Sometimes life comes at you blow after blow. When that happens, how do you get up? How do you thrive? The last year delivered a series of unprecedented long-term challenges that brought us face to face with those questions: Collectively, we experienced disruption, isolation, and upheaval because of a global pandemic, and many of us are still struggling to process grief, civil unrest, financial insecurity, and uncertainty about the future.
That’s why in August 2020—after nine years of focused research on grief and resiliency—I answered the pull to share tools that nurture peace within us by launching the Resiliency School, an online training curriculum that leverages the practices of yoga and Ayurveda for building resilience. But for me, it was a long road to getting there.
When I was in my 20s, I had not yet faced loss beyond the passing of my loving grandfather, who had been a wonderful role model. I spent this decade exploring the world, accumulating real estate to rent out, and obsessing over manifesting true love. By my early 30s, my motivation ran full speed ahead as I climbed the corporate ladder, charging my way through a To-Do List for Life—checking off boxes I assumed would lead to happiness.
But my trajectory changed in April 2010. I was 32 and had a career selling environmental health and safety services to oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico. One evening, after eight hours of sales meetings, I ran home to quickly change outfits for a networking event. Something told me that I should just stay in. But this was a chance to impress my boss, so I ignored my intuition and hit the road. It wasn’t long before my racing thoughts were abruptly interrupted: Another vehicle flew through a stoplight coming off the highway and plowed into the passenger side of my car, totaling it. As the driver stumbled drunkenly from his pickup truck, vulnerability and violation washed over me in the smoky haze of airbag dust. Though I was (miraculously) physically unharmed, that crash marked an awakened awareness of how precious life really is. It was the first hint that I needed to change directions.
Coming Face to Face with Tragedy
Days after the accident, my 42-year-old brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a Stage 4 glioblastoma. Even after extensive surgery to remove 95 percent of the tumor, his life expectancy was less than two years. It didn’t seem logical that a young, fit, snowboarding hip-hop enthusiast could have such a grim prognosis. Before I could even begin to digest the implications of this, on April 20, an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest marine oil spill in history, and I was assigned to manage emergency response logistics for onsite safety protocols.
Suddenly my days were consumed with handling deployment of 140 health-and-safety professionals to the Gulf, traveling cross-country to visit my brother, booking medical appointments, and sorting medical bills—all while navigating delicate family dynamics. Despite having so much to do, I felt like I was lifting off the ground, floating slowly into oblivion. Life as I knew it was dissolving. My values were shifting. My success-driven mindset had lost its appeal. The one place I found a bit of peace was a free, weekly community yoga class. The stretching, breathwork, and intention-setting soothed me. I chose to follow that peace as a means of dealing with my mounting stress and anxiety and decided to invest in myself by way of yoga teacher training.
In December 2010, I enrolled in a year-long program at the Kripalu-certified Lotus Pond Center for Yoga and Health. Initially, I had no intention of teaching in front of a class and showcasing my voluptuous body. As a student, you could find me hiding in the back in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) in maternity pants to conceal my fat rolls. But as I dove into my studies, something unexpected happened: My body shame was replaced by a desire to model how big bodies and Black bodies can embrace the ancient wisdom of the practice.
My year of teacher training coincided with the last year of my brother’s life. To be able to care for him, I took more than 40 flights and often worked seven days a week to satisfy my responsibilities as an employee, landlord, sister, and caregiver. After he died, I was left wondering what the point of it all was. I had walked with him through his end-of-life journey, an experience that was life-altering and sacred. In his presence, I slowed down and stepped out of my ambitious mind-race to really be with him. I began to notice abundant beauty and grace in the midst of tragedy. Inside of me, a seed of desire to live a more authentic and nonreactive lifestyle was growing. The peace I felt in our little bubble, my brother and me, stood in stark contrast to the rest of my life.
Just before I lost my brother, a parade of other tragedies tumbled over me: My cousin passed away of illness; my 10-year-old dog and best friend suddenly lost his life to a gastric obstruction; and my orchard of citrus trees died of blight. Everything was dying, and I plunged headfirst into debilitating panic attacks along with a sensation new to me—unbridled grief.
By 2012, I was drenched in loss and found no satisfaction in the life I had built. I left corporate America to pursue teaching yoga, and in that—in sharing with others the importance of breath, movement, and ritual— I learned how to navigate uncharted territory. Teaching somehow reminded me of the peace I had found in those final months with my brother.
By 2014, I had completed my 500-hour training in yoga and Ayurveda. That year, inspired by a life-changing panchakarma (a type of Ayurvedic cleansing) retreat, I developed my own handmade product line called Michél Apothecary to share the self-care creations that had soothed my nervous system, all based in the science of Ayurveda: magnesium salt soaks for low moods, oils for the feet and crown, nightly rituals for better sleep, and a sacred water with essential oil mist that uplifts and clears energy.
Items can be ordered at michelapothecary.com and delivered to your home.
Creation through Trauma
In 2015, another series of significant losses challenged my ability to process grief, beginning with the violent death of a man I loved who was senselessly killed in a bar. I had met this beautiful man at a yoga festival on a crisp October night. Recognizing each other immediately as kindred spirits, we stayed up until dawn talking in a little red tent camped outside the music hall. We met again two days later for a sound healing journey and stayed connected every day thereafter, talking on the phone or going for walks. He loved Michél Apothecary, enthusiastically sharing ideas and cheering me on. Although he had been a Navy SEAL and special operations commander in what seemed like a previous life, now he was just weeks away from graduating from my same year-long teacher training program, armed with the dream of helping returning soldiers use yoga to find peace after war. He brought a spark of life into my world that I did not know was missing. I had never felt so safe and whole in my being.
We shared Thanksgiving together at his apartment with his young son, cooking, eating, and watching movies while sprawled out on the hand-knotted rugs he’d brought back from Afghanistan. When it was time for me to go, he walked me to my car and held me tight, heart to heart, under the Scorpio full moon for nearly a half-hour. Two days later, he was fatally shot by a former friend, his wound in the same vicinity as my brother’s tumor. I was shocked by the tragic parallels of losing two young men I love.
I was with him in his final hours, during which a palpable soulful connection was present. It reminded me that our love for each other transcends consciousness and form. As with my brother, there were moments of peace and awe as time slowed down to hold the most precious essence of connection. The memory of those moments and the unconditional love of these relationships remain positively imprinted on me.
To cope with this sudden loss and the resulting anger and depression, I continued working on the holistic program I’d created for dealing with grief. Additionally, I sought out specialized trauma counseling to help my brain recover from what I’d witnessed. I actively worked to marry practices of movement, breathwork, and ritual to neuroscience, cultivating a deep understanding of how to heal from trauma.
Until recently, my life experience felt too intense to publicize. My teachings focused on simply sharing what I had learned and not my process of learning. But in 2019, I felt the intuitive nudge to create a specific online program to help others use the principles of yoga and Ayurveda to take care of themselves through periods of grief and profound change. It was perfect timing for what would unfold in 2020, the never-ending year that jolted us all into awareness of large-scale anxiety, unspeakable loss, regular displays of violence, and the realities of systemic racism.
Enter the Resiliency School, the creation of my 40s. The program takes participants through eight weeks of essential self-care education, and the core curriculum has been reviewed by mental health experts and veteran yogis. Training includes slide decks, worksheets, videos, and audio recordings to accommodate various styles of learning. Students receive a box of apothecary products to be used in tandem with training. Group calls are held throughout the program. All are encouraged to connect through an online community to support one another.
It has been meaningful to me to support others navigating the explosive nature of the modern world. Creation itself is a volatile process, and this program holds space for the magnificence of life. We do not rush to find silver linings or bypass any aspect of being human. Resilience is built from moving through emotion, discomfort, and profound pain. We focus on how to care for ourselves amid turmoil so that we are available to receive the beauty and peace that are present right now.
MICHELE SMITH, E-RYT 500, operates a boutique studio and apothecary based in Tampa, Florida, in a 120-year-old property that she renovated. She leads in-person and virtual training for students all over the world. To learn more, visit theresiliencyschool.com.