Do not be afraid to fail or make mistakes, you may even suffer public humiliation — but you must never, ever give up. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and one day it will “suddenly” pay off.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body for Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing international yogi Michelle Thielen
Called the Yoga Pastor, Michelle Thielen, R-CYAMT, C-IAYT, is a speaker, author of Stretching Your Faith and traveling yogi who has been teaching somatic movement through dance and yoga for over 25 years. She is a Yoga Therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and teaches Somatic Experiencing, Dance and Yoga therapy to those who suffer from trauma. She is the founder of YOGAFAITH and the Christian Yoga Association.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a loving home in Portland, Oregon with two older brothers and began my dance career at the ripe ol’ age of 5. Dance would be a critical thread throughout my life, helping me navigate through all of life’s valleys and mountaintops.
After graduating from High School, I went on to obtain a degree in Architecture. I would work in this field for almost two decades until moving to Seattle in pursuit of a new dream with my new husband in March of 2008. Both of us would take odd jobs to make ends meet while falling into a depression knowing this was not the life we intended to live. In 2012 on the way to a customer’s one day, I was driving the company car and in a terrible, high-speed car accident which resulted in a Traumatic Brain Injury. After being dismissed from the hospital, my boss fired me stating that the car’s deductible cost him 1000 dollars.
I couldn’t move much after the accident, and I felt like through the loss of everything, the broken dreams my husband and I left home for, God was benching both of us. It was not the pause button, but a great big, red, STOP button. We were both forced to stop and reevaluate everything. With foreclosure notices showing up on the front door we needed a quick answer to all our prayers.
There was nothing else we could do but pray and seek. So, we did. We fasted for 21 days in January of 2013 and received a nudge to start a Yoga School. It wasn’t exactly what I had been praying for. I had been praying for a job-a paycheck and health insurance, a yoga school felt like it came out of left field.
With many confirmations, I began a yoga school while my husband began day trading. One day he came through the front door and yelled, “I have the name!” When he said it, I knew it indeed was the name, and the journey of YOGAFAITH began this very day in April of 2013.
Though we are only on our seventh year, our school has become the fastest growing school of certifying yoga trainers from a Christian worldview. It is through YOGAFAITH that I would become a sought-after speaker, author and high-level yogi.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
As a five-year-old ballerina, dance was all I ever pursued. I grew up in the MTV years, though mom disapproved, Madonna was my idol as early as I can remember. Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, Whitney and so many others who entertained well, I wanted to sing and dance with them. I attended a performing arts high school where I dove deep into more African, Tap, Jazz and Contemporary dance styles. Throughout school I was in theater and plays. Getting the role of Snow White in grade school ignited a passion that remains today. Performing, becoming someone else, moving, singing, and entertaining others — making them laugh seemed to make me happy. It was fun to make others smile or entertain them through monologues and Shakespeare.
In my college years I danced professionally for the NBA and WNBA organizations where I would eventually find yoga. Yoga seemed to be a different style of dance, a slower but rhythmic dance of grace. Many of the moves and postures I had been doing my whole life through dance.
As with anything I love, I dove in. I studied and did various trainings and styles of yoga. I found I had a heart for those who suffer from trauma and became a yoga therapist to help the world heal from their deep wounds. I began to study and learn from yoginis such as Kino MacGregor and Seane Corn, who I grew to greatly admire. They have also been an inspiration to take what you love to do out into the world and make it a better place. The one thing I admire about both of them is despite their world fame, both are humble, kind and compassionate.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had many encouragers along the way, and you’re absolutely correct that all of us need a “hand up” throughout life. My mom is my biggest supporter. She has always been my strongest encourager. Through my bought with depression she literally saved my life. To this day, her cards, notes and things I journaled about her through that time period still help me if I am having a bad day or feel myself leaning towards that downward spiral.
Because we all need a hand up or help in life, it’s important to be this with others. I like to think of it as ‘Keeping the Door Open,’ Help someone through your open doors. Don’t hoard or be stingy with everything that you have been given — pay it forward. Help others and see your world get larger and larger.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
One time, right before speaking I got so nervous, I became ill. I had to tell the person in charge I couldn’t speak, I wasn’t feeling well. Which was the truth. I thought I was going to pass out in front of everyone and I’d rather do it by myself.
I used to get terrified of speaking in public, but I kept pressing through and now I use those nerves in a much more positive manner.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
The opportunity will always meet preparation. During the times of plowing and hard work, hone your craft. Become an expert at whatever you do. Do not be afraid to fail or make mistakes, you may even suffer public humiliation — but you must never, ever give up. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and one day it will “suddenly” pay off.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
The project I am most proud of, my second book, Exit Wilderness it’s currently being published. It’s my story out of depression and hopelessness. I give others an actual roadmap out of their darkest days. My darkest hours almost killed me. I know this book is not only going to save lives, but it’s going to deliver people into absolute freedom.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Though some may argue that a traveling yogi does not require great athleticism, I would disagree as the required demands are just as much as any other sport. Travel, yoga-ing and teaching 17–18-hour days requires a great amount of strength and stamina. It also requires a great deal of balance in one’s life.
Meditation, Prayer and Breathwork.
These 3 things keep me grounded, calm, organized and balanced. I can perform from a place of peace but also from a place of tremendous strength.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
There are numerous pranayama techniques I practice regularly; I shift through many of them. 3-part breath, Humming Bee Breath and Ratio Breathing are among my favorites.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I wish I could give you a formula. People ask me often how I am so productive. I have always been driven and everyday I want to be the best possible version of myself. Perhaps that is the formula: Each day your goal is to be better than you were yesterday.
Practically, I do set time blocks in my schedule. I focus on my largest priorities first and allow no distractions whatsoever during this time block. If it’s writing, I sit and write: no email, no phone, no distractions. When my time is complete, I move onto email for only a set amount of time. Even my movement/exercise and piano are on my schedule. My coach taught me, if it’s not on your schedule it’s only a hallucination!
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
Everyday I move differently. One day it’s yoga, the next it’s strength training or dancing. I am always switching it up. The goal is to “just keep it movin’.”
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
What you do every day is what you do in life. It’s the slight edge. Eating pizza and ice cream one night won’t cause you to be overweight. Eating pizza and ice cream every night will. LL Cool J once said, “You can’t have a body like mine and eat cupcakes too.” I’m just trying to keep up with LL.
It’s actually very simple to implement small habits. One small habit I do each day is fill a gallon jug with water. It measures how much water I’m drinking. Granted it’s a full-time job getting enough water and going to the bathroom each day, but it’s a tangible and measurable way that I know I’m getting enough to drink. It’s not enough to guess. I think we guess so much of our lives and let our days attack us instead of attacking it, which is why time blocks have saved me from serious burnout. We ‘guess’ that the big project or the workout will get done, but if we don’t have a plan, then it’s not going to happen.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
In the beginning, it was difficult to reign myself in to create time blocks. I am spontaneous, creative and want to go go go. Sitting down to create time blocks and feeling like it was putting myself in a box, in reality the boxes liberated me and gave me time freedom and balance in my life. I was striving, working, and flying all around the world which is an awesome thing. But again, if you don’t have a plan or structure, burnout is inevitable.
I had to adhere to the time blocks, it took some getting use to. However, once they are implemented, like anything they have become second nature. We have 90 minutes of optimal physical and mental power. For me that is after my caffeine kicks in and is my very first 90-minute time block. Because of this I take my largest project/priority and tackle it. Then I have a 30-minute movement break, typically I’ll do yoga or vacuum an entire floor of the house.
Bad habits stop automatically when good habits are put in their place. It’s a beautiful and organic exchange.
As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
This is so true. This is what I call the sweet spot! When I finally figured out what I was supposed to do, the flow automatically happened.
The biggest thing I have learned is to simply TRUST THE PROCESS. When I first taught yoga to a large crowd, I was very nervous. I asked God to put words in my mouth because I knew I couldn’t speak. I opened my mouth, putting my faith out there that something would come out of it. It was seriously an act of faith. As words fell out, my nerves instantly calmed, and it felt like I had been doing it my whole life. I felt as if I was born to do this.
I teach yoga around the world full time. I am in my flow when I am teaching yoga.
It’s a great thing for your readers to ask themselves: “I am in my flow when I am ____________________.” Whatever you write in this line is what you should work towards each and every day. Don’t let your day job bury your life purpose! Take at least one step each day towards whatever is on this line.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
Absolutely, meditation is what keeps me sane. Each morning before doing anything else, I meditate. I set my intention and prayer for the day. Forgive me, I just lied to you. Coffee is first. Meditation is second. I feel a shirt coming out of this.
Many of us are limited by our self-talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Write down affirmations that are opposite of your negative self-talk and each day or throughout each day speak them our loud. I grew up being called “thick” which I hear is a compliment, but it drove me to have a complex about my thighs and backside. Eventually I had to embrace my body, one-because my thighs and backside aren’t going anywhere and second, I was questioning what God handcrafted and calls a masterpiece. So, I had to ask forgiveness and start saying out loud that I am beautifully made.
I started actually thanking my legs for getting me this far in my life! Now, I don’t let that negative talk in whatsoever. It’s controlled me for over 40 years and now I control it.
I am strong.
This body is courageous and brave!
I am a beautiful warrior that can conquer anything that comes my way!
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
11 years ago, I found purpose in teaching others dance and movement. It was around 2009 that I heard Joyce Meyer describe 5-year-old little girls servicing up to 20 men a day. I could hardly believe what I was hearing and vowed to help in any way that I could until my last breath. So, I do all that I can, mostly through YOGAFAITH and the sales of products. There are 4 major sections we help. Raising awareness, changing laws to protect the victims instead of prosecuting them, rescue efforts and serving them: housing, meals and education.
YOGAFAITH also travels to many third world countries teaching YOGAFAITH to victims and organizations for a sustainable way of healing, wholeness and finding their purpose in society.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
When you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, your people will find you. This simply came out of my early days of plowing in YOGAFAITH. When nobody showed up, when I questioned God every step of the way. But…if you have a dream in your heart and a fire in your belly, hell or high water can’t stop you, not even your haters. And believe me, people will come out of the woodwork in an attempt to halt your dreams. Stay true and keep moving forward — NO MATTER WHAT!
Believe these words: When you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, your people will find you!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Russel Wilson and Tim Tebow. I’ve been in the room with both of these incredible guys at the same time, but I’d love a lil chit chat over a meal!