Freelance Yoga Instructor
Sophie Mayoux is a former Coryphée ranking dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet who decided to travel the world after devoting 16 years of her life to the art form. In 2019, Sophie learned yoga from Mr. Bhudasakorn Suriyasongsaeng & Mr. Joseph Jonnoth. She is currently settled in the Himalayan Hilltown of Dharamshala, working as a yoga teacher. Sophie loves trekking, learning new languages, reading books, doing hatha yoga, all while breathing in the beauty of the Himalayas every day.
We asked Sophie to reflect upon her career transition.
While at the Paris Opera Ballet, you seized the opportunity to go on a one-year sabbatical. What led you to this decision?
Sophie Mayoux: Well, I was 25 years old at that point in time; it was the start of my eighth season in the company (after six years at the ballet school), and for the first time after all of these years doing ballet, I was experiencing a kind of weariness about it. Unable to explain why this feeling popped up, I felt bored, and the passion I always had was not there anymore. In the beginning, it had been painful to accept this fact and why my motivation was so low; it was a feeling of wondering what's wrong with me. After a while, I concluded that being frustrated and not doing anything about it was not the solution. It was also heartbreaking to do it only as a job, as ballet had always been my passion. I had a sense of respect for the art form, and there was no way for me to keep doing it without full dedication. It was totally out of the question to stay in the company just because it was comfortable and safe.
On the other hand, I had always dreamed about going on a long journey, but I had never considered it properly because it didn't fit the ballerina life. But the big question was, did I want to continue my ballet career? There was more space to consider my other dreams and desires. I think I became clear about it after a long phone call with my mum one day. I told her about this vague feeling of boredom, and well, I just started crying a lot, and words came out of my mouth about my desire to travel and my need to take a break. I think this talk helped me see clearly and put into words what was really going on inside. Grateful to my mum! In short, I no longer had the same passion for ballet that I had before, which led me to the decision of a sabbatical. I didn't want to bear the frustration of just doing it as a job.
What was the itinerary for your sabbatical?
Sophie: Well, the itinerary was not really precise; everything was so unclear. I had this strong intuition to travel, but I was pretty confused. I knew that I wanted to do the Camino de Santiago (St James Way, in English, a mythic pilgrimage through France and Spain). The idea came to my mind, and I followed it. I thought it was a great way to start as it was in Europe, and the idea of being alone, walking, and having time for myself was tempting. So I started from Arles in France on the 31st of August and walked 1600km in 2 months to reach Fisterra in Spain, the most western part of Europe. That was the clearest and organized part of my journey.
After that, I had planned to travel to Asia for the next 8 months. My idea was to start in Thailand. I knew that many people were backpacking in South East Asia, and I thought it would probably have been a good start considering I was a beginner, and then after a few months, go to Nepal. Since childhood, I have always been fascinated by Tibet and thought that maybe I could travel there one day. After some research, I realized that it would be impossible to backpack properly in Tibet due to the political situation (everything is under surveillance, and the people are not allowed to circulate freely). Instead, the idea came to go to Nepal, on the other side of the Himalayas, and then maybe, India or Mongolia. I had the dream of riding horses in Mongolia for many years, so this was among those ideas, but they were just random ideas, and I ended up booking a ticket for Bangkok. I didn't book any other tickets on purpose, as I wanted to have the freedom to change my so-called plans as much as possible. I knew that I wanted to have some volunteering experience, maybe spend time in a Buddhist monastery, learn about yoga, and connect with the locals of the countries I planned to visit. That was it; it was pretty unclear, but I had faith that it was the right thing to do.
So that was the plan, now let me tell you what really happened! I spent a month in the north of Thailand. Roughly speaking, it was there where I met an amazing yoga teacher and participated in a yoga retreat she organized, and did some volunteering in an elephant rescue center (yes, I love elephants!). It was a time of adaptation to this new lifestyle. In Thailand, I became friends with a French girl who was then going to Myanmar afterward, so we decided to travel to Myanmar together for one month. It was a time of backpacking, adventures, meeting with the local people, a lot of exchanges with travelers, and the most memorable food poisoning of all my travels so far! I ended up in the hospital of a remote village, where no one spoke English!
From there, I decided to fly to Nepal, and that was a real turning point in my travels. I was also beginning to trust my instincts more and more; Nepal is a unique country that took me on a deep, inner journey. I stayed in a Tibetan monastery retreat in Kathmandu, where the schedule was mainly meditation, teachings, and lectures about Buddhism. I learn a lot about myself during this time. I also did a 3-week trek in the Solu Khumbu (Mount Everest area), going through small Himalayan villages to gorgeous Himalayan peaks in white magical landscapes at really high altitudes. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone; it was freezing with no hot water and sometimes no electricity too! But the land is very sacred to the people here; many lamas meditated in caves for years, and I slept in remote Tibetan monasteries. This area is magical and mystical and one of the most powerful places I’ve visited. I was not the same when I came back. I also spent 3 weeks living with a family and volunteering on their farm in permaculture, sharing their daily life.
After this, I hesitated about where to go, as I had only 6 weeks left before I had to head back to Europe, and I was uncertain about getting a Mongolian visa from Kathmandu. While I was considering my options, something inside me told me, Sophie, don’t wait till you're dead to live your dreams, and that was intense. I remember vividly when this thought came to my mind. Mongolia was my dream, so I figured out how to get the visa and flew to Mongolia. It was an experience of the utmost freedom. I lived with a nomadic family for 3 weeks living under a yurt, sharing their routine and my ultimate dream of riding horses every day in the middle of the vast and wild steppes of Mongolia.
In the second part of my Mongolian trip, I met a Canadian guy, who I became friends with, and we were both eager to visit the Tsataans, a small tribe in North Mongolia who are reindeer herders. It was an epic journey as it takes a one-day-ride on a van and then another on horseback. There, we lived under tepees, witnessed the raw beauty of the Mongolian taiga and Tsataan lifestyle, saw our hosts milk the reindeer, rode horses in completely untouched landscapes. Mongolia was a unique and intense experience; I felt deeply connected to the land and the nomadic life. The family I was living with was the most caring, kind, simple, happy people. I discovered that comfort was not related to my level of happiness. For 5 weeks, there were no hot showers; I was only bathing myself in the freezing river. With the Tsataans living under a tepee, I was sleeping on the floor, with just a little cover under me, and it's one of the happiest moments in my life. Galloping through the steppes, admiring the incredible night sky (because of no light pollution for kilometers), and seeing the people live so simply and beautifully. It was so humbling and magical that I never missed the western lifestyle one bit.
After Mongolia, I arrived back in Europe and volunteered for a month in an amazing hostel for pilgrims in the Camino de Santiago. It was a great way to re-adapt myself to the European lifestyle after the Mongolian wilderness and also to close the loop, finishing the trip where I started. I felt so grateful for all the magic and blessings that I received along this journey that I wanted to repay it in a certain sense. So volunteering, giving my time to help, and welcoming pilgrims felt completely logical in that process. And that was it!
It was during this time that you discovered a passion for yoga and its heritage. Did this
inspire you to pursue a pilgrim way of life?
Sophie: Yes, indeed it did, for two reasons. First, the yoga retreat in Thailand helped me discover my passion for yoga and gave me the impulse to learn more about its discipline. I was attracted by it. The other reason was that I wanted to travel to India during my sabbatical; it was one of the destinations I wanted to go to, and it didn’t just happen because I stayed longer in Nepal and then chose to go to Mongolia, and so on. India was the missing part of my trip, so I was eager to learn about yoga and travel to India. India is the birthplace of yoga, so of course, it felt natural to travel to after I resigned from Paris Opera.
What was it like returning to work after the year abroad, and at what point did you then
realize that it was finally time to quit?
Sophie: Oh, in the beginning, it was amazing! I was worried that I would have difficulty readapting myself to the Parisian life, but I was so happy to be back in the studio training and reunited with some of my closest friends. I was also full of the positive and grateful energy that the travel gave me, so the first month was great and joyful.
But the feeling didn’t last long and, sure enough, the weariness I had experienced before the sabbatical came back; I missed traveling. Not settling in Paris, I moved from flat to flat, where I still had some boxes unpacked at my parents' house. So, it became more and more evident that the ballerina life I was living was no longer the life I wanted. I think it took me 3 months to process it all and be sure of my decision. It was a more difficult decision to make than taking a sabbatical because once you quit, you can’t come back, so in those 3 months, I went through a lot of sadness and suffered from insomnia. Slowly, I started to accept the idea of leaving ballet for good. My decision became clearer and final in the January winter break. I decided that the best would be to finish the season and then quit, as there were still 6 months left until the end of the season.
What came next after that? Did you seek out support and funding resources in France to start the transition?
Sophie: Yes, I did from January onward. I started to organize what would come next; finding resources was a crucial part. I planned to quit to have time to travel, learn, and try to figure out which path I wanted to take professionally speaking. It meant that during this time, I would need savings. So, I saved as much as I could. I lived for few months in a friend's flat who was rarely in Paris, which allowed me to save a lot because I was paying a portion of the rent. I also had financial help from the theater, dedicated to people changing careers, so my yoga teacher training course was paid for by the company. I also had my salary for a few months after I left to sustain me during my learning time.
I feel grateful and lucky that I could get such financial support, as I knew money would not be an issue for a while (especially in countries where the cost of living is much less than in Europe), and it gave me the time to find my path and build this new life.
In hindsight, do you think you would have done anything differently in the early days of
your career transition?
Sophie: No, I think I did what was best for me. I always had the feeling that I would never find my path by staying in the company. So I took the risk to leave without a precise plan, without knowing how things will work or not, even though, yes, sometimes, I felt lost in this unchartered path and a bit discouraged. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t have done it differently. I think we never regret taking risks versus choosing safety. I learned to trust the unknown and choose a path that was true to me.
Now you find yourself in Northern India, in the same neighborhood as the Dalai Lama, and with a backyard view of the Himalayas! How does it feel to be on the other side (quite literally)?
Sophie: Well, it feels incredible! I feel truly blessed to live here and to be inspired by my environment. When I was trekking in the Everest area 3 years ago, surrounded by these magical Himalayan mountains, I had this strong feeling of wanting to be back again. So living here, in India, in the laps of the Himalayas, is a dream. And indeed, the Dalai Lama is my neighbor! He has been living in Dharamshala for the last 60 years. Sometimes, I'll take part in the pilgrimage around his residence; it's very peaceful. There is a large Tibetan community around here because of the Dalai Lama. It's an interesting mix of Indian and Tibetan traditions and an opportunity to connect to the Tibetan culture that I have always felt attracted to it.
What’s next for Sophie?
Sophie: Haha, good question! Who knows?
Well, right now, I plan to set up an online yoga platform. I’ve been giving a few classes here in Dharamshala, and I also had a project with an NGO where I gave yoga classes to kids when the schools closed due to the pandemic. However, with the Covid situation, people are not eager to come to an in-person class, etc., so going virtual via zoom and starting a YouTube channel are the likely paths! Right now, I’m shooting the first video and, hopefully, it will be ready soon!
Long term speaking, I would love to find a place to settle (possibly on the Camino de Santiago), where I can welcome pilgrims or travelers, offer yoga class, and develop a sustainable way of life with a garden in permaculture and the likes. Like a creative and spiritual homestay!
What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or about to go on the journey?
Sophie: I always feel uncomfortable giving advice; everyone has their journey, and what worked for me will not necessarily work for others. I can share some advice, but only take what you think will be helpful to you!
In terms of my career transition, I would say, take your time to discover what truly matters to you. Transitioning is very uncomfortable, and I think sometimes we want to avoid it. Remember, it’s also an incredible opportunity to change your life radically. There are many possibilities when you are in a career transition where you can reinvent yourself. But the process takes time, and for me, the answers didn’t come miraculously all in one day; you can feel lost and a bit disoriented during this time. Have courage, trust the process and stay patient, and you will find the path that is true to you.
When it’s about traveling, there is one thing that I recommend. If you feel this inner call to go on a journey, listen to yourself, follow your instinct, and don’t listen to others. There will always be people that ask you: why are you doing this, what about your safety, and what about this and that, what if this happens to you, and you know traveling is not the reality, etc. Not everyone will react like that, of course, and most will probably give you incredible support, but you will also have people who will project their fears onto you, so don’t listen to them! If traveling is a dream, prepare, organize, and do it. Don’t procrastinate. I think too often we think we’ll do it later when we have this or that, but then it never happens. We can be dead tomorrow, you know, so there is no point in waiting to make our dreams a reality. Nothing can replace the joy of being on your inner journey.
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