Michelle Thielen is a meditation teacher and yoga instructor, and for the past 12 years she has worked with trafficked children in third-world countries with complex issues. She incorporates religious faith in her meditation practice, and together with yoga aims to keep mind, body and spirit healthy and grounded. She is also the founder of Yogafaith.org, an organisation that trains yoga teachers and works to end human trafficking and modern day slavery. (Incidentally the inspiration for Yogafaith.org came in part through the experience of a 21-day fast). Clay Hamilton interviewed Michelle in summer 2019.
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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.
For the past 12 years my work has involved trafficked children, mostly in third-world countries, who suffer from complex trauma as a result of repetitive sexual abuse. My main goal in leading meditation, as well as Yoga Nidra for these survivors, is to either re-connect, or perhaps to connect them for the very first time, the mind, breath and body.
The body is the last place that anyone who suffers from trauma wants to ‘go’. Many who suffer from dissociation, believe their body has failed them or they did something wrong to deserve abuse. My mission is to make their body and thought life the safest place on earth.
I am based out of Seattle, Washington but travel extensively aiding in many special populations that live with trauma, including domestic abuse, incarcerated and those who live in addiction and on the streets.
What types of meditations have you studied or practised, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?
As for my personal meditation, it is from a faith-based standpoint and a time of prayer and worship using the last three limbs of the 8 limbs of yoga. On most days, the eighth limb is impossible to achieve. To me, obtaining the highest form of meditation is the essence of becoming one with God.
I’ve studied meditation and yoga nidra in depth for quite some time. Mindfulness and focused attention is my primary practice. I practice all 8 limbs of the Ashtanga tradition of yoga, with a primary focus on the sixth, seven and eight limbs. The sixth limb begins the meditation journey, the seventh limb leads us into a deeper, more focused awareness and the eighth limb is the deepest form of entering into the “Silent Land,” as Martin Laird, author of “Into the Silent Land”, calls the deepest part of meditation. The eighth limb is the silencing of the ‘cocktail party’ that goes on in my brain. This silencing, or silent land that I find when I go inward is no longer focused on one thing, but becomes one with my meditation. I become one with God. This is the eighth limb, or ecstasy, the deepest meditation, or the highest form of enlightenment. Whatever you want to name it makes no difference, it’s simply a place that you don’t want to leave once finding.
What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?
True peace. As in nothing can take it away. I have peace no matter what chaos swirls around me.
What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice?
Candle Gazing. Trying not to blink for as long as possible while staring at a flame (about 5 feet away at eye level) is one of the quickest ways that I can obtain focus on the “one thing.” Of course pranayama is involved no matter what technique is practiced. This helps in calming all the body systems and creates space for the benefits of meditation to (actually) happen.
After just 5 minutes of Candle Gazing, my whole body feels as if I spent an entire day at the spa.
What do most students struggle with or get wrong?
Often called the monkey mind, silencing the mind chatter is the biggest struggle in the beginning. Meditation is challenging at first, as with anything else, it gets easier as you continue to practice. Soon, it becomes second nature and then you’ll find that you can’t live without it!
What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?
“Come back to breath.” This refocuses wandering thoughts. “Embracing the thoughts, but then letting them go…like boats coming into the harbor. See them come in, watch them leave….”
Many beat themselves up and become agitated because they cannot focus. Agitation defeats the purpose of meditation. I find myself repeating anything that allows people to have patience in their practice.
“Give yourself grace.” “It’s ok…” “Come back to the breath.” “Just be.”
What advice do you give people who struggle to maintain a consistent practice?
You must keep at it. It’s like a muscle you have to develop – when it stops moving it halts development. Keep at it, I promise it’s worth every attempt and sacrifice.
What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?
“Into the Silent Land” by Martin Laird, one of my most cherished books. Martin makes meditation and contemplation understandable and most importantly achievable!
What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?
My first book, “Stretching Your Faith” was published in the spring of 2016. It has touched many people’s lives and helped bring healing to their mind, body and spirit – I continue to receive testimonies and stories every day. It’s also a companion to my teacher training at YogaFaith.org, where I certify people all around the work in numerous styles of yoga, Trauma Sensitive courses and of course, Meditation and Nidra. It’s my life’s work.
What makes it special is that it really is transforming lives. It’s a large book full of illustrations and written with every body in mind, anyone can practice these techniques.
How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?
Or check out many free resources as well as Meditation Nidra Scripts at YogaFaith.org
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[This interview is an extract. You can see Michelle’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]