leaving corporate life

I often think about a conversation I had years ago with a close friend, complaining about trying to balance a demanding job, a new marriage and life in New York City. Seemingly out of nowhere, I told her that I just wanted to move back to Washington, DC and open a yoga studio, leave corporate life, as if that would be the answer to all my problems. I had no idea how prophetic that conversation was—without ever intending to act upon it, I ended up doing exactly that a few years later.

The infusion of yoga into the American cultural landscape has fueled another trend—the fleeing from high-powered jobs to seek a more fulfilling calling. Think back to the ’80s and ’90s, when being an obsessed workaholic was viewed as the key to success and big bucks. In the last 15 years or so, people began to question these values and “lifestyle-friendly” and “life balance” became buzzwords in the workplace.

Consider how many Americans find yoga: They try it as a new way to exercise and reduce stress. As they develop a practice, they start to recognize and address the imbalances in their bodies, minds and lifestyles—and many also start to evaluate how to make positive changes to eliminate these imbalances.

From corporate life jungle to yoga oasis

The first area that typically gets questioned is work: How can I get rid of all my work-related stress? I love going to yoga class and how it makes me feel more centered—how can I extend that into other areas of my life? Soon going to yoga class just isn’t enough and people feel the need to make bigger changes that reflect the benefits they are experiencing through their yoga.

I am one of these people; this is the path I took to yoga. Following a meticulously crafted education, complete with the requisite two-year first job in related field and an MBA, I landed my dream job with cosmetics giant L’Oreal in New York City.

Over the years my career progressed, and so did my stress. It still sounded like a dream job to many—developing skincare and makeup products, working with beauty and fashion trends, traveling to Paris—but it was a demanding, competitive career that didn’t leave a lot of room for the other things that were important to me.

I had always been motivated to work hard and be successful; I didn’t anticipate “burning out” so quickly, and at only 30 wondering how much longer I could keep this up.

I remember leaving the room during stressful, all-day meetings to take a deep breath and tell myself, “It’s only makeup!” During my NYC career-girl days, I discovered yoga and journeyed down the path from cool new way to exercise and, “Wow! This makes me feel great!” to, “This is a major priority in my life and absolutely necessary for my sanity so I will make whatever excuses at work that I need to in order to make sure I get to practice.”

A series of life events, including 9/11, led to an unexpected move back to Washington DC, where I had attended college and lived before moving to Manhattan. I left my position with L’Oreal somewhat abruptly and reluctantly, and floundered for quite some time with the lack of career direction in my life.

I realized how much of my identity had been defined by my job, which I found frightening. I believe this is what led me to make the shift from practicing yoga to making yoga my “job.” If my identity was going to be defined by my work, then I was going to do something that I really believed in.

I took the best online yoga teacher training program and set up shop in our basement, teaching small groups of friends. Friends told friends and my clientele grew, as did my confidence in my teaching skills. I loved sharing yoga with people and helping them to discover a way to improve their health and well-being. I loved teaching—I had never imagined myself doing this, and it was great!

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But amazingly enough, amid all these feelings of fulfillment, something was missing. I missed business. My random escape-the-world idea from years before was becoming a reality; I developed a plan to open a yoga studio in my favorite neighborhood of Georgetown in DC. Another thing I had never imagined myself doing was starting my own business—I preferred the security and visibility of a big company—but as we all know, yoga is about self-discovery and it was taking me on a journey I had not anticipated.

After so many years of meticulous planning, it was a relief to let go of that and surrender to a different kind of process. Now this was really becoming a dream job!

Georgetown Yoga opened in the fall of 2002. The irony of leaving the demands of corporate America for a yoga career is that I never worked as hard as I did during the start-up phase of my studio.

I was the toughest boss I had ever had. But the rewards were unimagined; I saw the impact of almost everything I did and how it affected our yoga students, and later on how the efforts we made together as a studio affected our community. I received cards that made me cry, telling me how yoga deeply changed students’ lives; through yoga I met amazing people I would have otherwise never met; I redefined the boundaries of what I believed myself capable of doing.

Keeping a fledgling small business alive is incredibly challenging, but the creativity it requires is stimulating and energizing in a way that corporate life never was. Not that I wasn’t challenged in my previous career, and I loved what I did in a lot of ways—but it made all the difference to be living my job. As one of my favorite teachers, James Brown from YogaWorks in LA puts it: “My favorite thing about my yoga career is that my work and my life are the same thing.

It’s all living all the time. There’s no drudgery. It’s not all fun, but it is all real, good life”. I couldn’t agree with him more. (Prior to his yoga career, James had careers in the Navy and as a nightclub promoter.)

It isn’t, however, always smooth sailing and happy blissed-out yogis at Georgetown Yoga. Like anything else, owning a yoga business has dramatic ups and downs. I am always surprised by the people that think I get to do nothing but yoga all day long, that I never get stressed anymore, or—this one always amazes me—that I don’t work very hard. There have been times where keeping momentum going has been a struggle, whether it’s been for personal reasons or because the business end has suffered.

Sometimes I actually miss being told what to do, or the thrill of my former glamorous job. Chrissy Carter from YogaWorks in NY used to be an equities trader on Wall Street before changing careers in 2004; when asked what she missed about her previous life, she said, “I miss the stilettos. There was a thrill that came from working with so much money—to be a part of the big trades, the big people and the big players in the world.”

As someone who also switched Prada for Prana and still loves the world of beauty and fashion, I can relate. But that’s when I remind myself how much my previous career, not to mention life, was based on appearances. Making the choice to make yoga my work has cultivated a sense of the genuine and a real ability to recognize what is important in my life.

And it isn’t the newest hottest handbag anymore. As Chrissy adds: “I knew in my heart I wasn’t meant to work on Wall Street forever and that I wanted a more fulfilling career—I wanted to believe in what I was doing with my life…making your passion for yoga into a career is really about aligning your intention as a teacher into every business decision you make.”

A high-powered job is obviously not without its own set of rewards, but the true question becomes, for how long is it sustainable? The turning point is when you are able to recognize the level of trade-off involved and what kind of impact that will have down the road. Making a dramatic career change is not without its risks and trade-offs, but for me it feels much more comfortable and sustainable, and the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

As people are initially drawn to yoga to help cope with stress in their lives, they often subsequently discover it becomes the catalyst for career change. Cathy Cox, also of YogaWorks in California, was a social worker specializing in family violence for 14 years. In a field where giving of yourself is mandatory, she was sapped. “I had nothing else to give,” she says. “I was all used up in the field.” So she quit her job in social work to teach yoga, where she felt she could continue giving without draining her own resources.

An interesting side effect of making yoga your full-time career is how people react to this change. Many are shocked, which I find to be a reflection on our society and the value it places on high-profile, high-income employment.

Chrissy Carter’s former Wall Street employer sat her down to explain to her how much potential income she was walking away from. (She adds, “I knew in that moment I had made the right decision!”) Many don’t view teaching yoga as something to be taken seriously: Cathy Cox’s ex-husband thought it was “cute” that she taught yoga, until she opened her own studio and the level of commitment that required clashed with his own career goals.

This ultimately led to their separation. I find it amusing that people often ask me why I bothered to get an MBA if all I was going to do was teach yoga; it used to hit a nerve (why indeed?) and I would launch into an explanation about how owning a studio is, in fact, a business. I would love to sit these people down and explain my journey to them, and discuss how life and yoga have proven to be the best education of all. Instead, I just smile to myself and sit comfortably with the knowledge that I wouldn’t go back and do anything different even if I could.

I think there is a misconception that once you make a big career change, particularly if it’s to yoga, work life will be so much easier to navigate because you will be doing what you love. While there is truth to that, I have to say that some of the biggest work challenges I have encountered have been in my yoga career.

My biggest challenge as a yoga business owner and yoga teacher is finding a balance between being yogic and being businesslike. It is hard to find equanimity when you find out someone is stealing from you. Managing a staff of yoga teachers has been a lot more thorny and complicated than I ever imagined. How could there be so much conflict among yogis?

How about the student that makes a scene because the yoga class or workshop wasn’t what they expected? Well, yogis are people too and human nature has its darker side. But over the last few years I have realized that within these situations the greatest opportunities for learning and growing my yoga practice can be found.

I don’t know if I would have been able to see things that way while climbing the corporate ladder and trying not to look down or get knocked off. The perspective I have gained from my yoga career has been yet another unanticipated gift.

Another wonderful shift that I have experienced in my yoga career has been learning to let go of the achievement driven side of a typical career. In American culture we value achievement.

While learning to let go of this, I have found a way to make peace with it too, since it is my cultural heritage. So there is a balancing act involved. Obviously I have to achieve certain goals in order to make a yoga business work, but I have strived not to view my own yoga practice and teaching through this lens. I am not achieving higher qualifications by taking more yoga training; I am evolving my understanding of yoga and myself.

And who can ever get enough of that? It doesn’t matter how many years or hours I’ve taught, because if I am not present and connected to my students at that very moment, my 1,000th class could be worse than my very first.

Yoga is a lifetime of continuing education. That is its great appeal. Liana Sheintal left a position in finance at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to become the full-time manager of Georgetown Yoga. “It is encouraging to notice that in my free time, I still choose to do things that relate to my full-time job,” she comments.

This is one of the benefits of making the switch; you do yoga all the time because you choose to, not because you feel obligated or because it is necessary to advance your career.

To Depart – Leaving Corporate Life

The yogic career path will be very different for each person and it is important to be open to the inevitable ups and downs involved in the process. But as yogis, whether we are students, teachers or studio owners, we all want the same thing—quite simply, more peace in our lives.

And it’s wonderful that in our fast-paced, achievement-oriented, technology-obsessed culture we have allowed the alternate universe of yoga to flourish and take hold. So do whatever you can to support the growth of yoga for all that it is, a heritage, a lifestyle, and yes, a business.

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