“The Road To ARISE” is a series of conversations writer Brian Turk will be having with ARISE Festival Artists. It is presented by ARISE Music Festival, Oskar Blues Brewery, Listen Up Denver, The Marquee Magazine and Harmony Yoga.
The Road To ARISE Part 3- Harmony Yoga
So far, “The Road to ARISE” Series has focused on the musician’s playing the festival, but there is so much more to ARISE. Yoga is also a main focus of the festival, with classes, workshops, and Yoga related activities going on throughout the weekend. Yoga is everywhere in Colorado and around the country. I have walked by countless Yoga studios that look like gyms, and cater to Starbucks drinking divas who want to get their sweat on so they can have a Yoga booty as their newest purchasable accessory, but what I seldom see is authentic Yoga being taught. The type of Yoga that was created over 5,000 years ago, with a specific purpose, and as a life path. I had the pleasure of speaking with Michelle Voeller, who owns Harmony Yoga in Denver, and teaches there, as well. Like all of the musicians I talk to, Michelle’s profession is her calling, and she is extremely passionate about what she does. Get to know a bit about Michelle, Harmony Yoga, and what REAL Yoga is all about. See you at Michelle’s “Sunday Chill Out” Yoga class at ARISE!
BT: How did you initially get into Yoga?
MV: I got into Yoga as a curious college student in 1998. A friend was going to take a class, and she wanted me to take it with her. I had no idea what it was, honestly, so I tried it. My Anthropology professor at the University of Iowa wound up being the Yoga teacher. I had always admired him from afar, and thought there was something special about him, and then I found out what it was. He had been practicing and teaching Yoga for decades. I kept going to classes and felt the power of Yoga from the beginning. I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I could feel that energy was flowing, and like I was opening up every time I left those classes. It definitely intrigued me enough to keep practicing.
BT: So, you got into Yoga in College. Did you start teaching Yoga right after?
MV: I didn’t. I finished my degree in English, and then taught English at Cherry Creek High Schools for seven years. All the while, I was studying and practicing Yoga. I eventually went through a teacher training in 2003. After that I started a Yoga club at the high school, for both teachers and students, which met after school once a week. The feeling I got after teaching that class made me realize just how important Yoga was to me.
BT: How did you make the decision to leave the classroom and open up your own Yoga studio?
MV: I was really burned out on teaching, and halfway through the last year I taught, I knew I just couldn’t go back the next year. I was seeing other teachers around me very burned out, and they just didn’t want to let it go. I realized I didn’t want to live that way. It was time to follow my heart and my passion.
BT: Let’s give a shout out to all the teachers who have helped us along our way. It’s not easy.
MV: (laughs) It’s not easy. You’re right, and I knew I wanted to teach something. I felt, and feel, the value in teaching and planting seeds in young minds, but I needed to teach something I was passionate about. I had lost the passion for the content I was teaching, and I felt a distinct inspiration when I taught Yoga. It just so happened that two blocks from my house, a perfect 1,000 square foot space opened up in a shopping center, and my neighbor knew the property owner, so I got into that space smoothly. I stopped teaching High School in the spring 2006, and opened Harmony Yoga that summer. We outgrew that space within a few years, and built our current space in 2009 right next door to the original.
BT: It sounds like it all just fell into place, and this is what you were meant to do.
MV: It did, and it is.
BT: It sounds like Yoga is a very powerful force in your life. I will be honest, I have never taken a Yoga class. Most people I talk to who take Yoga classes make it sound like they are going to the gym. Are they doing a different kind of Yoga than you or something?
MV: Yoga is a spiritual science. It is a set of practices that are designed to help people connect with their true essence, their soul, their spirit. In the Eight Limbed path that I have been taught, Yoga is more than just exercise. Yoga is also ethics. It’s how we live. It’s how we treat each other. It’s how we treat ourselves. It’s how we breathe consciously in specific ways to help balance our energy, and it’s also how we move our bodies in the physical postures. Yoga, the spiritual science, is all designed to help you sit and meditate. Moving the body, breathing, and being in a clear space in regards to how we live, helps you sit and meditate, and connect to your true Self.
BT: So you are saying Yoga was designed to train the body to endure sitting and meditating?
MV: Exactly. The ancient Yogis designed the postures, which are called āsanas, in order to sit, and sit comfortably. The body needs to be comfortable, so you are not distracted, and this helps us get to those enlightened spaces of clarity where we can tap into higher consciousness.
BT: So Yoga and meditation go hand in hand. The movement and the non-movement.
MV: Absolutely. Originally, meditation was the most important piece of Yoga. The āsanas were just one of the Eight Limbs.
BT: Gotcha. It seems like now a days, in every major city, Yoga studios are all over. But I don’t see the spiritual side in their presentation. Or the authentic and historic side of Yoga. What are your thoughts on that? What kind of Yoga do you teach? And how is it different than these fitness Yoga places I see?
MV: One of the main streams that brought Yoga to the West was led by Indra Devi in the late 1940’s. She brought it to movie stars in Hollywood, so from its beginnings in the West, it lost part of its spiritual side, and adapted the practice to focus on the body, keeping people young and beautiful. Since a large part of our society focuses on how people look, and how fit and strong they are, mainstream Yoga kept that focus. The physical part of Yoga is extremely important, but there is so much more. To life and to Yoga. I am thankful to have been taught by authentic teachers who practice & teach whole Yoga & Ayurveda, and to have been exposed to these teachings. It’s my role to share these teachings with my students, and to educate the general public that Yoga is more than fitness. Harmony Yoga offers teacher training, and we incorporate the whole mixture of Yoga, including its sister science of health, Ayurveda. The ethics, the breath, the energy, and lots of meditation time. Not just theory, but practice. That’s where people change their lives. The physical body can take you so far, but really sinking into the spiritual side, and connecting to your true self, that’s when big changes happen. That’s what I teach at Harmony, and that’s how we instruct our teachers in training. We teach people to wake up & be truly alive.
BT: It sounds like you experienced those changes first hand.
MV: Absolutely! A teacher once told me, in jest, but it’s true, authentic Yoga will wreck your life. Things that aren’t true to who you are and where you need to be will fall away. Letting go of habits, changing the way you live, and even letting go of relationships and friendships that aren’t in alignment with where you are going, which is rising up to a higher level of being. Everything else falls away, and the real you rises up. Personally, I have shed layers of who I was once, and I feel like I am always becoming more authentic, and more real, as each day passes. It’s a constant flow.
BT: It must be amazing to watch others go through that transformation as well.
MV: Very much so. Watching others change and heal has been a real gift of this job. I opened the doors to Harmony really having no expectations on what that would be. There is real community and relationships that are formed. People’s lives have been changed. They find a place of refuge and peace from this pretty crazy world that we are living in. They are changing their lives for the better and really waking up to the light that’s within themselves.
BT: You just used the term job. It sounds like it was more of a calling for you.
MV: It certainly is. I can remember driving home from teaching classes at the high school, just knowing, and feeling, that I was tapped into my true calling, that this is what I was born to do.
BT: Can you tell me a little more about what kind of classes you offer at Harmony Yoga?
MV: Well, our tag line is “Real Yoga. Real People.”, and that’s what we offer. We offer a wide variety of classes that can suite anyone who walks through the door. Harmony is welcoming and never intimidating. It’s a sanctuary. From restorative and therapeutic classes, to intermediate, more physical practices, and everything in between. We offer adaptive and chair classes for people with chronic health conditions, and classes to people who just need to slow down in this wild world, help them find balance. Kids, teens, families, young and young at heart, the real people of our community. I lead Ayurvedic lifestyle and Yoga Therapy sessions. We will also be offering more meditation and spiritual development classes through our new partner, Inner Connection Institute, beginning this fall. It’s a holistic healing space.
BT: I read that Harmony is also working a lot with kids lately, as well.
MV: We are. I have partnered with Casey Feicht & her Kids Yoga Guide who has made working with children her primary focus. She has developed programs for kids and families of all ages. Casey is also training teachers how to work with kids. You don’t have to be a Yoga teacher, but people can be trained to bring these practices out into the world, in schools, in day cares, wherever children may be. We hope if Yoga is started young, it could really change the world.
BT: That’s great. A large part of the ARISE Festival is Yoga, and it is unique because of that. It blends music, really good music, and Yoga, and really represents the Colorado lifestyle. Are you a music lover as well?
MV: Yes, big fan of music starting in my childhood. I have many happy memories of singing in the car during family road trips and dancing around to Beatles’ records as a kid. I get the same sort of feeling from live music that I get from Yoga. I look around the crowd and everyone is in that same alignment. We are all feeling the same energy, and it is flowing through us. Yoga practice is a good compliment to a music festival. The practice of Yoga opens our energy up, and we feel free, and we can dance and move, and really be a part of what’s going on around us. It’s a great compliment to dance, music, and just appreciating all of it, and appreciating life in general. There is a huge connection to the fact that we have so much amazing music going on in Colorado; we all have an appreciation for a more freeing lifestyle; we’ve been drawn here for a reason.
BT: Folks in Colorado just want to feel good. And to smile. They look good doing it, too!
MV: Oh yeah. It’s a good place to be! There is so much goodness going on.
BT: Are you going to be teaching at ARISE, and showing people what Harmony is all about?
MV: I am. Last year I got to go as an attendee, and this year I will be teaching a class on Sunday afternoon at 3:30. It is called the “Sunday Afternoon Chill-Out Session”. If you’ve been at a music festival for a couple days-being hot, dancing and staying up late, this class will be a great opportunity to integrate all the energy that has been created. Soak it up, stretch, breath, and just relax….together, as a festival community. The whole feeling of the class will be calm and quiet, with gentle movements and deep stretching. I am lucky to have a live musician joining me, Chuck White from Boulder, who is playing sitar, to help us get in that relaxation state.
BT: And that authentic state.
MV: Yeah, exactly. We are going to dig into the ancient roots of where these practices came from.
BT: I don’t know if you’ve looked at the line-up at all, but is there anyone you are really excited to see at ARISE?
MV: What I love about this festival is the variety of music. It’s not just geared towards one genre. Beats Antique is awesome. I love the movement and that world beat feel. Galactic is always a lot of fun. I love Nahko & Medicine for the People. Then there are always surprises from new bands along the way. I am open to see as much music as I can all weekend. And I am just happy for ARISE! It’s really a grassroots festival. They reach out to the local Yoga community and get to the people who want to be there, and I have been a happy supporter.