I’m on the ground of a second-floor conference room at work. My breathing is loud and unnatural: a deep breath into the stomach, a deep breath into the chest and a release of breath through the mouth, over and over and over again. My fingers are curled up and cramped; tears seep from the corners of my eyes, dampening the scratchy, nostalgically ‘80s-printed carpet that I seem to have sunken into.
A voice breaks through. “Say out loud, ‘I am worthy of love.’”
My shaky voice joins the chorus of “I am worthies” and somewhere inside, a dam breaks.
It’s hard to fully explain the experience of a Breathwork session with Michelle D’Avella. The breathing pattern is hard at first; I think I can’t make it through, that I can’t get deep enough. But after a few minutes, it’s as if time fails to exist and the breath comes easily, illuminating all my broken places and filling in the cracks with pain and hurt and finally, hope. The simplest human function—breathing—pushes my soul higher and higher, until it connects with something bigger than my body. It’s meditation turned up to the max. It’s what I imagine being on drugs is like.
BUT AFTER A FEW MINUTES, IT’S AS IF TIME FAILS TO EXIST AND THE BREATH COMES EASILY, ILLUMINATING ALL MY BROKEN PLACES AND FILLING IN THE CRACKS WITH PAIN AND HURT AND FINALLY, HOPE.
After one session (randomly coordinated by my office as part of a “Feel Good Friday” and somewhat-awkwardly attended with coworkers), I’m hooked.
Michelle, 34, discovered Breathwork—“a healing modality that moves stuck energy and uproots trauma stored in the body”—following a series of synchronicities that led her to seek treatment from a craniosacral therapist for her teeth-grinding habit. A few email exchanges in, the therapist decided he wouldn’t be able to help her due to the underlying root of her problem: her trust and control issues.
“He read me in a way that nobody had before, and I just started sobbing,” she tells me. “I was sobbing because he saw the truth and it was like, Oh my god, I’ve been discovered. He recommended I do Breathwork, and he recommended a guy that he worked with.”
Michelle once explained Breathwork to me like this: The pain and trauma we experience as human beings–it can be anything from being picked on as a kid, to being sexually abused, to grieving the death of a parent–gets stored in our bodies. “The expression of that [traumatic] energy will show up differently for different people,” she elaborates. “If you have a block in your throat you might be grinding your teeth or you might be unable to speak loudly and clearly.” Breathwork is the practice of clearing out those blocks.
“Once those blocks start to clear out, over time you start to show up differently, you start to use your voice, feel more strength and connection to your heart, and speak from your soul. To be honest with you, [my first Breathwork session] wasn’t as powerful as a lot of my clients’ experiences are–I didn’t cry or anything. But I remember things starting to open up enough that it made me want to come back to this work a little bit later.”
As a dedicated student of Michelle’s, finding out that she didn’t cry during her first few sessions is literally mind-blowing to me. She’s guided my Breathwork practice one-on-one, in group settings, on retreat, during virtual workshops—basically, in any and every way she’ll teach me—and I’m sobbing within minutes every time (along with everyone else in the class). But it’s not a sad, scary kind of crying; it’s not even necessarily conscious crying. It’s the soul-deep, cleansing kind of crying that leaves you feeling like you really worked through something and emptied out all the bad thoughts and are ready to face the world head-on again.
IT’S THE SOUL-DEEP, CLEANSING KIND OF CRYING THAT LEAVES YOU FEELING LIKE YOU REALLY WORKED THROUGH SOMETHING AND EMPTIED OUT ALL THE BAD THOUGHTS AND ARE READY TO FACE THE WORLD HEAD-ON AGAIN.
Of course, Breathwork isn’t always like this. Friends who have taken other classes are eager to explain the practice as “hyperventilating” or “getting high on your own supply;” a trippy, spiritual experience but nothing particularly profound. It’s Michelle that makes it different.
She fell into teaching as serendipitously as she fell into practicing. She explains, “At the time I was like, This is working for me–[Breathwork taught] me what it meant to love myself.”
“My relationship with myself started to change, my relationships with people in my life started to change, and it started to open up my heart so that it wasn’t just this intellectual understanding of self-love, it was experiential. Energetically, I started to feel myself having more compassion with people, having more compassion for myself, feeling more comfortable in my own skin, feeling more connected to my purpose—what I call the soul—and feeling a strong knowing about the direction my life was supposed to go. Everything that I discovered is what I teach with people now.”
This would be a great place to end on a “happily ever after” note. “And Michelle went on to bask in her self-love forever and teach others to do the same. The End.” But life rarely works that way, does it?
A year into running her Breathwork business, Michelle was blindsided by a devastating breakup.
We’ve almost all been through the excruciating pain of a broken heart. The pain punches you in the gut, knocks the breath out of you, convinces you to take inventory of your flaws and record all the reasons why you weren’t worth loving. Working through that pain is a Herculean feat for anyone. But when your job is to heal others and teach self-love? It’s a whole new level of hard.
WORKING THROUGH THAT PAIN IS A HERCULEAN FEAT FOR ANYONE. BUT WHEN YOUR JOB IS TO HEAL OTHERS AND TEACH SELF-LOVE? IT’S A WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF HARD.
“I felt like a fraud,” Michelle admits. “Prior to the breakup, Breathwork was part of my daily practice. I would breathe every morning, sometimes my ex would breathe with me before we got up to start the day. I was teaching and running circles during that time. A lot of my life revolved around using my breath–but when I went through the breakup, I was so blindsided and so devastated that I literally just felt like I had become a shell. Nothing was in me that cared about anything. I didn’t give a shit about breathing, eating...everything was gone.”
Michelle switched out of work mode. She didn’t gloss over her pain, or pretend she was OK. She honored her pain, catered to it. She cancelled one-on-one clients and postponed workshops and after two or three months of spending time alone with the pain, Michelle asked her mother to come stay with her in Los Angeles. Her mother’s response— “I can’t save you” —was a wake-up call; if only because Michelle knew, deep down, what could save her.
“I had to make myself [breathe],” Michelle acknowledged. “I was really, really depressed. A lot of times in Breathwork you’re working through resistance...but it was almost like there was no resistance there. Imagine your senses are so heightened that everything feels painful–sound and touch and breath…the breathing wasn’t hard, but being with the pain was close to impossible.”
In returning to the tool that taught her how to love herself years ago, she discovered that the path to healing wasn’t paved only with Breathwork, but with her childhood passion: writing. Michelle published fresh articles to her site, PushingBeauty.com, about what she was going through. As she says, “When you’re experiencing that much heartbreak, you just want to connect with other people who’ve gone through that and come out of it so that you can feel one, that somebody really understands the pain that you’re in and two, that you’re going to get through it.”
I wonder if Michelle had any reservations about exposing her hurt, her backslide into self-doubt. After all, can students really respect and seek out a healer who is still healing herself?
THE PEOPLE WHO’VE BEEN DRAWN TO MY WORK APPRECIATE MY VULNERABILITY. I’M NOT BEING THIS TEACHER THAT HAS ALL OF MY SHIT TOGETHER, BECAUSE I’M HUMAN! IN GENERAL, MY PHILOSOPHY ON TEACHING IS, WE ARE ALL TEACHERS AND WE ARE ALL STUDENTS.
Michelle doesn’t hesitate when she answers, “The people who’ve been drawn to my work appreciate my vulnerability. I’m not being this teacher that has all of my shit together, because I’m human! In general, my philosophy on teaching is, ‘we are all teachers and we are all students’. I try my best to help everyone that comes to me understand that I’m not special—by the ways that I healed myself, they have the ability to heal themselves as well.”
It’s true. As a friend and student of Michelle’s, I trust her completely. She’s not a naturally-bendy, #blessed Yoga instructor-type attempting to contort my body into shapes it was never meant hold. Michelle’s been to all the dark places. Sometimes she goes back to the dark places. But she comes out the other side better for it—and so I trust her to guide me out, too.
As Michelle continued to move through the stuck energy of her broken heart, a book emerged. “I had known that I needed to write a book for a while. In December of 2016, I was doing a Breathwork session and during my session [I received] this clear download of a book—I think I knew it was a book as soon as it came out.”
She took a little less than a year to breathe, write the book, shelve the book, avoid finishing it, and dive deep into the painful process of editing before releasing the result: A 136-page memoir called The Bright Side of a Broken Heart, the culmination of all of Michelle’s work thus far.
This isn't a book that you start, finish, and put away on the shelf. It almost feels like a reference volume, or a book of inspirational poetry to keep on your coffee table so you can flip through the pages on those days when you need a little extra guidance or assurance that everything is going to be OK (i.e. every day). It offers up a raw, straightforward view of the emotional, mental, and spiritual toll of a broken heart. It traces Michelle’s journey back to self-love through Breathwork. It guides readers towards healing themselves with two tools that we all have access to, all the time: our breath and our voice.
Admittedly, I haven’t reeled from this romantic kind of “broken heart” in more than half a decade—but the pain Michelle describes isn’t exclusive to failed relationships.
Reading Bright Side, I felt into everything in my life that’s broken my heart: Being called ugly as a middle schooler. Being told I was too loud, too aggressive. Being reduced to “just a girl.” Feeling unloved by my father. Feeling unworthy of love from anyone. Or, as Michelle puts it in Bright Side, wanting “to be loved more than I wanted to be me.” (Excuse me: Damn.)
FEELING UNWORTHY OF LOVE FROM ANYONE. OR, AS MICHELLE PUTS IT IN BRIGHT SIDE, WANTING “TO BE LOVED MORE THAN I WANTED TO BE ME.” (EXCUSE ME: DAMN.)
She recognizes this universal-broken-heart energy, too. “It’s not just about going through a breakup—it’s actually not at all about a breakup. It wasn’t, ‘Why did someone leave me?’ It was, ‘Why am I so devastated and so raw?’ That’s why I describe it as ‘a dark night of the soul.’ It wasn’t just a breakup, it was actually something much deeper that was here to teach me.”
If there’s one thing Michelle, Breathwork, and The Bright Side of a Broken Heart have taught me, it’s this: When things break—and they will break—keep breathing through what’s broken.