Once upon a time I wanted a tribe and I wanted to paint with this tribe. Flora Bowley was leading an incredible workshop just an hour from my home and so I looked it up. Alas I found Serendipity, I found Michelle. I love how one like soul leads to another. Although I didn’t end up going to that particular retreat (because they fill up so darn fast,) however I have since then appreciated the magic Michelle and her counterpart Jen create at Serendipity! There is magic brewing between them and I feel we can expect to see marvelous things coming our way. Today let’s chat with the ever lovely Michelle!
Michelle Madden Smith is a wayfinder and mama living on a barrier island that arcs gracefully out to sea in North Carolina. She is co-founder of Animyst where along with her business partner Jen Gray, she co-creates inspiring online workshops and soulful retreats with artists and makers. She is also the creator behind the premiere yoga studio and teacher training program at Outer Banks Yoga. She lives and loves with her filmmaker sweetheart Bryan and their toddling daughter Lyla Maryanna.
Why yoga, why art retreats? How are they connected for you? How has spirituality affected you and your work?
I seek evidence of the invisible.
That’s what it all boils down to for me. All of my passions and offerings to the world were born first from my own inner journey of seeking what it means to live, of how to have a meaningful life.
I don’t say that lightly. My dark night of the soul lasted for nearly a decade through my late teens and 20’s. I awoke from that period feeling as though I only had one choice. I had to learn how to be in this world and to give myself fully to the search for meaning.
This journey began with learning how to breathe, you know the kind of breath where time stops and it brings you fully into the moment. When things were good, I’d breathe. And when they weren’t, I’d breathe then too.
A few years later my yoga practice, and ultimately the studio, were born from a physical injury that occurred because I didn’t yet know how to hear my intuition and I was actively pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I was still learning how to be here, so I didn’t know how or who to “be” much of the time. Time on my mat helped me heal the lingering deeper psychological wounds that led me to this breaking point, as well as helped me begin to trust my body again.
As I grew stronger, it became clear that I needed to find my own creative voice and save myself from a lifelong feeling of isolation. I’m an only child, mostly introverted, my Mom and I moved all the time while I was growing up… and now I live on an island. First blogs, then art retreats and gatherings helped me discover my gifts, my tribe and my current life’s work of helping other women reconnect with their creative voices. This lead to the creation of Animyst and our retreats and online art workshops.
So first I found my breath, then my body, and then my creative voice….a serpentine path through the invisible realms. I’ve moved away from teaching yoga as my creative life grew, but spirituality is at the core of everything I do. It’s hard for me to separate my personal life from my work in the world. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to continually evolve over these years, listening to the subtle cues and tugs of my heart and following the paths blazed by beautiful guides, teachers and mentors. I am just so grateful to be here.
There is a dichotomy in our culture of being mind-focused and disconnected from our bodies and yet completely focused on the body as an object rather than sacred space. My teachings lead students on an inquiry that ultimately brings them back to their first homes. Our bodies pick up more information than our conscious minds can process, by bringing people home they can begin to have a deeper dialogue with their physical selves and the world around them. By noticing the sensations they experience, or by noticing the energy of a space they can begin to open up to how powerful we really are, and begin to make change.
As for edges, we all have obstacles we come up against – insecurity, fear, a perceived lack – and these play out on the yoga mat just as in life. By nudging up against an edge on the mat – a physical or mental edge – and approaching both the experience of the body and the mind with curiosity and playfulness you can begin to learn how to move through those edges off the mat as well.
It’s all a practice, and it’s all connected.
How do you most like to celebrate your body?
Every way I can, but mostly it’s the simple pleasures like a slow Saturday morning yoga class or spontaneous dance parties in the living room with my baby or a long walk in the forest or along the sea. Delicious, nourishing food is important to me. I love the sweetness of allowing myself an extra five minutes in bed in the morning to stretch out fully. I love a good long drink of water. I love submerging completely in the ocean. I love placing my hands over my heart. I love deep eye contact with those I love. I love cuddling my baby skin on skin.
Do you have a sacred space? What does sacred mean to you?
I do have a physical sacred space in my home, but I believe sacred is what you create with your energy and intention. I create sacred space when I’m having a video chat meeting with my business partner, or meditating as I take my nightly shower before bed. But I’ve also carved out a space in my home that’s mine…my altars, my art, my work. It’s colorful and bright and messy and sacred.
Rituals can be a multitude of things what are a few of your tried and true rituals?
There are so many. I was recently told that I was a monk in a past life and that I loved that life because of it’s simple rituals – rise, prayer, meal, vespers.
I think my rituals serve to remind my body of its lightness and my soul of the earth.
They are simple things like tea in the morning with my love and my daughter, tidying up my space and lighting a candle as I sit down to do my daily work. Prayers of gratitude sprinkled throughout the hours, an altar to bring sacredness to a project or to help a friend.
For a long time I’ve had this crazy idea I call the “Good for You Project.” What if we could create a list of all the things we should do for ourselves to find bliss based on the many health, happiness and longevity studies that have been done. The good for your body things like eat an apple a day, eat 12 almonds a day, drink your weight in water, exercise for 20 minutes 3x a week or the social things like spend time with friends, stay off social media, have dinner together. But since that list would be insanely long, I imagine you’d spend your whole day just trying to do all these things!
So for now, I created a sheet called my “DAILY”. On it are those things that I’ve learned help me to be healthy and feel whole and fulfilled. I try to do as many as I can each day, without grasping…allowing them to happen naturally to become habits.
In some ways, these are my tiny offerings to a life well lived.
How do you nourish your wellbeing on a typical day?
My daughter turned one in January and it felt as though my body finally fully exhaled. Everything about the first years with a little one is about learning a new way of being, and well-being can take on a survival-like quality.
So lately it’s making sure I’m eating well enough and drinking enough water and taking my supplements so that I can nourish her. It’s getting outside in the sunshine, getting bodywork done, making time with my love and my friends, staying offline as much as possible. And sometimes nourishing my well-being means focusing entirely on a project in front of me and busting my ass to meet a deadline. I think balance is a dangerous myth, quite frankly. Rather I prefer to focus on what is beautifully, mindfully in front of me.
You also said:”Tuning-in, noticing and listening to the inherent wisdom of your own body.”What is your wisdom whispering to you today? What is it asking of you?
My word for the year is bhaktim – which is Sanskrit for “to devote.” I chose a verb because I needed a word that inspired action.
My wisdom is asking me to deepen my commitment, to devote myself, to the myriad ways I feed my soul, as that feeds my daughter’s soul, my love’s soul and the soul of the world.
And, it’s asking me to not put my life on hold because I have a baby, as that only provokes the martyr archetype to come up for me. Instead, it’s asking me to discover all the ways my life can expand to include her. And always, behind all of that, my wisdom whispers…lighten up.
Tell me how you rise up in fullness?
Walking in the forest. I feel as though I’m in a cathedral directly in communion with the sprit world.
What supports your authentic self? Your true expression of yourself?
Nature. Paint. Light.
Tell me about the love you give to yourself, to the world?
This sums it up for me: She walks in beauty. I imagine myself embodying this idea so fully I am completely saturated with it and it radiates out of me showering everything with feather-light glitter.
Lastly, tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I want to become a living prayer.
I intend to keep chipping away at the ideas that prevent me from knowing I’m beloved and one with the earth, the sky, water, fire, intuition, humanity, the cosmos, and the spirit world. These are things like skepticism, palpable anxiety, self-doubt and fear. I want to be bold. I want to continue to learn and seek. I want to surprise myself.
I intend to be a model of health, wholeness and unconditional love for my daughter. I want her to feel confident, know she’s loved and have the courage to walk her own path.
And later, I intend to be a spirited old crone serving up easy laughter and cookies to Lyla, Bryan, our grandbabies and the tribe of beautiful spirits that we have gathered over the decades.
Want more of Michelle Madden Smith? I thought so!
Join us again in 2015 for this 5-week Online Journey into the depths of Shamanic Painting with Pixie Lighthorse.
Creative living and spiritual practice represents all that is mysterious, alive and juicy in every one of us. This freeing process is release, it’s color and spirit in motion, it’s a deep embrace of What Is, and an intentional honoring of life itself. This class is a convergence of everything Pixie knows about spirit and art all rolled into one.