to become a yoga instructor somewhat later in your professional career – a second career so to speak – and I’m curious as to how you found your way into this.

Michelle: Great question. Yes, it’s true. I started out as a high school English teacher when I graduated from college, and I taught in several different states in public schools for a number of years. During that time I was also a coach. I was a diver through high school and college, so I was also coaching a lot of diving. I transitioned out of that and, for a while, wasn’t sure what my next step was going to be, and did a variety of things. During this time – in about 2004 – I took my very first yoga class. For a long time, I felt sort of selfish about my practice with yoga, if that makes some sense. I enjoyed being in the back of the room; I enjoyed being led; I enjoyed that time being my time; and I really had no desire to teach yoga. And then something really shifted for me.

I was introduced to whom I now consider my primary teacher. Her name is Kia Miller and she is based in California. She has started Radiant Body Yoga. I found Kia through an online yoga subscription called Yoga Glow. I took a class from Kia online, and really I never looked back. I began practicing with Kia online every day, and it just really became something so important to me in my life and in my transition. And then something clicked: that the power I felt yoga had in my own personal life, my own personal transformation was something that I really hoped I could share with others. That’s what led me to do my initial yoga teacher training, which is a $200 program with Kia Miller. So that didn’t happen until 2016. At the time, I was 46 years old and feeling a little daunted about entering into such a new career path, but I’m so thankful that that’s the choice I made.

Dr. Barb: Did she offer a unique approach to yoga? What was it about her and her teaching that resonated to you in such a unique way?

Michelle: Yeah, Kia – she does have a pretty interesting and, I would say, rather unique approach. She has a very diverse background in yoga. She has studied Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini – so several different lineages of yoga. Whether those words mean things to people or not, is not really what’s relevant. But what’s exciting about Kia’s approach, is she’s sort of has taken the best of all of those different styles of practices – what she found really works in her body and in her spirit, and made an amalgamation. So that the power of all of those different practices could come together into what she now calls Radiant Body Yoga.

I think no longer being 20 [laughs], and not having a gymnast’s body or anything like that, the style that she offers is something that you can continue to do as you age. And it’s really for every body. It’s not just for someone who can touch their toes, or come into some extreme “pretzeling” position. It’s really something that’s accessible because for me, and I think for so many others, yoga goes well beyond just the physical postures that we enjoy doing during a practice.

Dr. Barb: That’s great to hear because, for those of us who are not particularly flexible, and not of that young age, and feel somewhat intimidated by what yoga might demand of us, it’s really exciting to know that there is a role for yoga for anyone, no matter where they are in their physical ability.

Michelle: I think it’s so true. And I think that it is something that’s often missed, especially in western culture. We here in the West tend to have really gravitated toward specificality of yoga, you know these postures, so the videos you might see, the pictures you might see might be people doing something that seems absolutely inaccessible. However, just coming into the body, taking a moment to come into stillness, finding your breath – these kinds of things are wonderful openings into yoga practice. So it really can be for everyone, and the benefits – yes, I do enjoy the physical stretching, I do enjoy gaining physical strength – but those of sort of the icing on the cake for me. The real work comes through what it does more internally for me. I kind of think of yoga as a “work-in” rather than a “work-out,” if that makes sense. [laughs]

Dr. Barb: Oh, I like that term! That’s a great way to think about it.

Along with movement, breath, and meditation you also include listening and storytelling when you describe your approach. I’m wondering if your former careers in English teacher influences that. Tell me a little bit how you’ve… what your intention is or how you accomplish that.

Michelle: Yeah, thanks for the question. It’s certainly a blend of my love of my previous career, teaching English. I think the two come together really naturally because there’s so many stories that each of us have told ourselves for maybe a year, maybe our entire lives, and we begin to come into a belief system maybe within our own body and in our own mind. I love that yoga, through breath and movement and meditation, we can access different awareness points of our own selves. And then either by listening and/or by some creative writing and storytelling and sharing, we can really delve deeper. I like to do this type of work in a way that you do not have to be an expert, either in writing or in yoga, but that you can just come to it from a place of curiosity.

I’m particularly excited this summer to be offering a workshop at the Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck [Michigan]. They do a program called Art on the Meadow, and I will be doing an all-day Saturday workshop in June that’s focused on finding your breath and igniting your voice. It’s about this combination of getting into the body, getting into the breath, and getting into the stories that we have created for ourselves, and maybe changing some of that patterning, maybe moving forward into a more healthy way, maybe relieving something that no longer serves. So that combination is really exciting for me, and taps into all the different levels of education that I’ve had along the way.

Dr. Barb: That’s fascinating. I’ve recently had other guests doing podcasts who interestingly have talked about that very same idea of kind of the stories we have accumulated through our own life’s journeys, and they may no longer serve us. And it might be time to create a new story. So it’s interesting to me that you would help individuals discover that and incorporate yoga.

Through yoga practice you can really come into a different place of calm.Michelle: Yeah, this thing is just a natural segue because through yoga practice you can really come into a different place of calm. You can really come into a new place of focus or clarity, and I think with that place of living at your more heart-centered self – I mean our mind… our saying goes, “the mind is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master.” [laughs] You know, we tend to really not think any new thoughts. We’re either spinning about things from the past or worrying about things in the future. I think yoga is a wonderful way to come in to greater presence so that we’re not on that hamster wheel of a narrative loop, and can come to a greater place of knowing our own self. And then really, truly – it’s one of my greatest gifts that I continue to receive from yoga – is being able to move forward with clarity for my own self. Not being pulled so much by all the other things that are in the world around, and we certainly have a lot in the world around us right now that wants to distract. I think that’s super exciting.

Well, it's great that that no longer has to be your story.One of my teachers said to me along the way – I was having a rough practice and having a rough emotional time, and it was really that narrative loop that was playing in my own head, and the negative self-talk that was coming with that, so I spoke with one of my teachers – and he said to me, “Well, it’s great that that no longer has to be your story.” Sometimes it takes a little bit of effort to come into awareness and then figure out how you can move forward in a little different way. I think the combination of yoga and writing – and listening – are a wonderful, potent combination to achieve some of this growth.

Dr. Barb: Michelle, I’ve had the privilege of being one of your students recently, and I think hearing you talk about this it’s really helpful for me to have a better understanding of how you approach your class. Because it often starts with some words of – I’m going to say wisdom, but that sounds a little trite – but just some direction for our thought-life and intention for the day and beyond.

We happened to do a 6:30 class, which I always appreciate. A lot of people, I think, think that’s maybe too early, but it’s such a great way to set a cadence for that day with your calming influence and your words of encouragement and direction. Hearing you talk more about it makes it bigger to me now that I understand your approach.

There's a little less effort and a little more ease.Michelle: Nice, thank you. Yes, 6:30 a.m. is early for many folks, but my teacher is very committed to that particular time of day, that early morning, that time kind of between dream and being very into your day. I think it’s exactly what you said. It sets the tone and establishes that and grounds you in that for the rest of the day. I really believe when I do a practice that time of day, my day does flow differently. There’s a little less effort and a little more ease. Whenever we can tip the scale to that balance, I’m all for it. [laughs]

Dr. Barb: Absolutely! I know you’ve traveled to India and I believe it was related to your yoga and yoga practice? Am I right about that?

Michelle: You are! I spent most of the month of March in 2017 in India. I was there with my teacher, Kia Miller. There were actually 40 of us from ten different countries, which was really exciting in and of itself. I am continuing my teacher training with her. With Kia, if you are going to complete your 500-hour training with her, you will most likely end up taking a trip to India. She really believes in that immersion into sort of the birthplace of yoga, if you will, and having that culture and that lineage and that lifestyle around us.

Dr. Barb: So how did your time in India influence how you teach and practice back here in the U.S.?

Michelle: Oh wow! I love that question! Hmmm, I think having the opportunity to be steeped in a place… India to me felt like a place where sort of the spirit is sitting in the front seat. It’s something that’s very normal to talk about – spirit and energy-self and awareness – it’s absolutely familiar territory for people, so to have an opportunity to be immersed in that really gave me some more courage to reach out to people in that way.

Breathwork is the area where we can lift the veils or masks we all wear.Yes, again I love the physical postures of yoga, and I do even teach one class that is quite vigorous, and I do have an affinity for that. But being able to have a deeper appreciation for some of the other limbs of yoga – there are eight different parts of what we call the limbs of yoga – so just knowing more about that. And also, 60 hours of my training in India were on what’s called Prana and Pranayama which is primarily about breathwork. I think breathwork is so overlooked by so many in what we are doing in yoga here. There are many great practitioners of Pranayama here but in general in classes, it’s typically just a very small part, if at all. I think the breathwork sometimes is where the true work is really happening. It’s considered the area where we can lift the veils or the masks that we all wear to go out and function and cope in the world.

So Pranayama breathwork can really get to the core very quickly. That’s a style of practice that, again, can be for any body. You can be sitting in a chair, you could be on your couch, you could sit up in bed and do three minutes of amazing breathwork, and that alone would change your day! [laughs] So that’s part of the big influence for me.

Dr. Barb: Interesting. I know your website and to have heard you talk about focusing being movement, breath, and meditation, and I guess when I think about those three, breath seems pretty insignificant to me. You know it’s one of those things that comes naturally. We don’t even think about it. It happens. But to actually put some intention and teaching around breath is a little fascinating to me.

Michelle: Yeah, speaking to you as a physician, the one way we have access into the autonomic nervous system – the only way we have direct access – is through the breath. I kind of think of it as our secret portal into being able to regulate. We can’t maybe change ourselves – if our eyes dilate or other things that happen automatically within the nervous system – but through the breath, we can shift all things in the nervous system. We can come out of that fight of flight, fade to freeze, we can come into rest and digest, pause and plan. So we can send all these signals for calm just by accessing the breath. That’s just by coming into a nice deep and even expansive breath. And then there are many other tools that we can use.

Yes, breath happens automatically. We do it – I don’t know what the number is anymore; 72,000 times a day or something [laughs] automatically without even thinking about it. But we are beginning to understand more and more how much stress and tension we hold. Maybe we’re not even moving our belly while we breathe. Maybe we’ve breathing way up high in our chest because we’re holding all this in the body. So just by taking some time to come into the breath is such a gateway to future things of goodness!

Dr. Barb: Maybe this connects: I know you’ve offered yoga in schools and workplaces. And I think it’s your premise that yoga can really help reduce stress. I assume that’s part of the focus in introducing it into some of those other, I’ll just say, less traditional places than a yoga studio. So how is it you have expanded practice into some of those places?

Michelle: It’s true. I really believe there’s a number of people in our world who are never going to walk into a yoga studio, for whatever reason, and they are valid reasons. But I believe yoga can benefit everyone, so one of my approaches has been to take yoga into other places. I’ve been fortunate to attend some training at the Kripalu Institute, which is the largest yoga institute in this country. It’s out in Massachusetts. I did a program there on emersion that’s specifically for yoga in schools. It’s a curriculum. It’s a very specific curriculum that has been designed with Harvard Medical School to study the benefits. And the three main goals are stress reduction, self-awareness, and self-regulation. The curriculum was specifically designed initially for teenagers, so at the high school level. It’s very exciting to me that there’s another women who went to train with me, and she’s offering the Yoga in Schools curriculum to all freshmen students at Saugatuck [Michigan] High School in their physical education program.

Stress-reduction, self-awareness, self-regulation... I can't imagine who who couldn't use a little.My aspect of it right now is I’m offering classes for the teachers in both the high school/middle school building, and in the elementary school building. So that the teachers can have these same benefits at the end of their workday. We have yoga right in the libraries in their building, and it’s a really exciting training that has been proven – this curriculum has proven to be successful, not only with teenagers, but with returning veterans who might be experiencing PTSD, for rape crisis victims, for CEOs, for first responders, anyone who could benefit from stress reduction, self-awareness, and self-regulation – which I can’t imagine any of us who couldn’t use a little of all three of those. So this specific curriculum is very exciting, and I’m happy it’s part of the community that I live in. Stay tuned for potential growth to neighboring school districts that we hope to expand to next year.

Dr. Barb: Wow! That is amazing! And as a health care provider in the area, it seems to me like this should be a must in everyone’s encounter at some point, whether at school or workplace. Because when you think about how we’ve complicated our lives with busyness and intrusion on all of our devices, this knowledge and ability to disconnect, and like you said, “Not a workout, but a ‘work-in’” feels like it should be a critical path for all of us to have that as a go-to, and have the skills and knowledge of how it might benefit us.

Michelle: I do think now more than ever it is needed. It’s exciting when you work with people and you begin to see the benefits. So yes, I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment. I just think it’s wonderful when I or anyone else in yoga’s path can offer people some tools. That’s what I think of them. Just things in your toolkit. So that when life does become stressful or has something happen, you are able to help yourself in that moment, whether it’s through breath, a moment of calm, a moment of stillness or some physical movement, that we are all just a bit better equipped to handle all that life delivers to us.

Dr. Barb: That’s a great way of stating it. Michelle, where do you find richness at that stage of life?

Anywhere I can reset and reconnect with myself and others... that's where the magic is for me.Michelle: [laughs] Well, definitely through yoga as I’m sure you might guess. I practice every single day and, frankly I can’t imagine a day without it anymore. I notice a difference in myself immediately. So certainly on the mat. But also, definitely at my age through time with friends and family, time in nature, anywhere where I can kind of reset and reconnect with myself and with others and be part of community, that’s where the magic is for me.

Dr. Barb: Ah. That’s sweet. Great, thank you for sharing that. I also wondered if you would share your website so if anybody wanted to hear or see a little more about what you do, your website has some lovely, lovely settings of you performing some yoga poses in really dramatic environmental settings. So I think everybody should take the time to access your website. If you would share that with the listeners, I would appreciate that.

Michelle: Sure, thanks. My website is I’ve had the opportunity to be lucky to have some good people with cameras near me in some good places, so thank you for that.

I have classes that are available to the public that people can just walk in and give it a try. And everyone is welcome! It’s so approachable and so accessible. If anyone wants to come join me, I’d love to see you on the mat!

Dr. Barb: Thank you Michelle. I would attest to that personally. Thank you for your time and sharing your journey with the listeners.

Michelle: Thank you so much Barb. It’s been nice chatting with you today. I appreciate it. And I’ll see you on the mat soon.

Dr. Barb: Thanks.




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