Interview With Michelle Yeap, Founder/Owner of Flowtime Yoga

Please share a bit about who you were and what your life was like growing up?

I was born and raised in Toronto. My mom is Chinese-Latin American, and my dad is Chinese-Malaysian, so I grew up influenced by diverse cultures – from the food we ate, to the music played at home, to the languages spoken amongst family. My older brother was my childhood role model, and I recall being eager to do anything and everything he did; from collecting hockey cards, to playing with Hot Wheels and Transformers. I had always been encouraged to explore different interests, so my childhood was packed with activities. Art class, swimming lessons, skating lessons, dance class, math class, Chinese school, and piano lessons filled up a lot of my free-time. I genuinely loved going to school and seeing friends, and recall tossing and turning on Sunday nights, too excited for the start of a new week (definitely no Monday blues at the time!).

As I moved through middle school and high school, sports and dance became more of a focus. A typical day often included field hockey, flag football, or track & field practice in the morning and afterschool, followed by two hours of dance training. I spent about 12 years in ballet with the Royal Academy of Dance, eventually training in the pre-professional vocational program which was designed as preparation for a career in dance. Whether dancing on stage or sprinting down the field, I loved being in a state of “flow” where you’re living in the moment and nothing else seems to matter.

There was a crucial moment that shifted your life. Can you share about the injury that changed everything? What was it like to have your future shift so abruptly? How did you deal with all the rehab? Was there anything - a quote, a person, a goal - you held onto to keep your focus through it all?

Yes for sure – I was 15 when it all started. I’ve replayed the incident so many times in my mind that I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a few weeks before a dance performance that I had spent nearly a year preparing for. Rehearsals were intensifying, and I was feeling the burnout from all the flag football practices happening around the same time. During the final varsity flag football game of the season, I was on the line of scrimmage when the quarterback yelled “Down… set… hut!” ... a girl from the opposing team charged towards me, and with my cleat still planted in the ground, I did a sharp turn. There was a loud horrifying pop, followed by excruciating knee pain. I knew something had gone terribly wrong. The first thing that came to mind was actually “no this can’t be happening… the show is coming up."

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had torn my ACL and meniscus. I was unable to walk for about a month, and sports and dance were out of the question for about a year. Not wanting to go under the knife, I worked with a physiotherapist to try to recover conservatively with rehab. Prior to the injury, I had wrapped my identity around being a “dancer” and “athlete” and when that was stripped away, I went through a phase of trying to rediscover who I was again.

A year later, I started feeling a bit better and field hockey season was around the corner. My knee was still unstable, but I trained myself to play while pivoting only with the non-injured knee, thinking that was a smart idea at the time (not an approach I would recommend). I made it through tryouts, but a few games in, I reinjured the same knee and was sidelined for the rest of the season. In desperate need of cardio, but barely able to walk, I decided to skip on the treadmill (almost like limp running) – it worked briefly, but not surprisingly caused more damage in the long run (also would not recommend this).

After another year of rehab, I was asked to play for the Touch Football Ontario League. Unable to resist the temptation to play, I joined the team and had a blast travelling to different cities to play. A few games in however, I reinjured my knee and this time was sent to the ER. An MRI confirmed a complete rupture of the ACL and meniscus, and I received the news that surgery was the only option if I ever wanted to play sports again. By this point, I was 18, and remember it being one month away from my 19th birthday. Not wanting to spend my birthday on crutches, I scheduled the surgery for after my birthday.

Laying on the sofa, unable walk post-surgery, I contemplated hiring a personal trainer to help me find new ways to stay in shape – perhaps with upper body cardio workouts. As a student though, the cost of hiring a personal trainer would put a strain my wallet. I looked into becoming a personal trainer instead, and concluded that that was the better investment – that way I could train myself and help others as well. It ended up being the best decision. I began studying the anatomy of the human body intensely, and was fascinated. Intrigued by the process of ACL surgery, I would stay up past midnight reading every article and textbook I could find on the topic. I was an accounting major at the time, however after spending more time studying the human body than accounting, nearly applied for a transfer to kinesiology.

Rehab after ACL and meniscus surgery is long and arduous – it’s about a year of having to relearn how to walk, jog, run, cut, pivot, etc. The sports injury clinic became my second home where I would spend hours on end after class. To help me stay focused, I kept my eye on the prize – the vision of eventually being able to play sports or dance again. These visions became so vivid in my mind, that I would often dream of sprinting down the field or pirouetting across the stage, only to wake up and realize that it would be a few more months until I’d reach the clear-to-jog milestone. One quote that helped me was “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, but eventually it will subside. If you quit however, it will last forever”. That was the wallpaper that appeared on my phone as a mental push not to give up.

A year after the surgery, I was sent back to the surgeon as something seemed off. I heard words I never expected to hear – “ACL recovery… unsuccessful… we’re going to have to redo it”. This time I had to donate parts from my left knee, to fix my right knee, which meant surgery on both knees at the same time. The post-surgery experience was challenging but eye-opening. Being in a wheelchair allowed me to gain new perspectives – I realized that people would speak to me more slowly as if there was an issue with my brain as well. I started to understand how others in a wheelchair may feel, and the desire to be treated like everyone else, rather than someone “different”.

Pushing through yet another year of rehab, I reassured myself “just one more time, and I’ll be back on the field. I’ve done this before, so it’ll be easier this time”. I was in my 3rd year at the University of Waterloo, and reminded myself that if I recovered soon, there would still be some time to play sports in university. Only a few months passed however, when I was told once again “the surgery was unsuccessful, and will need to be redone”. I could not believe my ears.

I was sent to consult with the Medical Director for the Toronto Raptors, known to be the top ACL surgeon in the country. He told me that in order to repair the knee, he would have to perform a complex two-stage revision. The first surgery would be to remove all the screws and fill the previously drilled tunnels with cement. Then 6 months later, the second surgery would be to redo the ACL reconstruction all over again. Once again, I was told that if I wanted to play sports again at the same level, this was the only option. The thought of not playing sports for the rest of my life was even more overwhelming, so I pushed through the final two surgeries.

As tough as it was physically, the mental battle was definitely tougher. It’s like having a carrot dangled in front of your face, only to be taken away over and over; or like working on a big project for a year, only to have it tossed in the garbage...again and again. However, this 10-year journey allowed me to develop in many ways - learning countless lessons, skills and perspectives. While going through physical rehab, I also worked with a sport psychologist who introduced me to ‘mindfulness’ for the first time. I found it incredibly fascinating that there are techniques to reduce physical pain using the power of the mind. Often times, it is the mental barriers that prevent athletes from making a full comeback, and I was intrigued learning ways to train the mind to overcome the fear of reinjury. She also taught me the importance of having a “vision” in order to achieve the dream of getting back on the field.

During this 10 year comeback journey, I realized that there was a gap in the sports injury world where the mental impacts are too often overlooked. To address that, I spent a few years while injured working on building a platform that I wish I had, to help improve the recovery experience for other injured athletes across the globe. Being able to provide a platform for others to inspire and motivate one other through their story, and connecting athletes who were going through the same obstacles at the same time, was incredibly rewarding for me. Knowing that something good could come out of this negative situation motivated me. It’s expected to be incorporated in a sports injury facility in Toronto soon, and I can’t wait.

How did yoga become a focus for you in your recovery? When did the seed get planted to embrace yoga as a career?

I stumbled across a yoga studio while going for a jog during my masters. For years, different friends had tried to convince me to take a ‘hot yoga’ class, but the thought of being in a heated room, moving slowly did not seem one bit appealing. However on this day, I saw a large group of people hustling out of this Waterloo yoga studio, sweating and smiling, as if they had just finished a workout. At this point, I was still considered “injured” and with sports and dance eliminated, I was more open to trying other activities – so I walked into the yoga studio and gave yoga a chance. After one class, I was instantly hooked. I realized that yoga wasn’t “boring” as I had expected. 

At the time, I was pursuing my Chartered Accountant designation, and there was also a lot of pressure associated with that, on top of rehab. However, I found that no matter how stressed I felt stepping into a yoga class, I always stepped out feeling relaxed and stress-free – like pushing a reset button. I also realized that a lot of the rehab exercises, were also yoga poses or variations of it. I started to embrace yoga as another form of rehab – one that I truly enjoyed. It allowed me to access that “flow state” again, and experience that “natural high” feeling as you come out of a sports game. I ended up having part 1 of the final ACL revision around the same week as the UFE (the 3-day CA exam), and felt the anxiety of both – however doing yoga before the exams, after each day of the exam, and before the surgery, made a huge difference in every way.

After being a student of yoga for years, and loving it, I took the next step to become an instructor. Teaching yoga allows me to combine a lot of what I’m passionate about – personal training & fitness, mindfulness, psychology, creative movement, rehab exercises, creative ideas, and my background in dance. Most importantly, I wanted to help share the transformative mental, emotional, and physical benefits with others, that I had experienced myself.

What inspired you to found your business Flowtime Yoga and why did you chose to focus on providing quality corporate yoga classes?

During the pandemic, a company reached out to me inviting me teach on their virtual platform. Initially, I doubted whether people would be interested in a virtual fitness class (let alone pay for one), but figured there was no harm trying. There was still a stigma over “virtual classes” in the earlier days of the pandemic. However, as the pandemic dragged on, nearly the whole fitness industry went online, and to my surprise, there was a real demand for virtual yoga classes. People were eager to take classes from the comfort of their home, to stay active and boost their spirits. With all that was going on in the world, mental health issues were becoming more prevalent, and I wanted to do my part in helping to address that.

I’ve always enjoyed “creating”, and I desired building my own business instead of teaching on another company’s platform. I started off teaching friends and family, and then began securing gigs for bigger companies, all through word of mouth. I attended a lot of virtual classes myself, and feel that the production quality is essential for a ‘quality experience’. Often times, I would experience classes with a blurry camera, dark room, or poor sound quality. I told myself that if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it right, so I invested in professional 3-angle lighting, professional sound equipment, and a higher quality camera. It made a big difference in the experience, and I recommend the investment to anyone running virtual classes.

Yoga mat cut into 100 pieces and turned into keychains for corporate event. 

The mindfulness and meditation aspects of yoga are important, yet yoga teacher training programs often only scratch the surface in this area. During the pandemic, one of my friends suggested that I apply for the RBC Future Launch Scholarship – doubting whether I had a chance, and not thinking too much of it, I wrote and recorded a rap song for fun (a hobby picked up in high school while injured), only to find out that I had been selected to win $1,500. I put the money towards a Meditation Teacher Training program, which helped me gain valuable skills, to provide higher quality experiences.

How do these classes work and what is your goal for the employees who attend?

Initially, I taught virtual classes open to the public where anyone could purchase single class passes or class packages through the website. However, I now focus exclusively on teaching corporate and private group classes. I offer both in-person (usually at the park), and virtual classes for companies including Deloitte, CIBC, IIROC. The goal of each class varies, largely dependent on the participants in the class.

Currently, I’m the national yoga teacher for IIROC and teach weekly virtual classes to employees across Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal. For these employees who work in high-stress environments, the goal is to reduce stress and tension, both mentally and physically. During these classes, we work on reversing the negative effects of sitting, while fine-tuning the body for longevity, and resetting the mind. I also teach for Miss Asia Canada, which is one of the largest pageants in Canada. For these students, the classes are generally more challenging, with greater emphasis on building strength and stamina, improving posture, and reducing stress. Every class has an element of mindfulness weaved throughout the class, and I make it my mission to ensure that each student feels more at peace by the end of the class. By now, I’ve taught over 100+ classes during the pandemic, and it’s truly been a rewarding experience.

I met you at Vancouver Fashion Week FW22 and was intrigued by what you were doing. Can you share a bit about how you came to be a part of this event and what you offered to all those working behind the scenes?

As the official yoga teacher for Vancouver Fashion Week (VFW), I offered mini yoga sessions throughout the week to those involved in the production – from models and designers, to hair-stylists, make-up artists, and photographers. Different sequences were created for different audiences. For example, for models, the focus was on improving postures and easing nerves prior to walking the runway... for photographers, the goal was to reduce strain in the back, neck and arms… and for hair stylists and make-up artists, it was all about reducing tension from standing for hours on end.

Flowtime Yoga at Vancouver Fashion Week

I was offered this opportunity by the founder of Vancouver Fashion Week, Jamal Abdourahman, whom I was introduced to while teaching yoga for the Miss Asia Canada pageant (a few of the pageant titleholders were also involved in the show as runway models, along with the Miss Asia Canada media team). Jamal recognized that yoga could bring positivity, peace, and inspiration to his teams working under pressure behind-the-scenes. This was the first time yoga was brought to VFW since its conception in 2001, and I was honoured to be part of this incredible event. I’m grateful for the generous sponsors who supported me being a part of this event: StelladellaiPurle, and Trochi Luggage.

I'd love to end with a favourite quote - one that speaks to you personally?

One quote that speaks to me is “Option A is not available, so let’s kick the sh** out of Option B”. It was from Sheryl Sandberg’s book called “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy”. I read this book while recovering from my final knee surgery, 10 years after the initial injury. For me, Option A was sports and dance – I loved the high-intensity and adrenaline. Yoga was my Option B. Sometimes life throws curveballs, and our initial plans are no longer possible. We can either sit and dwell over Option A, or we can embrace option B and make this new plan the best it can possibly be – and in doing so, sometimes life works out in ways better than we could have imagined.

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