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Attaining Peace: One Woman's Story

Columnist Erin Wheeler shares the inspiring story of Michelle Smith and her journey into yoga.

I wanted to share one women’s story, her relationship with her dying brother and how it connects on and off the mat. So I asked Michelle Smith if she would share her journey into the world of yoga.

The path to yoga is never a straight line. Our experiences before we step on our mat and the healing process usually involves a lot of change in order to move ahead with our path. Smith and three others are starting a six week series on Attaining Peace (Movement Breath work and Healing Techniques for Coping with Life’s Changes).

Erin Wheeler: Could you tell me a little about yourself? (Where you grew up, and what led you to this work?)  

Smith: I’m originally from Washington D.C., and moved to Tampa in the late 80’s with my parents. I grew up in North Tampa and went to high-school at Academy of Health Professions at Tampa Tech –graduated as a Dental Lab Tech assistant making crowns and dentures. That didn’t appeal to me for long and started what ended up being a 12 year trek in college for a Bachelor’s degree.

I studied at HCC for 6 years- Dental, Biology, then Anthropology (Religion and Magic), then Dance and Theatre. I finished at UT John H. Sykes School of business with a degree in liberal arts- a combination of their International Business and Fine Art programs.

EW: What has happened in your life that directed you to teaching this series of learning to cope with changes?

Smith: During those years I traveled extensively, worked in 6 countries and started investing in real estate in Tampa and Central America. I left my father’s home at 19 with less than $100 and by the time I was 28 I had acquired $500K in real estate, traveled all over, put myself through private school and was moving forward in my career. Still, something felt depressingly empty.

In 2008, the market crashed and so did almost everything I had built my worth on. I ended up working as many as four jobs at once in order to keep things afloat and ahead of repairs on“historic” properties. In 2010, I got a phone call that my brother who lived in Los Angeles was just diagnosed with brain cancer. I had wanted to visit him in L.A. for years to build our relationship and see his world in the movie and music biz. Knowing that he had a life-threatening illness made it top priority to get out see him. We agreed I would come out after he recovered from brain surgery.

Meanwhile, my weekly practice at the Lotus Pond was giving me some mental reprieve. I made a point to make every donation class offered and savored the peace and opportunity to connect with my body. I was a reiki master and very strong (or so I thought) spiritually, but out of practice and overweight from years of blind ambition. As a former dancer, I missed feeling my muscles. I made a financial decision to use my bill money to go see my brother. It was the most amazing trip ever. After experiencing a soulful reconnection with my brother, I made a choice that no matter what I would be visiting him every month or so while I still could. I had to know him better and I loved spending time with him. He was open to my practicing reiki on him,which he loved. He was also curious of my interest in and connection to angels. Plus, on some gut level, despite his miraculous resilience from surgery, I felt it too likely that he would not survive his cancer.

I also enrolled in Yoga Teacher Training program at The Lotus Pond so that I had a support system to stay connected with my body, mindful of personal peace, and a healthy community. I was in the program that met once a week for a year and weekend long intensives every other month. That program was my saving grace.

After my initial trip to visit my brother, he called me crying two months later asking if I could come back. The tumor had already grown back and he needed to have a second surgery. His resiliency was astounding. He was still working from home and I loved spending time with him. The most natural thing in the world and I could not believe it took so long to be open to knowing each other. We were clearing kindred spirits.

Less than two months later he hopped on his motorcycle to go to the corner store and was hit in a hit and run. He landed back in the hospital with damage to right side, requiring surgery on his dominant right hand and physical therapy to help him learn to walk again. He felt the accident accelerated his tumor growth. He was right. I headed back to LA for a dark and sobering visit. I still loved spending time with my brother, but this time I could sniff something new about him… death. I could tell it was coming soon. It was hard to separate the impending doom from myself, because him and I had the same hands, feel, nail beds, smirk, thought process, musical taste, and humor. I sunk lower into depression.

Things continued to decline as my brother wrestled with his impending death. I went back to be with him and to offer spiritual  support.  We talked of angels and aliens, dimensions and of this life. It was an amazing time that actually felt some expansion to beyond the heartache of the moment and into our true nature as eternal and beloved. When we hugged I could feel the heat of death accelerating. Sure enough, two days after I left, he had massive seizures, so I flew right back. I came back home after a week due to work pressure. On all my trips out west I worked on Eastern time, I never skipped a beat and in fact sold new business and got promoted.

His girlfriend arranged a marriage that I attended a few weeks later. Though he was a shell of the man he was not even a year prior, he was pure love. It was healing to be next to him, to feel the love and innocence he radiated. He died 11 days later. I headed back to LA for his funeral. A few months later I was laid off.  

EW: What does the practice of yoga mean to you?

Smith: Through it all Yoga helped me stay sane, connected and aware. A nightly practice of Restorative postures soothed me. Surya Namaskar and downward dog became a friend and helped move grief pockets through the body. My studies kept my mind expansive and seeking to understand a bigger picture of the suffering.

Between my visits to see my brother and my increased work responsibilities, I took 42 flights that year. After all the craziness of travel subsided and the urgency of caring for him was over, my body manifested it’s tired state with near constant panic attacks. A 21 day Panchakarma (five actions of cleaning) was the only thing that helped balance my adrenals and calm the excess vata energy (swirling mind).

Now, I work on rebuilding the ojas (vigor) and keeping the vata pacified. Yoga is a part of my spiritual practice that has sustained me. I also work a lot with angels and have remained sensitive to my brother’s energy, so I speak with him often. The whole experience has expanded my viewpoint on the nature of life and what my soul purpose is.

EW: What kinds of movements and breath work will you be working with?

Smith: Restorative yoga is a gentle form of yoga that uses props to encourage a deep state of relaxation. By supporting various parts of your body with  bolsters, blocks or blankets, you can fully surrender to the pose and relax every part of your body. Simple postures are held for several minutes while incorporating a mindful pranayama (breathing) practice. This is a necessary addition to any exercise program or existing yoga practice.

Numerous studies have shown Restorative Yoga is effective in dealing with chronic stress, insomnia, fatigue, depression, anxiety and helpful in reversing the effects of metabolic syndrome by triggering a switch back into the parasympathetic nervous system. A regular practice of Restorative Yoga will help strengthen a person's ability to make the switch naturally throughout the day and experience a greater sense of well-being.

EW: I read there will be sound healing, could you explain what that is?

Smith: Sound Healing sooths and relaxes on a different level. Quartz crystal bowls are very powerful and their vibrations reach deep into the subtle body and help vibrate out stagnant energy, and raises energy that is on a lower level. This can aid in deep relaxation states, even sleep/restfulness. Sound Healing is when a musician plays instruments that have significance to the healing process (like bowls, sacred flutes, gongs and chimes) and the musician holds the intention of healing, expansion, relaxation. I found crystal bowls intensely healing after having my ACL replaced a few months ago.

EW: Could you tell my readers why the breath and movement are so important for inner peace?

Smith: Emotion often lodges in the body’s tissues, organs and fluids. In cases of grief, several intense emotions circulate in the body. On a biological level, the adrenals get engaged to get stuff done. The sympathetic nervous system initiates the “fight or flight” response to protect the body from danger. The problem is many of us have difficulty switching back into the parasympathetic nervous system which governs the rest and digest reactions of the body. This system manages digestion, immune system, building of muscles and tissues and sleep patterns. Yoga can help trigger the body back into the parasympathetic nervous system so that it can rest and rebuild itself.

As we understand Smith’s story, we come to understand part of our own self and our need to connect, cope and deal with change. Teachers like her represent how we all can grow from our experiences, deal with change and teach from a place of understanding.

Smith has aligned herself with Johnna Stilson, LMHC Grief & Loss Couselor, Eluv, Sound Healing Practitioner and Dennise O’Dunn, Ayurvedic Practitioner to give anyone interested in self-care techniques to deal with high-stress situations, grieving, relationships, or any significant changes to lifestyle. For more information, visit www.ahnkira.com or www.transformation-yoga.com

Maggie Batt August 30, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Beautiful piece ladies. You've overcome a tremendous journey Michelle. Love and hugs. Maggie Batt
Lee Daly August 31, 2012 at 03:43 AM
Erin, thank you for bringing this wonderful woman and her story to my life.
Michele Smith August 31, 2012 at 07:33 PM
thanks for the support! I'm looking forward to this course and ongoing workshops on the subjects of grief, change, loss, re-creation and transformation. Pulling from my own experiences and also loved ones such as my brother's exceptional care-takers, his wife and mother. There are so many dimensions to grief, and just as many opportunities.
Erin Wheeler September 05, 2012 at 11:09 PM
So happy you enjoyed it Maggie and Lee!! xoxo Thank you Michele!

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