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10 Years Of Yogatown

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By Tracy Billows | owner, teacher

10 years ago, on December 8, 2008, Yogatown opened its doors.

Where do I even begin? 

As I reflect back on the last 10 years, I’m overwhelmed with so many memories and emotions.  A lot has changed since that day, but our commitment & core values remain the same. 

I recall sitting in meditation a few days before we opened our doors, setting our intention and calling in the qualities we wanted our space to represent – a sense of belonging and a place for healing, in whatever capacity that meant for you.  

We wanted to be a place where you were welcome just as you are. A place to shed some layers. A place to disconnect from the craziness of the outside world and the craziness in your head. A place where  you can reconnect with the best version of YOU. 

At Yogatown you can become physically and mentally healthier, but also connect with like-minded Townies who know that yoga is about so much more than being bendy.

There are no words to express my gratitude for this community of yogis, staff, volunteers, and partners.  We’ve all created an incredibly special place together. 

I’m frequently asked about my Yogatown journey, and I can think of no better occasion than our 10th anniversary to reflect on how far we’ve come.

This post is a long one. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Yogatown, keep reading.

If not, that’s okay. Just know how grateful I am to serve this community.

I can’t imagine my life without Townies like you.

So, where shall I start the Yogatown Story?

 

A Darker Side

I’ve struggled with depression throughout a lot of life, but there was no time more challenging than a period during my mid-twenties.

On the outside I was living the dream.  I landed an amazing corporate job right out of university, was making more money than I knew what to do with, recently married, and living in uptown Toronto.  

I was the girl that said YES to everything. I was surrounded by amazing friends, never ending parties, and crazy adventures. I thought I had “arrived”.  I had everything I could ever have hoped for and yet on the inside I was dying.  I felt empty, alone, confused, and scared as hell. 

I did a great job at hiding my depression for many years. I numbed out with drugs and alcohol so that I didn’t have to feel what I was feeling.  It was intense, it scared me, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

There was a point along my journey where things got so bad, I made the horrific decision to end my life.

I haven’t shared this story with many people, but I am now in the hopes that someone reading this who feels they are in a similar dark place, sees that they are not alone and there is help out there.

When I reflect back on that day, I am filled with so much gratitude. While it was absolutely one of the most challenging experiences of my life, it was also a rebirth in a sense. 

I attempted to end my life, and then moments later something else inside took over and saved me.  Something inside me screamed “What have you done? Get help!”, and I managed to get out to the road, flag down a car and get to the hospital.  

I vividly remember sitting in the hospital, contemplating that voice that came from inside – the one that saved me.  Who was that? What was that?  

It was powerful, it was strong, it was loving, it was me – the real me underneath all the shit, the pain, the confusion, the sadness.  

I knew I would still have a long road ahead of me but it was on that day that I decided, I want to live.  

That powerful moment  set me on a completely different trajectory of life.  I vowed to listen more to that voice inside my heart, not the one in my head.  

I had a second chance on life and I wasn’t going to waste it. 

 

Taking Things Into My Own Hands

I really struggled with treatment for my depression. I tried many many things, but nothing seemed to make a big difference.  

I had always been intrigued by the promises of healthier living and started to explore nutrition, exercise, and yoga. I couldn’t believe the impact they had on my physical and mental health.

I cleaned up my diet, started to exercise, and dove head first with everything I had into practicing and studying yoga. I practiced as much as I could, wherever I could.  

I travelled to India for 10 weeks so I could learn from the source, and over the years I’ve done multiple teacher training programs and learned about Ayurveda and holistic health.  

I really don’t know how else to say it other than, yoga saved my life. Literally. 

 

Healthier? Yes! Easy? No! 

I finally decided it was time to quit the corporate world for good. I really didn’t have it all figured out, but knew that was the right next step.  

For many years I tried to listen and pay attention to what my heart was saying, while taking it one step at a time, never entirely sure what the following step might be. There were many days of doubt and uncertainty, but other days I knew I was on the right path and that felt amazing. 

Teaching yoga is not as glamorous as you might think.  I was driving around Toronto, teaching at 5 or 6 studios, mostly nights and weekends, with heaps of smelly, sweaty yoga clothes piled up in my back seat.  

I worked my ass off – more than I had in any of my corporate jobs – but felt so much more fulfilled.  I felt like I had greater purpose and meaning in my life.  

People often ask if teachers get as much out of teaching as students gets out of practicing. Sometimes I think we get more. When I’m teaching, moving around the room, holding space for others, watching them move and breath in unison, feeling their tension and stress dissipate, it is truly magical.  

I recall hearing someone say the things in life we most need to learn ourselves, we often end up teaching.  This is definitely the case for me.  Each time I teach, similar to when I practice, it’s a remembering, a coming home. 

I feel honoured and privileged to share with others something that has helped me so profoundly. 

 

A Shared Dream

In the summer of 2007, I attended the Moksha Yoga teacher training program in Toronto.  It was an opportunity to learn more about myself and others on a whole new level.

It was at this training where I met Paula Romkey, a vibrant woman who also used yoga to heal (crippling back pain).  

For most people, the decision to start up a business with someone you’ve only known for a month would seem crazy, but to Paula and I, there was never a doubt. 

We discovered quickly that we shared a similar passion and dream – to bring the healing powers of yoga to as many people as possible.  

At that training, the idea of Moksha Yoga Ottawa (now Yogatown) was born.  Paula invited me to move to Ottawa and open the studio with her, and my response was a resounding YES!

I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity to partner with Paula and create what has become Yogatown.

Little did we know just how big of a challenge we were had ahead of us.

It was 2008, and we were experiencing one of the worst financial crisis’ of our time. In hindsight, I’m glad I was so naive to what was happening in the financial world.  

I really couldn’t understand why a bank wouldn’t want to give us financing. After all, we had a solid business plan and more importantly, a lot of passion and drive.  In our minds, the world needed yoga more than ever because of the financial crisis and the stress it was creating. 

We talked to every bank, every institution, every friend, and even strangers.  I think we presented our business plan to anyone and everyone that would listen.  I had no idea it would be such a challenge to secure financing. 

After being turned down by almost everyone, there were a couple of angel investors that came from the heavens, just at the right time.  Thank you!  You know who you are. 

The rest of our funding came from “don’t pay for a year” credit cards.  I DO NOT recommend this, but luckily it all worked out.

 

Yoga By Day, The Keg By Night

After a long search we found the perfect location on Preston Street. The former second floor nightclub still smelled of booze and cigarettes, but we could see potential.

We rolled up our sleeves and got to work, doing whatever we could to save money. The entrepreneur’s lifestyle is often romanticized, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

We spent most of our days in coveralls & safety goggles, layered in dirt and dust. Then in the evenings, I’d head over to my serving job at The Keg.  Sleep, wake, work, work, work some more, then repeat.  

One of the things I’m most proud of is the perseverance that Paula and I shared.  We were told by so many people over and over again that maybe we should wait, or start smaller, or partner with someone with more business experience. We heard over and over again the stats on how many businesses fail and why, regardless of passion. 

Even the trades working on the studio challenged us on absolutely everything. But, we persisted.

Eventually it all came together, and four months later we were ready to open.

 

Opening Day!

We opened on December 8, 2008 as Moksha Yoga Ottawa.  

Talk about a “holy shit” moment. We did it!

For the months leading up we promoted everywhere and anywhere.  We plastered up posters, we gave talks and demos on yoga. It’s actually quite hilarious looking back at how ridiculous I must have sounded, telling even strangers, “Come and try yoga, it will change your life”.  

We offered free yoga for our opening week and much to our surprise it went over so well. We were shocked how many people showed up.  

Not everything went according to plan. We had no furniture, and no shower curtains, yet.  The mirror was installed on the wrong side of the door to the hot room, and the heating panels were only half installed for that first class. It was kind of a shit show, but we put our whole hearts and more into every part of it. 

Details were important to us, and still are. Towels were folded the same every time, mats rolled a certain way, and more.

Paula and I taught every class, open to close.  We even had a bed in the office so we could sleep there. 

 

Bring it on!

After that busy first week, things slowed and it took time to grow. It was common to only have 2 or 3 people in a class, and for some classes there was no one. It was a humbling experience. 

We also faced a couple of big challenges shortly after opening. Ottawa experienced its longest bus strike in history, bringing the city to a standstill. Then, after the bus strike ended, Preston Street was closed down for an entire summer for construction. The street was completely ripped up, making it next to impossible to get to our front door. 

Despite the debt, long hours, and countless challenges, we never considered giving up.  We seized every opportunity to educate people about the benefits of yoga.

Some of my favourite memories from those early days are of Paula and I closing up the studio, then heading the Heart and Crown for a drink to chat about everything we were doing right, and the mistakes we were making along the way.  

It’s the most challenging of times when we learn the most about ourselves, and we certainly learned a lot.

 

Living The Dream

Our classes began to grow and people resonated with what we were creating. It finally felt like we were having the impact that we had always hoped for and people started to take notice.  

We had created a safe space where people could show up, be themselves, and discover the benefits of yoga. It was incredibly fulfilling.

We hired teachers, we had front desk staff, and were blessed with a group of dedicated volunteers. Our two-person show was starting to become a family. 

We were also recognized by Ottawa Chamber of Commerce for awards such as New Business of the Year and Top 40 under 40. 

It’s nice to be recognized for your work and effort, but I was always most touched by the private messages I’d receive from clients who shared their personal stories about how yoga had helped them in a meaningful way. 

We decided it was time to dream bigger and share our love of yoga with more people.

 

Yoga Babies

In 2011, three years after Preston St. opened its doors, we gave birth to our second studio in Stittsville.

I say that we gave it birth, because opening a new business is in many ways similar to having a baby.  I think anyone that owns a business can relate.  It’s something you put your entire heart and soul into.  You think you know what you’re doing, but really you don’t have a clue. You just do your best, and you put more care and love into this being, this entity, than you often do yourself. 

That same year, I also gave birth to my first child, Caelan.  The hands free electric double breast pump was my saviour.  I pumped in our staff room, I pumped driving home late from the studios in the evening, and I pumped while doing payroll or working on newsletters.  

I recall back in my corporate days listening to a high-level executive woman give a talk. She said, “As a woman, you can have it all, just not all at the same time.” That always stuck with me.  

It wasn’t planned to open a studio and have a baby at the same time, but you can’t always plan these things, so I just had to go with it and do the best I could.  I’m incredibly grateful for all the support from my business partner, family, teachers and staff at that time.

 

Times Keep Changing

We were proud to be a part of the Moksha Yoga community. It is a beautiful one, filled with entrepreneurs and yogis who are making an important impact on the world.

Yet, as Paula & I continued to grow our business, we realized the Moksha brand was no longer fully reflective of our studios and community.  We made the decision to be true to ourselves, change our name, and create our own brand.

This was a very exciting time for us.  It felt like a rebirth for our studios. We were so excited to embrace our new brand which would better reflect and serve our purpose and values.  

In May of 2013, Moksha Yoga Ottawa changed its name to Yogatown.  

Two weeks later, I gave birth to my second child Charlotte.  

Life was and is a juggling act, but I don’t think I would have had it any other way. 

 

New Paths

Since opening, we’ve had thousands of yogis come and go from Yogatown. It’s inevitable. People change, as does the path they’re on.

While we’re always sad to see them go, we wish everyone well and hope that their time at Yogatown will serve them on their new journey ahead.

One of the hardest departures from Yogatown came a couple years ago in 2016, when Paula and I decided to end our business partnership.  

Anyone who has been through a break up or separation of any kind can relate. Even when you love one another and you know it’s the right thing to do, it’s not easy to part ways.  

I am so proud of all we accomplished together. We were an amazing team. 

 

When One Door Closes…

As they say, when one door closes, another door opens.

With Paula’s departure, I needed help in the business.  My husband Jason stepped in temporarily, but the fit was such a good one that it wasn’t long before he decided to remain in the business.

Today, Jason and I lead Yogatown together. We’re partners in business, partners in life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  People are often surprised when I tell them how much I love working with my husband. 

According to the teachers at school, our 7 year old son says he owns Yogatown and asks if they’ve been to the studio. If not, he tells them they should try it. I think we have a budding entrepreneur on our hands, and we love that our children are being exposed to the Yogatown community.

Jason and I are also blessed with an incredible team.

I’m sure most of you know John, our General Manager who started almost 10 years ago as a volunteer.  We also have Stacey, another incredible Manager who’s been with us over 5 years. 

Every single teacher, every single desk staff, and every single volunteer, make a difference at Yogatown, and we’re so grateful for all of them.

 

Townies

Of course, there’s only one word that can describe the true essence of Yogatown – Townie.

By definition, Townie affectionately describes someone who has been a part of a town for their entire life.

While there are always new faces at Yogatown, our goal is to make the studios your home away from home. The kind of place where you feel accepted like a “regular”, right from your first visit.

When you see us use the word Townie, know that it’s not just a tagline or marketing term.

It’s a form of recognition and appreciation for you being a unique member of our Yogatown family.

 

We All Have So Much To Be Proud Of

Since 2008 we’ve shared a lot of sweat, tears, and laughs.

Townies have visited our studios over 950,000 times for class!  That’s almost 100,000 visits a year!

We’ve supported numerous local charities, and are proud to have donated over $125,000 to important causes in our community, including the Royal Ottawa Foundation For Mental Health.

We’ve trained and mentored so many new yoga teachers who continue to do amazing work teaching yoga around the world, including some who have opened their own studios.

We’ve worked with Olympians and professional athletes like MMA Fighters, the Ottawa Senators, and the Redblacks.

Equally as important, we’ve helped thousands of weekend warriors run their first 5k, complete multiple Ironman triathlons, and everything in between.

You inspired us when you crushed your goals, and you moved us when you fell short of those goals, but did so with dignity and grace.

You’ve busted stress, become stronger, increased flexibility, lost weight, gained weight, forgiven yourself, forgiven others, connected with yourself, connected with each other, and, simply put, you’ve changed your life and the lives of those around you.

You’ve shown up on your mat time and time again, and as a result you’ve become a more loyal partner, patient parent, and understanding friend.

You rock, Townie!

But what I’m most proud of, is co-creating a community with all of you, that encourages each and every one of us to show up, shed some layers, and reconnect with the best version of ourselves.

 

What’s Next?

After 10 years in business, the only thing I can be sure of is change.

I’m not certain what lies ahead for Yogatown, but I do know that we want to keep honouring and serving our community of Townies.

What will that look like?

I have some ideas, but I’ll share those plans another time soon. 😉

For now, I’m going to take a little time to reflect on just how grateful I am for Yogatown and all of you.

Thank you for taking the time to read our story.

Lots of love,

Tracy
XO

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