The Only Time I Feel Centered: An Interview with Shelly Werts

When Shelly Werts first checked out a yoga VHS tape from the library in Hardin County as a high schooler, she was just dabbling in something new. As a sixteen year old, the tapes provided a source of entertainment and exercise that she could do in the comfort of her home. But they also marked the beginning of her yoga practice. Shelly’s yoga practice has grown and evolved with her. Now, she shares her practice with others as one of Your Yoga’s instructors, and yoga has become one of her most important self-care tools. Recently, I sat down with Shelly to talk to her about her yoga practice. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and has twenty years of experience as a mental health professional. Given her professional background, Shelly shed quite a bit of light on the healing and self-care benefits of yoga.

Here’s what she had to say.

To start, tell me a bit about how you got started with your yoga practice.

In high school, when we had VHS tapes, I went to the library and found this tape. I started practicing at home. I grew up in Hardin County, and there was no yoga in Hardin County at all, so it was always at home. So, I was sixteen at the time, and did that for about the last two years of high school. Then I joined the navy, so no yoga for a while. You know, life gets in the way, and at the time I was just dabbling in it and didn’t really know anything about it.

Off and on through my early twenties, I went to several yoga classes. There were some I liked and some I didn’t. It was really nice to get to observe different teaching styles, because what I didn’t like are the same things I would never do to a student now as a teacher– which is things like putting hands on without asking permission to do so, or forcing people into a pose when they just aren’t ready; things I’m just totally against. I saw that happen several times at classes I went to out in California, which kind of turned me off for a little while. I decided that if that was what the classes were about, I would just practice at home. So, I started purchasing more tapes and DVDs and practicing on and off at home.

I went to a few yoga classes [at other studios] again here in Louisville, and felt like I might have been more comfortable at home. I was truly a beginner, and didn’t feel that the instructors were catering to that. It felt like everyone in the room was an expert. They were tying themselves into pretzels, and I couldn’t do that. It discouraged me.

I really didn’t start going to a yoga studio consistently until I started Yoga Teacher Training last september. My teacher is really patient and compassionate, and meets everyone where they’re at– she’s magical. Something about her philosophy just drew me right in. The very first meeting we had, we just hit it off, and I decided immediately to start teacher training.

Since then, I’ve been on this beautiful journey of self-exploration. You know, I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, I don’t ever want to be. When you become an expert– in anything– you have no more room to learn. That’s just my personal philosophy. I never want to be an expert; I want to continue learning. So, I’m on this teacher-student journey, and it’s really just marvelous. It’s so different than being a therapist, because I actually get to share the experience with everyone in the room, rather than being the one that’s mostly listening and providing guidance.

One comment that you made was that your journey with yoga has been off and on. With some bad experiences, you’d kind of get away from yoga for a while, but kept coming back to it. Why? What is it about yoga that kept bringing you back?

It’s the only time that I feel centered, that I feel calm, and that I feel that everything is going to be okay. Truly– other than when I’m holding my son, who’s six, and he just makes everything okay.

I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life, and lots of chaos. It has helped throughout that. You know, there’s a reason mental health professionals become mental health professionals– because we’ve had our own experiences, and I’ve definitely had my share of them. Helping others is an interdependent process. In helping others, it helps me.

That whole experience of being in yoga and connecting the mind, body, and spirit creates this place of peace for me that I don’t experience anywhere else. When I don’t get the opportunity to practice, like if it’s been a really hectic day and I just don’t have time to get to my mat, I notice the next day. For me, it’s my lifeline really. I battle with depression and post trauma, and it’s been my saving grace at time. So, it’s a very personal thing for me to not only practice, but to share it with others. I really like to connect with people on a much deeper level, and yoga is a really intimate way to do that without having to use much verbal communication.

Speaking of your experience as a mental health professional, in your bio on the Your Yoga website, you mention yoga as a way to bridge the gap between mental health care and physical well-being. Would you care to say a bit more about that?

Yeah! So, I think Western medicine has kind of viewed mental health and physical health as these separate entities, when really they’re all a part of the same system. When we think about depression from a western medical standpoint, you know, it’s just the chemicals in the brain and they’re not balanced right. But, really, the heart has just as many neurons as the brain. So when we feel something emotionally– feel heartache in your chest– it’s because you’re really truly feeling heartache. When we feel elated, feel that lightness in our chest, it’s the same thing.

If the mind is affected, the body is going to be affected. You know, think about stress. If your mind is racing and you’re constantly stressed out, the organs in your body are going to get stressed out; think of people getting stomach ulcers or high blood pressure due to stress. The mind being stressed out causes problems throughout the body, and vice-versa. When our body systems are not working properly, it’s going to affect our mental wellness.

I think yoga is a beautiful way to not only address the physical body, but it’s also connecting that mind-body-spirit piece. Without even having a goal of helping fix the neurons in your brain or in your heart, it just happens.The longer that you practice, the more in sync all of those things become.

One question I’ll be asking any time I interview someone is this: if you had to pick one pose or posture as your current favorite, what would it be?

Oh boy… Right now, I’m really digging supported supta baddha konasana (Reclining Bound Angle). My anxiety has been higher in the past couple of months, and that one has really been helping me open and ground.

Do you have any final thoughts or remarks that you’d like to give?

We covered quite a wide range. I really can’t think of anything more, other than what I tell patients and students, even if they’re new to yoga:  just be where you’re at. Whatever your posture looks like is the perfect posture for you. Every person’s practice is a personal experience. I watch a lot of YouTube videos of people teaching yoga, and in one video the person used the term “yoga envy.” We can’t have yoga envy, you know, can’t be looking over at the person next to you and thinking, “oh, I have to be doing that.” You do what feels right in your body, and never push beyond your edges; just know that what you’re doing is the right thing for you.

I think that’s true in life, on and off the mat. I was just telling someone today that whatever choices we make in life are okay, as long as you feel that it is okay 100%. And if you don’t feel that it’s okay, if there’s this nagging pull that says it’s not okay, then don’t do it. We have to listen to our guts, so to speak, and it’s the same on and off the mat.

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Be sure to stop by for one of Shelly’s classes! You can check to see when she’s teaching by viewing the schedule of classes.

Who knows? Like Shelly, you might jump right into teacher training and begin your own beautiful journey of self-exploration. You don’t have to become a full-time yoga teacher to benefit from teacher training. Teacher training is a great opportunity to learn more about yourself and live a better life. Whether you’re a therapist wanting to complement your practice, a business owner or entrepreneur wanting to slow down and be better at managing stress, or an artist looking for a way to calm your mind and focus, yoga teacher training can help show you the way.