Q + A with International Yoga Founder, Michelle Fliegauf
As 2019 comes to a close, International Yoga wraps up its tenth year leading retreats across the globe. As we surpass this milestone and move into a new decade, we thought we'd reflect on how far we've come. It all started with one woman's vision to bring together yoga and travel as a way to spark personal and global transformation. After 10 years, International Yoga has led over 200 retreats in 20 different countries, and we're still counting! To celebrate the conclusion of this milestone year, we sat down with Michelle to find out what started it all and where we're headed next, pun intended!
Q: What led you to start your own company 10 years ago?
A: It all really started when I was a little girl. As a child of immigrants, I spent my summers in Europe where I learned to speak other languages and observe other cultures. This sparked a desire to see more! When I was fifteen, I organized my own journey to France as an exchange student. I spent my college years studying abroad in Heilsberg, Paris, and Madrid, where I completed my degree in International Relations. After I graduated I continued to travel, backpacking across South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. I would come home to the States and work for a year to save money for my next adventure. I went to these countries not knowing anyone. I was hungry to learn more and challenge myself to grow outside of my comfort zone.
It was after many years of personal travel that I wanted to settle down more. After working for another travel company and then a local yoga studio, I started organizing retreats for teachers on my own! International Yoga was born out of my love for yoga, experience with world travel, and desire to help foster the same personal growth and connection with the world for others.
Q: It sounds like your love of travel is at the heart of the company. Where did yoga come into the picture?
A: I took my first ever yoga class in my mid-twenties. I was home from traveling and began practicing regularly at my local studio. At that time in my life, the practice helped me stay grounded during times of transition. When the travel company I was working for started to struggle after 9/11, I took a job working at that same studio, which is now YogaWorks. Yoga retreats were few and far between back then. I started to play with planning trips for teachers who expressed interest, and it blossomed from there! When YogaWorks bought the studio, I reached out to the CEO at the time and asked him if I could keep doing what I was doing on my own. He said yes and IY was born! We are now the preferred retreat management company for YogaWorks.
Q: How has the retreat industry changed over the years?
A: The yoga market has really transformed over the past decade. There are so many retreats to choose from today. But it's not always an easy business and can be not as glamorous as it looks! I am proud that we’ve managed to do it well and be a leader in the industry. I think that's really because our focus has always been on ensuring the quality of the traveler’s experience from start to finish.
Q: You recently returned from IY's first-ever Morocco retreat! Can you tell us a little about that journey?
A: Morocco was magnificent! I spent over six months researching and planning for this new destination and it did not disappoint. What is especially unique about this trip is that over the course of 10 days we journey from the city to the desert to the mountains, all within an hour of each other. It's incredible to see such vastly different landscapes in such close proximity! And with limited time, it's great to be able to maximize what we can show our travelers to create a well-rounded experience. What drew me to add Morocco as our newest destination was the incredible artistry. The design, the cuisine, and the thought that goes into every aspect of their aesthetic make it a truly unique place to visit. The people are warm and the hospitality is exceptional!
Q: It's fair to say you've been organizing trips for quite some time. What are the biggest lessons you have learned?
A: What I love most about this work are the relationships that we build with our teachers and our overseas partners and knowing that we are having a positive impact on the lives of those who travel with us. Over the years I have learned the power of having open and sometimes difficult conversations and of always considering the bigger picture. You have to think about every piece of the puzzle and make it work for everyone involved. That's what makes the relationship last, and this work is all about building relationships - it is my joy!
Now that I am a mother, it's very important to me that I show my children this same view. The photo above was taken when I took my youngest son, who was five at the time, on a trip to Tanzania! My hope is that both my boys fall in love with traveling the way that I did when I was young.
Q: It's a huge responsibility to introduce people to other parts of the world. What values guide your vision when creating a trip?
A: My early days of traveling were in no way glamorous. I lived on $15 a day traveling on public transport or my own bicycle and staying in local youth hostels. These days it's fair to say that I like a little more luxury! But because I have experienced some of the challenges in travel I am able to use this to create authentic journeys while fine-tuning our itineraries to make our trips more accessible and smoothly run for others.
When putting together our retreats, I always try my best to partner with local guides and locally owned properties. I've always been aware of the larger impact of travel and we have to consider the impact we have on the local communities that we travel to. While we have much more to do in this arena we are always looking at ways we can give back. We also do our best to prepare travelers for new environments, encouraging them to be mindful of how they dress and interact with the local culture. It's about immersing yourself in something new, not imposing our ways on another culture and being open to all that there is learn from these experiences.
Q: What makes an IY Journey unique?
A: It's the amazing teachers, talented overseas teams, gorgeous hand-selected properties and our many years of experience that I believe really sets us apart. We are a small team of women who put our hearts into everything that we do and are passionate and proud of our work!
Q: Are there any exciting new destinations we can expect to travel to soon?
A: I've been looking into Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Sicily.
Q: The company has grown quite a bit over the last decade! What's next for you and International Yoga?
A: Hopefully another decade! For the past ten years, I have been busy maintaining the business while raising two kids and now it’s time to step into a new phase of growth! We are expanding into new markets and partnering with teachers in other areas of the country. We are continuing to add more retreats to our roster every year and introduce new destinations when we can!
What I truly hope for the company is that as we become more profitable, we are able to give more and make a bigger impact on a global scale. I'd love to see our trips become carbon neutral. There is always so much more to do!
Thank you, Michelle! We look forward to exploring more of the world with International Yoga in the many decades to come.