Michelle Deane has her masters in psychology and worked as a therapist before beginning yoga teacher training in 2011. She began the training as a way to deepen her own practice and, despite being a self-proclaimed introvert, felt inspired to give teaching a try. We met at Yoga Works in Walnut Creek, where we bonded over both having torn hamstrings. It is common among yoga instructors because of yoga’s emphasis on flexibility over strength in the poses. Instructors are also commonly hyper-mobile, thus more prone to injury. I enjoyed Michelle class, and asked her for an interview because her class stood out as a meditative experience rather than a physical practice. She admits to this being the reason she began studying yoga: to study yoga philosophy.
Michelle: “There wasn’t much opportunity for me to learn yoga philosophy and the mental aspects of meditation in a conventional yoga class. I wanted to study those elements of the practice in a deeper way. The classes I was taking publicly weren’t providing meditation, but they included mindfulness. When I picture meditation, I am thinking of someone lying or sitting down to then focus on the content of their mind.
“When you think of the classes mostly taught, they focus on alignment of the physical body, first and foremost. At the beginning and the end, there may be a guided meditation, but it is never anything longer than two minutes. The yoga asana practice– the postures– is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. So when people go into asansas, which are the yoga classes you and I think about, and they say they are practicing yoga, they are really only practicing one piece of the eight limbs: the asanas.”
The other 7 limbs include meditation, pranayama (breath practice), pratyahara (control or turning off the sense,), dharana (turning off the sense and focusing on what comes up internally). dhyana (devotion or something bigger than you—a greater good), samadhi (the divine). And there are yoga’s moral codes: the yamas and niyamas.
Michelle: “I knew I couldn’t get deeper in my meditation without going to this teacher training. And my biggest goal with yoga was gaining control over my mind’s attention. When you lack control over your attention, it is usually experienced as anxiety or stress. And when you are not paying attention to anything, you are numbing out sensation and experiencing depression. Yoga brings us somewhere in the middle of this overstimulated and non-stimulated experience of life.”
Sydney: “You can bring things into clarity and be in the present without letting time get in the way. It’s called intruding thoughts in the popularized version, but it is more than that. Thoughts hold less weight because you can put yourself in the third-person perspective.”
Michelle: “I would go so far as to say knowing which thoughts are your triggers and learning not to place your thoughts on those triggers– unless you are trying to solve problems.”
Sydney: “Like placing your attention to thought?”
Window Of Tolerance
Michelle: “Ideally, it is noticing the content of a thought and choosing whether it is a valuable thing to be thinking about or if it is a waste of energy. As a therapist, that was something I wanted to help my clients find–and myself– to understand this window of tolerance. It is good to have a little bit of mental stress to keep your mind growing, moving, and active. But once you go too far into higher levels of stress, people’s abilities get stunted because they are outside of their window of tolerance.
“One of the goals of practice is to find a way back to being within your window of tolerance. The other part is to expand the window so that you feel like you can find your centering sooner, but you can also tolerate being outside of your window tolerance more easily when you don’t have the choice to avoid stress.”
Sydney: “I think your psychology background adds a unique twist to this.”
Psychology + Yoga
Michelle: “I think it adds a unique way in which I approach yoga because I have a certain approach to understanding the mind and attention. There’s an instructor and teacher trainer, Mynx Inatsugu, who has been my biggest influence around meditation, attention, and mindfulness for nearly ten years. She allows space to observe the sensory and internal experience rather than quickly sequencing the poses. She allows enough time to experience things mentally and emotionally. And the sequencing is done in a deliberate way to slow the mind down.
“Right now, the most popular thing in yoga is vinyasa, which for most Westerners is a faster-paced, more demanding physical practice, and sometimes you even add heat to that. This is fine if that’s what initially gets people to yoga. But at some point, ideally, you will take out music and stop paying attention to anyone but yourself. You will take out self-judgment and self-appreciation while practicing. Not judging yourself for not being able to go into the splits. And not congratulating yourself for going into a handstand either. It is simply to be here in the body you have today. Here is where you are This is where you need to be in order to get into a meditative state.
“And I do not think people have this in mind when they go to yoga. They initially go to condition the body. I think a lot of people come because they know it is going to help them mentally, but they don’t know how to. And the great thing about yoga is that you don’t need to know. You just trust it and see where it takes you. I remember when I was first teaching and training, some of the things people said seemed so out there and bizarre. Now, I can wrap my mind around these words.”
Sydney: “I wanted to go back to the concept of observing v doing. I think right now we live in a very do-do-do culture. And I noticed in college that my friends couldn’t sit still– and neither could I. We always had to be doing something and bragging about being really tired and working all the time. In San Francisco, this tendency seems exacerbated. If I try to find a yoga class on Class Pass, I can’t find classes that are anything else but Core Power, C2 vinyasa flows. I can’t go to those classes. It doesn’t vibe with me anymore. How do you feel about the fact that yoga is being presented in this way? And to the point that most Western yoga practitioners do not find their way into this more authentic form of meditative yoga.”
Michelle: “I think that the internal practice of yoga will not present itself as quickly to you when you are pushing too hard physically. What is needed is a friend or teacher who introduces this slower side to you and piques enough interest in you. Then it is possible for someone to be willing to do something other than vinyasa. This is a huge sacrifice for people in their minds. They think, ‘I am not going to give up an hour of vinyasa to do gentle yoga. I think the idea is that the more you sweat, the more your heart pounds, and the more wiped out you feel afterward, the more accomplished you feel. And when someone has a sense of accomplishment, it increases their sense of value.”
A Sense Of Accomplishment
Michelle: “In order to give up this perceived ‘win’, the interest has to be there beforehand. And I have noticed that older students gravitate more towards that quieter practice. It may be that the body slows down later on and desires less force, but I think they are often more receptive to internal practices due to their experience and perspective. I do agree that if you go to these hot, fast-paced yoga classes, you will miss out on the meditative aspect of yoga because you are in a quasi-survival-mode.”
Sydney: “I agree completely. I think that the culture we have around fitness is cycled around this sense of accomplishment. And the goal is supposed to be a health goal. But from my experience and observation, it seems to only increase anxiety when done in this way. And leads to more damaging effects down the road.”
The Self Discipline of Doing Nothing
Michelle: “The first thing I think of is the quote ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. I think people come into a vinyasa class and they are so inspired by watching other students or the teacher doing a pose. And there is a pressure of, ‘If I can’t do that, then I need to get to that physical place where I can do it.’ And one, quick way to do that is by pushing the body. Then, by doing this pushing, people injure themselves.
“This makes the practices all the more difficult because now they need to modify everything. And for people who are type A and naturally inclined to push their bodies, it is a challenge to get them to take a break. I see yoga, in its classical form, as a method of self-discipline. The discipline comes from stepping back, not pushing so hard, and seeing what the habits of pushing are doing for you– physically and mentally.”
Sydney: “The habit of pushing and this idea of self-discipline are pretty pervasive. Both burn us out and are not sustainable over the long term. Pushing is the antithesis of yoga, and yet we are infusing it into yoga. It is making, in my opinion, yoga quite dangerous.”
Wellness Beyond the Physical
Michelle: “I think the physically demanding practices get pushed into yoga because some teachers want to teach something that feels really satisfying to the students. For some, challenging physicality provides a sense of accomplishment. The biggest goal of classical yoga, however, is to quiet the mind and discover one’s true nature. By default, we automatically begin to see things more clearly and objectively, including ourselves. That we are not our age or our gender or our physical strength or even our preferences. Hopefully, these realizations result in less desire to make the body ‘perform’, but instead to care for the body (including the mind and nervous system).
“One of the things I do for self-care is setting boundaries with people, which you wouldn’t think of as a yoga practice. But setting boundaries for me allows me to manage my energy in a way that I do not get depleted. Because when we exhaust ourselves, we start to say things we don’t mean, we get careless. We are not the same person we want to be. Saying no is really hard for people, especially for women, but it can be one of the most liberating things. That is something I have worked on for the past 10 years, is saying no to people as an act of self-care.”
Sydney: “That idea of setting boundaries as part of your wellness practice, that speaks to a key part of what I want this project to envelop. Inner peace and confidence in your mind and body can come to you in a myriad of ways. And a green juice and 10-mile run may subtract from wellness. Saying no to your own desire to discipline yourself is an act of self-care. Setting boundaries with others and with yourself.”
Becoming the Observer
Michelle: “I call it moving from action to observing or participant to observing. This means you are not effecting anything within this moment, not yourself or anything else, things just are the way they are. Another popular practice is to remove preferences because preferences actually lead to a lot of disappointment. And removing our preferences allows for a wider range of experiences to occur, all of which do not disappoint or frustrate you because you are removing expectations.
“Like someone opting out of taking tree pose and simply lying on the ground, resting and observing what comes up. They might feel upset that they can’t do the post, they may feel shame because they think other people are thinking that they can’t do it and that they are weak. And they might feel like a failure for not trying their hardest at everything in every single minute. This is part of the yoga practice, to find the habits that are self-defeating and finding something a little healthier to substitute its place.”
Sydney: “So, I was classic the person you are describing until I had to slow down. What I think is interesting is that this praised quality of self-discipline, which is positively reinforced into people, is what destroys people. Yoga and meditation, universally agreed-upon tools for enhancing the human experience, are at their roots the antithesis of what we praise and cultivate within people and the youth.”
Yoga + Influencing Cultures
Michelle: “You have to look at what culture is influencing the practice. If you take a two-hour class in the United States, they will be mostly physical. Take a yoga class in another country; one that doesn’t take being busy, rich, and successful as being such a big deal; and you might get a practice that is way closer to classical yoga.”
Sydney: “I took classes in Ecuador—it is totally different.”
Michelle: “Honestly, I think we go to yoga to kind of combat everything society tells us to be like. And we are also breaking down the old messages we got from parents or other people from our past who told u to be a certain way. You never know where people’s challenges are coming from—it could be genetics, environmental, or something else. That is why I do not give many physical adjustments in my classes because I do not always assume that people want to do deeper (physically) into the practice. They may be practicing the self-discipline of restraint or nursing an injury. Or they may have issues with touch disturbing their mental flow. I approach my classes with a very psychological lens.”
Michelle’s psychology education shines in this last comment and takes us toward discussing the value of education. We lament over the cost of education, in any capacity. Then, we begin talking about this pursuit of spiritual education and how difficult it is to access further training in the psychological and mental domains of yoga.
Sydney: “Yoga seems like it is being deeply capitalized upon.”
Michelle: “I can’t even think of a place to go to for free yoga or free meditation training. The sutras, for example, are ancient teachings of yoga in Sanskrit. You would go to a person who then translates the sutras and makes them accessible. They are very simple, almost to the point that people are not interested in learning them. You can see in the writings that things are meant to be done mindfully, slowly, and in an observing way.”
Sydney: “Ironically, I imagine that it’s the most advanced practitioners that get the most out of the sutras. It is hard to understand because it is simple. As you go through the journey of yoga you realize, ‘Of course, why would it be longer?’”
Michelle: “The very first sutra is, ‘The practice of yoga begins now’. And that sounds so simple. But what it means is that I am not going to think of anything from the past, I am not going got think ahead, I am going to be here in the now. And how uninteresting and simple that is for some people until you get that the slowing down is where the healing happens.”
Sydney: “Each word is holding meaning and power, like in poetry. Yoga, for example, is a very complex word. It means many things, and when you know that and you read that sentence, it is actually quite profound. And that will not make sense when you are starting out in yoga. I imagine there are a lot of teachers out there that do not get this kind of in-depth training.”
Michelle: “Most yoga teachers have to have a few hours of yoga philosophy to become a teacher, but if the teacher is not in a place to receive these pieces of training, then they may not place the needed attention to properly learn yoga philosophy and the sutras. They might be focusing on music or alignment or some other aspect of US yoga instruction.”
But ignoring these sutras—the deeper, grounding principles of yoga—has a cost. The genuine practice of yoga has yet to be collectively realized in the West. Michelle agrees
The Mind’s Potential
Michelle: “Over the years, I have seen the possibility that we are not really using the potential of the mind because we are constantly worrying about things and we are burning off that power and energy.”
Sydney: “We are fracturing our attention in the way we take up space in our mind. And that takes away from using our mind’s energy for more profound things. Yoga has taught me to clear space in my head, not so I do not think about things but I can recognize that they are not thoughts worth having. Upon reflection, I have spent a lot of time thinking about things that were not worth thinking about. And I feel lucky that I have recognized that and I am working on changing that. But with that in mind, why is changing the way we think a powerful act? And how do we go about it?
Changing Our Mind’s
Michelle: “I think there are two pieces. You have to break down how our internal world is created. First, it is by our parents– through our interactions; their responses to us; and what they tell us about ourselves, our value and the world around us (before we come to know it ourselves). We decide if we are a success or a failure by the time we are five, and this comes directly from our parents.
“Some people get mixed messages from their parents, and this manifests as neurosis and even psychosis. I’m obviously generalizing, but as a whole, this is what I have seen to be true. I think the first step is to first notice what baggage you are carrying into life with you—which comes from childhood. And second, what messages are coming from your present environment, which put pressure on you to be a certain way. In yoga, we want to take off these backpacks, the luggage of other people’s opinions, and figure out who we are without the influence of others.
Re-identify + Svadyaya
“So, the first is re-identifying: I am not this, that, and the other. And once you let go of this, it becomes a practice of Svadyaya—self-study. It means you do not know your true nature. ‘You’ were something that other people created due to their own experiences and unconscious influences. Some people go into yoga and years later realize they are nothing like who they thought they were and were trying to be. Or they don’t want to be that person anymore either. I have even seen people end relationships because they become so self-aware that they can only be in relationships with other people who are equally self-aware of their actions and interactions.”
Sydney: “I have seen and experienced both sides. First, I went through a bit of a process of self-awareness in college and changed aspects of myself. And yet I have seen it take the opposite effect, people recognizing the negative aspects of their life or the things that are inhibiting and detracting them from being more of a ‘free spirit’. And then, they retract from yoga because that is quite a terrifying idea– to embrace themselves outside of a label, to be uninhibited.”
Michelle: “Right, and you have to remember that there are those lucky few who have a good balance of sense of self and they do not need to spend their time getting rid of these unnecessary identifiers. And those are the people that look most at ease right away. But everyone can get there, it just takes work.”
Sydney: “It is not pretty. It is work and it is scary. And it is always an ever-becoming process of becoming”
You As Your Own Worst Enemy
Michelle: “Would you say you had a parent figured that was not always satisfied with your efforts?”
Sydney: “Honestly, I think I was that parent figure to myself. Maybe it was instilled in me at a young age and I took it on myself. But no one had to tell me anything because I just told myself. It became a weird, intense, deeply self-critiquing voice. Yoga is what taught me that, at the end of the day, you can be whoever you want, and the people that are defining you are also reflecting the image that you are putting out. People are mirrors and shapers- reflecting and molding you. But you are equally responsible for the limitations you put on yourself.”
Michelle: “There is still a part of me that wants to say that it came from somewhere, that part of you that decided to be hard on yourself.”
Sydney: “I was a pretty chubby child. It was always that I was not thin enough. Also, I naturally had more anger and anxiety. And who knows why. This led to a lot of comments on both my body as ‘being fat’ and my personality as being ‘too intense’.”
Michelle: “That is really common for women, I have a friend who is 19—we met through yoga. She has severe anxiety and it all comes from being a kid, being a little heavier than they thought she should be. It is this insidious, not-that-bad-once, but over time super toxic inner-voice.”
Sydney: “It is super toxic, and it is again why I wanted to start this project because it has been a tsunami in my life. A giant waste of energy, waste of space, and waste of time. And a large presence of negativity in how I felt about my body, bleeding into how I went about almost everything. But I have been able to evolve this into something enlightening and eye-opening because I realized that I am not special in this.
“So many people, women especially, unnecessarily struggle with this concept of body and image. And it completely diminishes the value of a person because they are spending their time thinking about things like their weight. Or having their actions indirectly control by these thoughts of self-worth and self-doubt. They are not going to become a great academic, a powerful leader, or simply a present and influential person because they are so riddled with insecurities and other nonsense that take away from their potential.”
Michelle: “I think that is the case of 80% of people, they are their own person critiquing and telling themselves they are not good enough. How do you change the way that you hold yourself to your own standards? You either go into a lot of therapy or a lot of yoga. I think relationships with very emotionally healthy people and animals are healing too. Self-doubt and shame are the driving forces of most people’s actions. It is such a common fear that what ‘I am doing right now is going to be perceived as abnormal.’ And everyone is losing out on their authentic selves. By extension, we are all losing out on connection and freedom because we are not being real.”
Sydney: “And it is that connection that enables us to get over this toxic emotion of shame and embody what the true beauty of being human is—this profound connection we can have not just on a physical level, but also an emotional, a spiritual, and an intellectual level. Humans can go deeper than any other creature in their ability to connect. But our fears, shame, and self-doubt block all of that. Like with compulsive exercising or compulsive success, habits that we think are going to, inevitably, connect us to other people by making us more ‘beautiful’. And whether we think this cognitively or acknowledge this out loud, we seek perfect bodies and status symbols as ways to attract people’s attention. These become markers of success, ways to stand out and be the person that people want to know.
“It is a perverse form of connection– to be admired for external qualities. You hear it time and time again, especially with success. The top of the ladder is lonely. And there is nothing inherently wrong with success. Rather, it is subjective and void of meaning unless you infuse it with meaning. And I think yoga and meditation teach us how to create meaning, establish a connection, and free our minds. Therefore, no matter what we strive for, we are carrying a guiding set of values and are able to create our happiness within the moments.
“And tying it back to this idea of wellness, the ingrained approach of how we practice life, the constructed and defined labels of success and health are things we need to get rid of to find true wellness. It is through freeing our minds that we are able to truly evolve and reach for what it is we want, outside of another person’s opinion.”
Michelle: “And especially for people who do not even realize they are suffering, like people who are really busy and say, ‘No, I don’t have time to meditate, I can barely get my laundry done.’ They almost have a handicap to reaching this freedom because life makes it hard to catch up.”
Sydney: “There is so much irony in that statement, to begin with.”
Michelle: “Most people have that ‘pusher’ inside and they need to be reminded to take it easy and not push themselves. And I think we all have that in common”
Beauty Through Dis-identification
Sydney: “Final question, what do you do to feel beautiful?”
Michelle: “I dis-identify with my body. I assume that what I have to offer has nothing to do with my appearance and has everything to do with what emotions I am able to evoke in someone else. If I am going to embody beauty, it is about my presence and what I leave people with—it has nothing to do with how I look. I think modern yoga is placing way too much emphasis on the physical body and how you look. Yet the most advanced practices in yoga are done either sitting or lying down on the back. I think the external is so pumped up and the internal is so invisible, and when I really think about beauty, it is about a moment—being with an animal or evoking a feeling in someone else.
“A few years ago my dad died. And the grief I experienced was indescribable. There were some people that really got it, and let me be in my grief and understood and didn’t try to fix it. They just accepted it and were there with me. And that was the most beautiful thing I have experienced.”