Michelle Wong is a fitness instructor and a yoga teacher here in Montreal. That, however, is an understatement. She is more of an inspiration to her students and is known for a level of authenticity that you simply can’t get with many teachers of the practice. It was that authenticity that made us want to interview her and learn from her how she got involved in yoga and meditation – and how she grew in the process. This is an insight not many people get; we’re deeply thankful to Michelle for sharing her story with us. So, here it is…
KT: How did you get started in the area of fitness coaching?
MW: I’ve always been drawn to fitness and to challenging yourself physically. At the age of four, I started ice-skating competitively. By the age of five, I was already training with a professional coach. She was training me for the Olympics. During that time, I was performing really well – winning gold in most of the competitions I entered. Unfortunately, when I was about 14, my parents had to take me out of the sport. They said they couldn’t afford it anymore. From that point on, they tried putting me into other athletic disciplines like basketball and even bowling – not for me. At that point I started exploring my creative side, which eventually got me into screenwriting in Los Angeles. Through that, I was able to meet some famous people like Morgan Freeman and some well-known casting directors at the time. Still, I felt like that was not for me. So I started my degree in anthropology. Unfortunately, around that time, I got into a car accident, which ruined my neck and my back. That’s when I started paying attention to a girl I knew who did yoga. I have to admit, she seemed somewhat strange. But when she did yoga – all of that went away. She was in control. So I decided to give it a try – to fix my back and to fix my neck, primarily. I started going to different yoga studios around L.A. until I found this one that seemed to be endorsed by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston. I would go weekly and do chiropractic care three times a week. On top of that, I started getting into nutrition and really watching what I was eating. The combination of those elements got me to the healthiest point I had ever been at that time. People started to notice. They would ask me “what are you doing? You look great!” – I think that’s when I started to get into fitness coaching; without even knowing it at the time.
KT: Did you find a meditative aspect to yoga?
MW: Absolutely. But there are different types of meditation and different people get what they need from each one. With yoga, I feel like the meditation is more of a conversation between you and your body. You become mindful with every pose, and with every pose, you communicate with your body through your breath. It’s not about achieving something; you are really in the moment – that’s what makes it a healing experience.
KT: When did you decide to start teaching yoga?
MW: I was in the middle of a yoga session when the teacher said: “those of you who are looking forward to becoming a teacher, pay attention to your alignment”. For some reason, at that time, I felt like she was talking to me. A year after, I started teaching. It has been about 13 years already.
KT: What would you say makes you different, when it comes to teaching?
MW: Your life story is what makes you special and different. It has shaped you into the person you are. Once you accept that, a level of authenticity comes through. That authenticity is what then draws a certain type of student to your class. And that connection – a connection based on authenticity – is longer lasting than an artificial teacher-student relationship. I’ve seen some teachers try to mimic other teachers. And that simply just doesn’t work. Even worse, I see people try and adopt a version of themselves that’s not genuine, which introduces a level of hypocrisy into the practice – not just yoga but meditation as well. These are the people that think they are on some moral high ground and tend to look down on others if they don’t follow a strict version of what they think being a yogi is. Just the other day I told a group of people “I’m so not a morning person; I need a cup of coffee”. They looked at me like I was committing such a crime by not sticking to just water. There’s also the yoga “look” that society has come to accept. If I’m going out and I’m wearing makeup, people tend to assume that I’m not a person who practices yoga – simply because, at that point in time, I’m not sporting the “yoga” look. On the flip side, there are those who sport the “yoga” look but know nothing about the practice. It is a problem of perception we face as a society. Yoga teaches us to be open-minded, but even within the yoga community, people fall victim of these false stereotypes. This brings people farther from where they’re supposed to start when they take on a yoga practice: a place of self-love and acceptance.
KT: How do you differentiate between self-love and ego-centrism?
MW: I believe ego is useful. Especially when it comes to competition. It can drive you and push you to the limit in order to win a medal; to come in first place. But if you’re just trying to stay in shape; trying to just be healthy – then self-love becomes more useful. It is a power that doesn’t need a point of comparison, whereas ego does. That’s why ego can be damaging in these types of cases.
Also self-love can have longer lasting effects than ego. In my coaching career, I’ve met girls that want to lose weight for their boyfriends. In general, shortly after they lose the weight, they gain it right back. That’s because their efforts were driven by ego. On the other hand, I’ve had students that have switched to working from a place of self-love. Those are the students that usually keep the weight off and keep a healthy lifestyle.
KT: Do you see a difference between guys and girls in your class?
MW: Yes. Girls tend to question themselves and the teacher a lot more than guys do. Girls generally take more time in trusting you as a teacher, which makes the whole process longer than what it needs to be. It takes me longer to get a certain amount of effort from the girls in the class than the guys in the class – who sometimes do more than what they need to, which can also be bad in its own way. The best scenario is when I have a mixed class. Both sexes try to impress each other and that’s when I’m able to get the most out of both groups.
KT: Do you find that your competitive background has helped you in the field of yoga and meditation?
MW: It has affected me negatively when it comes to the practice itself. When you’re doing yoga and meditation, it’s supposed to be about your own journey, your own dialogue. But competitive people are used to look at their surroundings and try to be better than the rest. So, it has been challenging quieting this part of my brain down.
On the other hand, that competitive side has been really helpful when it comes to building my own business. Sometimes it is hard for teachers to find classes. But the competitive side enhances the hustle, which makes it possible for me to thrive in what is sometimes a very competitive environment.
KT: What is your favorite part of being a teacher?
MW: That I get to surround myself with people who are trying to improve themselves. It is an unbelievably positive environment. And I get to work in that every day.
KT: What tricks do you use when you feel tempted to eat unhealthy snacks or skip your workout?
MW: When I feel depressed and feel like I can eat everything that’s in the fridge, I put on my tightest pair of jeans, the ones that don’t fit that well, and I wear them throughout the house all day long.
KT: What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking about starting to practice yoga?
MW: I would say – don’t think about it; just do it – even if it’s just for a few minutes a day. The important thing is to get started. Just try it.
KT: Once again – Thank you Michelle! This has been really insightful.
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