Melissa is a professional counselor and yoga teacher in Birmingham, Alabama. She specializes in working with women and LGBT clients of all ages who might be experiencing any number of issues, including depression, anxiety, grief and loss, eating disorders, body image issues, stress and trauma—basically anything we might happen to experience in our lives, even career exploration and transition.
I remember Melissa bringing an open-heart focus and care to her teaching, her adjustments, and her bravery to go in with a beginner’s mind and end up soaring in her first attempt at some advanced arm balance, as others in our class were inspired to do the same.
In her counseling practice, she guides her clients towards an understanding of the mind-body connection, an understanding that yoga has pointed to for several thousand years: mental health is directly related to the health of the body.
Melissa often uses deep breathing awareness, relaxation and gentle asanas in her counseling sessions. Certain yoga postures such as forward folds can calm the mind, as can pranayama, or breathing practices.
In his book, Yoga Mala, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois defines the benefits of this mind-body connection: ‘By the strength gained through this practice, we can come to know the method for bringing the mind and sense organs under control. Thus we can achieve yoga.’
Melissa has a strong background in dance, yoga and pilates. Studying in the Iyengar, Ashtanga and Vinyasa traditions, she teaches Vinyasa Flow style classes at The Yoga Circle in Birmingham.
In her counseling practice, as she talks with her clients, Melissa provides a safe atmosphere where an individual can grow and facilitate change in their lives.
I always enjoy running into Melissa at yoga workshops and kirtans in the southeast, and I always take a moment to reflect on her weekly words of wisdom that she sends out to her clients and friends.
Rumi said: “Do not turn away from the bandaged place, for that is where the light enters you.”
When we focus on something, even when it’s painful beyond imagination, that is yoga. There’s nothing better than getting some extra support when you need it. Often times, bringing to light what hurts or what isn’t working is our yoga practice.
Melissa holds a Master’s Degree in Community/Agency Counseling from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is the current president of the Association for LGBT Issues in Counseling in Alabama.
The next time you’re in Birmingham, drop in on one of Melissa’s yoga classes at The Yoga Circle.
Requests for individual counseling sessions can be set up at Melissa’s website:
BW: Tell us about your counseling service. Why did you start it?
MS: I always knew that I wanted to go in to private practice as a counselor, and I’ve always known that I wanted to be my own boss and have the freedom to do the kind of work that I wanted to do. Last year, I saw a posting for a group practice that was looking for somebody to rent office space for a couple of days a week. It was a week and half before I was supposed to get married and be out of the country for a week, and for some reason, I thought, ‘this sounds like a great idea.’ So I met with them and they loved me and I loved them, and it was just a perfect fit. Within two months, I had almost as many clients as I had wanted. Every time I doubted myself, I would get another sign that this was what I was supposed to be doing.
BW: So tell us about the therapy that you offer.
MS: I see clients individually, and I work primarily with women. That’s my focus, my passion—women’s issues. I do also see some men. We meet individually for whatever a client might be dealing with, for whatever issues they might have on their canvas. Everything from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, family difficulties, grief and loss; I work on just about anything. And I get to work with some really incredible, courageous people—people who are very willing to look very deeply at themselves and their patterns and make very difficult changes. Going to a therapist is just like going to the doctor. You go see a doctor about your cold, why don’t you take care of your mind too?
BW: Does that mean I should go to the doctor for the cold too?
MS: You should talk to your therapist about that.
BW: Tell us about how yoga enters your counseling practice.
MS: Yoga is a huge part of my counseling practice, in several different ways. First, in the way that I work, yoga helps me be more aware. It helps me be more patient; it helps me be more kind and compassionate. It helps me stop and breathe, rather than responding impulsively to something a client says—to stop and think, to be a witness to the process. So my own yoga practice is the foundation of me being able to be an effective therapist.
The work that I do with clients is very much mind-body based. It starts with an awareness of the whole person, not just cognitive or emotional, but also what’s going on in the body, what’s going on with lifestyle, what’s going on spiritually. All of that becomes part of the process, and then it influences some of the techniques that I use. For example, with my clients, I use a lot of relaxation techniques, breathing techniques, mindfulness techniques, and every once in a while, we’ll do some movement-based therapy—gentle stretching to get more in tune with the body and more in tune with the client’s experience in the session.
BW: Do you ever recommend an asana practice to your clients?
MS: Absolutely, if it would be appropriate for that person. I have referred clients to yoga practices because there was a yoga teacher I thought they would be a good fit for. And I do sometimes have clients attend my yoga classes.
BW: How did you find yoga?
MS: I found yoga in college when I was 20. I grew up dancing and doing ballet my whole life. At that time, I was teaching dance. I had some injuries and I was just not real comfortable with where my body was. I needed something different, something to compliment my ballet training.
Somebody suggested that I go take a yoga class. So I went down to this tiny little yoga studio in Tuscaloosa on a Saturday morning and took an Iyengar-based class, and as soon as the class was over, I bought a yoga book and a yoga mat. I knew after that first 1-hour class that it was going to be something that I was going to do for a long, long time.
BW: When you first started, what kept you coming back? What was it about the yoga practice that made you decide ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life’?
MS: Savasana. It was the first time in my life that I had ever felt that level of peace. Yoga was both familiar and different when I first started. It was familiar because it was movement and it was being in my body, because of my dance training; but it was completely different because it was just movement for movement’s sake. At the end of that first Savasana, I was feeling so settled in my body, and I was given permission, probably for the first time in my life, to just rest. It was transformative, and I knew that I wanted to feel that for the rest of my life.
BW: What school of yoga inspires you now?
MS: I really gravitated more towards the Flow yoga. Yet I’m very appreciative that I started with Iyengar. The first style that just really inspired me, kind of knocked my socks off, with my eyes wide open was my first Vinyasa class—it just blew my mind that this yoga practice that I got so much out of, mentally and spiritually, can be so stimulating and creative physically. So Vinyasa is my primary yoga love, where I’ve spent my time.
BW: You like the mechanics of it?
MS: I love the creativity of it, the freedom. My practice does not look the same from one day to the next. It’s completely different on Monday than it was today. I can spend one whole practice doing nothing but arm balances. The next day, it can be all about backbends or all about standing poses. There’s so much freedom. Connecting the poses in a way that most teachers do, it feels like a dance to me. It feels familiar to feed that creative part of my soul.
BW: I understand you offer privates … are privates difficult to teach?
MS: For me, it feels natural because it’s very much like a counseling session in the body. I’m very used to that one-on-one part, just focusing on the person and meeting their needs, so it was a natural jump to start doing privates.
BW: Do you feel like your yoga practice and the philosophy of yoga enters your life off of the mat?
MS: I’d like to think that it influences and informs everything that I do, from waiting in line at the grocery store and observing my own frustration, and then trying to shift that to compassion, trying to respond in a loving way to the person who’s ringing up my groceries, even though I just had to wait for twenty minutes. That’s yoga. That’s challenging.
BW: In a difficult situation, do you go to your yoga practice?
MS: Yes. It’s definitely been a huge coping mechanism for me. I call my yoga mat my ‘safe place’ that I go to whenever I need to heal or to regain the energy to deal with a difficult situation, or even to go mourn. When I lost a very dear friend in the Virginia Tech shootings, I spent so much time in the weeks after that on my yoga mat. Sometimes it would be just sitting on my yoga mat. It wouldn’t even be postures. That was a safe place to go and heal and breathe and re-gather myself.
BW: What is your favorite yoga posture?
MS: Oh, I love them all! It changes. Right now, I’m really loving arm balances and inversions. For a long time, they were huge ego-busters because they didn’t come easily to me. Right now, I’m loving Tri-pod Headstand (Mukta Hasta Sirsasana A) because I’ve just gotten to the point, after 7 ½ years of practice, where it’s even an option in my practice. Everything feels wide open, and you’re upside down, which is just so refreshing, to see the world differently
BW: Tell me a time in your life when you were really amazed about something.
MS: That’s the hardest question ever. I spent my entire yoga teacher training completely immersed in a feeling of amazement. I was amazed at the people and the risks that they were taking, and the honesty with which they were approaching the process—the vulnerability that they were willing to show.
BW: Do you have any special seminars?
MS: Yes, I actually held my first one in October. I did my first workshop with a fellow therapist and yoga teacher, Lyndsey Robinson. We did a half-day workshop for counselors and therapists, teaching them how to incorporate yoga principles into their counseling practice. We also taught some specific yoga postures that they could integrate into their process with clients, as well as how to guide their client in and out of the pose safely, and in what situations each posture would be most effective.