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Life coach helps expats reinvent themselves

BELGIAN life coach Alexia Michiels came to Shanghai as a "trailing spouse" and had to reinvent herself. Now she helps expat women leave their comfort zone and do the same. Sam Riley reports.

Meeting the challenges of expat life in Shanghai is all part of a day's work for Belgian life coach Alexia Michiels.

Arriving in Shanghai in August 2005 as a "trailing spouse," Michiels transformed her own life, discovering yoga and taking a new career path coaching others on how to reach their goals.

It was a chance encounter with a life coach shortly after arriving in Shanghai that put the mother of four on the path to eventually becoming an accredited coach with the International Coach Academy in June 2008 after 18 months of online study.

Michiels explains that a life coach does not give advice or a diagnosis like a counselor or psychologist but supports clients to discover and reach their own goals.

"It is not just about having a discussion with someone over a cup of coffee," she says. "Coaching has a methodology and you have to follow ethical guidelines."

The coaching methodology, Michiels says, is based on the coach listening, questioning, clarifying and then encouraging a client toward action.

"A coach isn't so interested in your past but where you are now, where you want to go and how to get there," she says. "A coach can help you to find your own answers."

Michiels coaches mainly women.

"It is easy for me to relate to a women's story so that is why I decided to specialize in coaching women," she says. "Many women left their whole world when they came to Shanghai - they left their professional careers, their friends and family.

"Everything has to be re-invented here."

Some of the issues she helps her clients grapple with include work/life balance, time management and increasing self knowledge.

"A coach can help their clients achieve a clearer picture of themselves," she says.

Prior to becoming a coach, Michiels spent more than 10 years in the corporate world in the media and marketing industries.

After graduating she spent five years in marketing for consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, then became a weather reader on Belgian television.

She spent two years reading the weather, the realization of a childhood dream.

"I spent two years as the weather girl and it was much harder than I thought," she says.

It was a completely different universe and much more creative than her previous work, but after two years it wasn't enough "because I wasn't able to do things other than reading the weather."

She moved on to a high-powered job with the World Federation of Advertisers, where she helped develop industry best practices in dealing with media organizations.

The family moved to Shanghai after Michiels' husband, Benoit Greindl, funded a position in AOS Realys Group's China office. It manages real estate projects for overseas companies.

The young family jumped at the move as an "adventure."

It was during her first year in Shanghai that Michiels discovered yoga. After practicing for over three years, Michiels became a certified instructor, completing 200 hours of training by the Yoga Alliance in just a month.

She has incorporated many yoga practices into her life coaching methodology, using simple breathing and stretching exercises to help relieve stress and focus the mind.

The two disciplines, yoga and life coaching, have many similarities, and both emphasize focus, balance, discipline and alignment, says Michiels.

An instructor at Nar Cafe Yoga Lounge in suburban Qingpu District, she teaches classes, including those specifically for teens.

As part of her coaching, she offers yoga designed for the workplace. The Yoga@Work program teaches easy exercises and gives coaching tips that employees can incorporate into their daily schedules to increase concentration and productivity while relieving stress.

During almost four years in Shanghai, Michiels has not only transformed her career and discovered yoga but she also gave birth to her fourth child, Eva, in August 2006.

Drawing on her experience as a mother, she also coaches new and expecting mothers, offering them support through pregnancy and after the birth.

Reflecting on the opportunities her Shanghai "adventure" has afforded, she says the key to success has been focusing on the positives of a new life.

It's an idea she passes on to her clients.

"That is the beauty of Shanghai - everything is possible and there are so many opportunities. But you have to be prepared to go out of your comfort zone and it is easier for some people than others.

"But it is only when you get out of your comfort zone, when you really stretch yourself, that you can experience growth and take advantage of the opportunities here," she says.

Alexia Michiels

Nationality: Belgian

Age: 37

Profession: Professional coach and yoga instructor


Description of self:

Dynamic, enthusiast, passionate.

Favorite place: People's Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Strangest sight:

People in pajamas walking backwards ... I love it!

Worse experience: Nothing dramatic I can think about, maybe the four hours it took me on a post-typhoon day, from home to Pudong Airport where my eldest daughters were waiting for me.

Motto for life: "As you live your days, so you craft your life" (R. Sharma).

How to improve Shanghai:

Better public transport for less traffic and environmental friendly measures for cleaner water (rivers, ponds etc).

Advice to newcomers:

Embrace the changes, seize the opportunities to learn and make a conscious choice to focus on the nice and positive things that Shanghai offers.


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