May Teacher of the Month: Michelle Vanegas

Posted May 2, 2017

Check out our teacher of the month for May! Join Michelle for Tuesday evening classes at 6:30, now through May 23rd.

Q: I read in your bio that you initially resisted the idea of yoga. Why?

The very first class I took was with my boyfriend at the time who was really into it. He took me to a moderately advanced class. I walked in having all my dancer training and was like “I got this.” But it was really opposite to all of the training that I had. It was really frustrating for me and I found myself being really competitive. The girl in front of me was just effortlessly going into handstand and I couldn’t do it.  So initially, I just rejected it because I felt like, “I can’t do this.” It was a lot of internal adjusting that I wasn’t ready to work on yet.

Q: Physically adjusting?

Mentally too. In Savasana that first time I did it, I was like, “What is this? Why are we all laying down taking a nap?” My mind was racing and I felt very uncomfortable in my own body. I realized much later that that was sort of a big tell in how I was living my life day to day, being competitive and comparing myself to other people and not letting myself rest when I needed to rest.

Q: Suffice it to say you didn’t imagine yourself becoming a yoga teacher. What made you decide to give it another chance?

I was trying to find a new form of exercise. [I was a] broke actor, living in Brooklyn. I couldn’t afford the gym membership anymore. I was living near Prospect Park and I was like, “Running is free. I’ll try that.” But I hated running and it just exacerbated all of the problems that I was already having with my body- shin splints, lower back problems and things like that.

I think I Googled “free exercise” and this website came up introducing a bunch of different kinds of yoga for free. I was like, “Fine, I’ll do this.” I kind of built a personal practice watching yoga videos. I would occasionally look into different classes in the area, but I was kind of scarred from going into a class setting because of all of the dance training that I had had and because of that initial yoga experience.

Eventually, a girlfriend of mine that I was working with at a restaurant was saying that she was going through teacher training herself for yoga and I was like, “You can make money doing that?”

I started researching that because I was also looking to make a job shift at the time. I thought, maybe I could teach something and maybe I could teach yoga. So, I took classes at a bunch of places and finally decided on taking the teacher training at Sonic Yoga in Midtown.

Q: That’s interesting that you started teacher training coming more from a base of home practice than being in classes. What was it like for you?

I definitely felt like the black sheep of my training group, because most everybody else had been practicing for a long time or had a very spiritual practice in that realm where it was very new to me.

But where I did find resonance was in the creativity of creating sequences, of feeling free to express myself and what I was feeling.

What was the most challenging for me was really coming up against figuring out who I was as a person. With acting, with dancing, you’re a chameleon.  [You’re} Speaking somebody else’s words, having somebody else’s movements in your body. Initially I thought that I had me pinned down. It wasn’t until this training that I realized that I didn’t quite have me down and wasn’t quite comfortable expressing who I was to others and sharing that with other people.

Q: What did you discover about yourself?

At the end of the training, Johanna [Bell] was the one to evaluate me and she said, “You know Michelle what’s really great about you is you’re a little off.” I was like, “What?!” She said, “No, no I think it’s a good thing. You’re very witty and you have this quirky, awkward energy that will make your students feel comfortable when they are like, ‘I’m not perfect. I can’t do this.’ You have a way of inviting humor as a way to relate to people from a compassionate stand point.”

I have found that to be very true in my teaching.

Q: Acting and dancing are very competitive professions that require you to live with a lot of uncertainty. I’m wondering how yoga plays into that?

There definitely is a pull to see yourself through somebody else’s eyes and portray yourself how you think they want you to be. You get lost.

When an audition came up in the past, there would be all this anxiety about what the part was, who’s casting it… am I enough for this role? And then trying to perfect it, rehearsing it, getting coaching, to the point where, I mean, it’s no wonder I wouldn’t get cast in these parts. It was just too much work and seeping with desperation.

Now, when I get an audition, I source it in the same way that I prepare for a yoga class. I try to get the overall feeling of who this woman is and connecting it to myself from an authentic place rather than a put upon place of what I think someone else might want.

After it’s over, I let it go. I’ll literally throw the paper away in the casting office and walk out and go one with my day and don’t check my email constantly or call my representation. It’s just like, “If it’s meant to be cool. If not, cool. Nothing else in my life is different.”

I just feel more solid and grounded.

Q: And you feel like that has come from yoga?

Yes. I also think that for so long, I associated acting or dance as a part of who I was, which for me was not good. My version of success was whether or not I booked a job and the “nos” are so much heavier and more frequent than the “yeses” that my self-worth was declining with each no. So yoga gave me another interest, another passion and helped me to be a more well-rounded person.

I was drowning in that idea of success being only the “yeses.”

Q: Can you describe your teaching style to me?

Johanna Bell is my mentor and I really follow her style of teaching, which is called Illuminated Sequencing.  I think about what I’m going through or contemplating during the week and then form that into a class.

It starts with journaling and then getting up and moving in my body, seeing how I can physicalize these different words or feelings and then attaching traditional asana to them. And then, what I enjoy is, kind of messing it up a little bit.

When I first started yoga I was turned off from it because I couldn’t do it. I felt like everyone else looked so perfect and I felt like such a mess. So in my classes I’ll have people move around in a more free form way and then come back to that asana or stillness. It’s definitely a cycle class, slowly building in intensity up to a peak pose or a peak energy and then slowly coming back down from that.

Q: You spent several years living in Brooklyn. What brought you uptown?

My husband and I were living in Brooklyn. He was in a really beautiful deal of a situation and then after his lease expired the rent went up astronomically. We were trying to find a new place in Brooklyn, but one of our friends who lives up here had been bragging to us about this area for forever. His friend needed to vacate his apartment. He said, “It’s a beautiful place. Just come up and see it.” So we did.

It was the first time that I had seen a place that felt like a home to me. And the neighborhood –walking around, the park – there was just this exhale of energy that felt very relaxed. People were authentic. Nobody was trying to prove anything.

It felt like fate, the way it all worked out.

Q: How did you get involved at Bread and Yoga?

It was Johanna really. I was taking her classes anywhere that I could. I was curious about her style at different studios, does it change at all, what are the different communities that she has influenced or become a part of? So I initially came here [as a student].

Q: What has the experience been like for you as you have transitioned into teaching at Bread and Yoga?

It’s like a diamond in the rough, seriously. It’s such an inclusive space, I mean we’re sitting here in a kitchen that’s very much alive and where we are literally growing things and there’s life outside of it too. There’s a baby crying and all of these programs going on for children as well as yoga and cooking. It’s such a home-y beautiful space and community. I feel really lucky to have been included and accepted.


Check out this short sequence from Michelle focusing on balancing and hip strength.


Bread and Yoga
5000 Broadway, Suite A
(Entrance on 212th St.)
New York, NY 10034