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Recently we asked Melanie Smith, our Director of Trauma-Informed Trainings, to answer a few questions so everyone could get to know her better. Melanie, a former social worker, is the founder of Miss Melanie Yoga, and teaches yoga classes both on land and on stand-up paddle boards throughout the Lehigh Valley and Western, New Jersey. She also leads domestic and international workshops and retreats.
1. What does yoga mean to you?
Yoga is the unifying of body, breath, emotional mind, and the higher self. For me yoga is about moving my body in such a way that I’m able to expel built-up emotions and discharge pent-up energy.
It gives me space to calm down and be aware of my thoughts, my true intentions, and allows me to have freedom in my body. If I’m unable to get a good practice in for a day or two, I get very angsty. Yoga means peace and tranquility and a way of living every day.
2. Tell me more about your yoga practice.
If I had to describe my practice in one word, it would be diverse. I love to work really hard, sweat, and move, but I equally love deep relaxation with lots of blankets, bolsters, blocks, and sandbags to support me.
If you follow me on social media, you will see me posting photos with lots of props, doing arm balances or even doing yoga on a paddle board. However, I don’t think bending my body into all kinds of crazy shapes is always necessary or all that there is. I’m a “work hard, relax hard” yogi.
3. Do you have any recommendations for people interested in getting into yoga and mindfulness practices?
Always listen to your body. Your ego mind will tell you lots of unnecessary stories about where your body should be. When we take the time to use yoga to understand our bodies, we start to let go of the ego and go where it feels good. If your body is tired but you still want to practice, just roll around on the floor and go easy just breathe and stretch. If you feel like you need strengthening or to expel energy, take a vinyasa class or try one level harder of a class than you’re used to – but remember to be respectful of what your body is telling you.
As for mindfulness, a great place to start is feeling your inhale and exhale for three rounds. Start out slowly, take in what’s happening and try not to judge yourself. One of the main things is to remember that you don’t need any props or clothing or even a mat to practice yoga and mindfulness. You just your willingness to breathe and be with your body for a time.
4. How do you incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine?
I practice mindfulness every day. Right before I get out of bed in the morning, I lay there and take three rounds of breath with awareness before I even let my feet touch the floor. I try to not open apps on my phone or look at messages. I turn off my alarm and breath with no desired outcome but to just be present. I will do that several times a day – before I answer a phone call, respond to a message or enter into a teaching. Mindfulness gets me through some very long days with my sanity intact.
5. Why did you choose to work with Shanthi Project?
Right out of college I spent 10 years working for the State of New Jersey Department of Children Protection and Permanency as a Family Service Specialist on the front lines of child welfare. I was doing child abuse and neglect investigations, going into some really difficult family settings. It was during that period that I dove into my yoga practice and became a certified yoga teacher.
I found refuge on my mat from the things I was seeing and experiencing – emotions I didn’t know how to deal with were a constant during that time, and yoga gave me the space to explore my feelings and what was happening mentally in a supportive space. What I know now is that I was having a tough time processing the vicarious trauma from being a caseworker, living in the consist state of handling crisis situations.
Through trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness, I feel like we’re able to roll up our sleeves in a non-traditional therapeutic setting and provide a space for people heal without pushing them for an outcome.
While I was going through teacher training in 2010/2011, I met Denise Veres (Shanthi Project’s founder) and was introduced to the work Shanthi Project was starting to do in prisons for juveniles and adults. When I was getting ready to leave my job to teach yoga full time, I knew that I wanted to work with Denise as much as I could. Thankfully, she was willing to give me a position teaching and doing small administrative projects as Shanthi Project started growing.
Working with Shanthi allows me to align my passion for yoga and being of service to a population I care deeply about. As a social worker, I felt like we were often only putting bandaids over deep generational wounds for people. We weren’t giving them the space to understand their trauma and the impact it was having on entire families. Through trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness, I feel like we’re able to roll up our sleeves in a non-traditional therapeutic setting and provide a space for people heal without pushing them for an outcome. The work that Shanthi Project and other organizations like this across the country have the potential to change lives for the better, and I feel that is vitally important in our society.