Although a corporate career can be rewarding, too often the corporate world can be hard on our health and cruel for the soul. Before the pandemic sent us home, the corporate world wanted us to be tireless office soldiers, often ignoring our human side, and the fact that we are also parents or partners. Jobs take priority over kids’ soccer games or spending quality time with family. Taking time off to travel or relax is ridiculously limited (US is the only advanced economy that doesn’t mandate employers to offer paid time off; private industry usually offers 10 days of PTO as compared to 25-40 offered in some western European countries, while annually 768 million vacation days go unused in the US).
The American corporate world doesn’t leave much room for balance. More often than not, if you want a career, you are expected to sacrifice your personal life and even your health. We don’t take time off for fear of losing our spot on the ladder. And often we find ourselves working hard for many years only to be casually replaced or laid off one day, unceremoniously discarded, leaving us feeling gut-punched. When you invest so much time and effort into a corporate career, it’s hard to let it go and move on, but more often than not it’s very rewarding—especially on a personal level. It can awaken a perhaps forgotten part of your personality, it can allow for more creativity to come alive, and provide a new sense of freedom.
Heather was one of the many wonderful professionals who was laid off due to Scripps Networks Interactive’s restructuring and then acquisition by Discovery. When the rug was pulled from underneath her feet—both in her professional and personal life (divorce)—she turned to the one thing that could restore balance and happiness in her world, while still allowing her to put her professional background to good use: she started her own yoga practice.
I talked with Heather about her path to small business ownership and how she navigated multiple challenges, including the pandemic, ultimately finding happiness and personal success.
Heather Jagels is a communications professional with more than 13 years of corporate creative media and leadership experience. Her education aligns with her passion for multimedia communications: she graduated from the University of Tennessee with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Communication and Media Studies, and an MBA in Business/Managerial Economics. A devout yoga practitioner, Heather attended Ashville Yoga Center where she received her industry certification. She is the owner of Mountain Zen Yoga Studio in Sevierville, Tennessee.
Oana Harrison: Tell me a little bit about your business. What prompted you to start Mountain Zen Yoga Studio?
Heather Jagels: I have been a practitioner of yoga for the last 20 years, and throughout the ups and downs in my life I have always turned to yoga when I felt lost or off my path. In 2017 I went through two major life changes which were a job loss and a divorce. Through that I found my way to becoming a yoga teacher and opening my own business.
I started practicing yoga during my freshman year in college. I’m naturally a high anxiety person so I turned to yoga to manage my stress. As I transitioned to the corporate life, I continued to practice yoga and when things got increasingly more stressful at work, yoga became a daily constant in my life. When I got laid off and I was struggling to find work, it was my yoga practice that grounded me and helped me keep going.
I did freelance work while I searched for another job, but I was struggling internally, I was burned out. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want the corporate job anymore. I didn’t want yoga to just be a hobby. Yoga just felt right to me, so I decided to enlist in a teacher training program for 6 weeks and give myself time to clear my head. Soon I realized that I could put my love for yoga and my business degree/background to work; no time like the present to take a big chance, so I went for it.
I wanted to study yoga and share the practice because it really did save me in a lot of ways from chasing something that I didn’t want anymore. In today’s world, it feels like with age you become irrelevant and if you start losing interest in something, you care less. I knew I didn’t want that other life anymore, so I leaned into yoga for a new and healthier direction.
OH: What makes your business unique?
HJ: We are the only fully dedicated yoga studio in our area, at the foothills of the Smokies.
OH: Why Sevierville?
HJ: I grew up in Sevierville, so I was familiar with the area. Knoxville was a completely saturated market. I was a divorced mom; the boys’ dad lives in Knoxville and Sevier county didn’t have a yoga studio, so there was an opportunity both personal and business. There were so many reasons to go home. I would have never said that that’s what I wanted to do in my life but when I did it, it felt like the right choice 100%.
When people ask me how I cope with being in a small town, I tell them that once you’ve traveled to many other places, which I had to do for my previous work, you realize that every place is just a place; it’s really what you make out of it that matters; can you find interesting things for you there?
OH: Why is yoga important to you?
HJ: Yoga is important to me because it is the concentrated practice of joining together your mind, body, and spirit. These are parts of yourself that can easily become disjointed in today’s world. In yoga practice we make a focused effort to bring all parts of the being together in peace.
In the busy corporate life, one can lose track of oneself and overwork. But having a healthy self, which includes all three aspects: body, mind, and soul, is the key to personal happiness and fulfillment. We can push through and deliver short term but that eventually takes its toll. We all operate better long term when we are truly healthy.
Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.
OH: What is the best aspect of your business? What gives you the most satisfaction/fulfillment?
HJ: The best aspect of my business is that yoga truly has a direct impact on how people feel about themselves, how they deal with adversity, and how they can move through the world with a little more ease. You see people truly understand how to connect and control their emotions. Yoga goes beyond movement. It gives people permission and intermission in their lives to quiet down extraneous noise and hear out their true selves.
OH: How did owning your own business/being an entrepreneur change your life?
HJ: It really taught me that just like childbirth, there is nothing that can prepare you for starting your business on your own except simply jumping in. There were definitely skills I gained along my path in corporate America, but nothing prepares you for stepping off that ledge and taking the leap.
OH: How has owning your business contributed to your happiness?
HJ: Owning my own business contributes to my happiness because I get to truly set the course for my life, and I have to be a perpetual student to survive the ebbs and flows that are today’s health and wellness climate. I am happier because I know I am in control, I’m my own boss, and I decide what things are most important in my life.
OH: Where do you get your inspiration for your everyday life and for your business?
HJ: My inspiration for my business comes from my community. The students, teachers, and contributors that have formed around this small studio keep me going on a daily basis. There have been times in the past three years when I’ve definitely wondered how I was going to keep going, but the community kept me motivated and focused on the goal.
My inspiration for life comes from my family. My partner and I have four children between the two of us. It’s important to me that they see what hard work is, and that sometimes you have to dig deep to keep going forward.
OH: What constitutes a good/successful day at work for you?
HJ: A good day at work for me is simple: I am at peace at the end of the evening. If I am consumed with worry then something didn’t line up properly, but when the day aligns the way it’s meant to, I can rest easy.
OH: Tell me about an instance of how you and your business impacted someone’s life for the better.
HJ: I have several students who have been with us for three years now, since we opened, and quite a few of them became yoga teachers. They are happier and healthier, and they are sharing their practice with our community. It’s really a beautiful thing to see.
OH: How has the pandemic affected your business?
HJ: Obviously, being a small yoga studio, we have definitely been impacted by the events of the last year. Barely making bills was a normal order of the day. The stress and worry were constant: I was faced monthly with the possibility of having to close the doors for good. That worry hasn’t completely subsided yet, but I see us coming out the other side slowly.
If you are a mom, worry is a part of the deal but being a small business owner brought about a different kind of worry. However, practicing what I’m teaching—yoga—has actually helped me navigate this new challenge and keep the faith that things will work out.
OH: Would you say that personally you reconstructed your life and found balance? The pandemic is a challenge no matter what; would you say it was a catalyst for new ideas and practicing yoga at home, in everyday life?
HJ: When the pandemic hit, my business was only open for one year. I have a natural tendency to be a workaholic and when I was forced to close, it helped me get creative about how I can continue to share the yoga practice. It forced me into a space where I had no way of making money, so I had to shut down that part of my brain for a minute. It’s been tough. The toughest part is coming back from the pandemic and realizing that my business basically never left year one; It’s like starting over again. But that’s where yoga and having a supportive family come in: they remind me of what’s really important. That is my true yoga: my yoga practice is about finding the way in life, and not necessarily about owning a yoga studio; the practice is being able to navigate the ups and downs of life, knowing when to let go and be all right with that.
OH: How has your business and plans changed to meet the pandemic challenges?
HJ: Our business plan has changed. We developed our concierge side of the business, where we offer several wellness options to tourists, including yoga, massage therapy, personal trainers, beauty specialists, and even personal chefs. All of the concierge practitioners with our business have to be certified in their industries. For yoga teachers, they have to be a member of the Yoga Alliance, which means they have received their standard practice training and certifications. This model gave us the flexibility to meet vacationers where they are, which made them feel more comfortable than coming to a public location, and offered then a customizable healthy vacation experience.
On the flip side, we also wanted to help professionals in the area who had health services to offer, but who maybe didn’t have the marketing skills or the time to drum up business for themselves. Luckily, that’s the type of work I know well from my previous jobs. I noticed they struggled to get themselves out there, so my role was to do the marketing for them, connect them with the demand, manage the connections and make their sharing their craft easier.
OH: What are your hopes going forward? What can your clients look forward to?
HJ: My hopes going forward are to keep growing our concierge side of the business. I get a lot of tourism business, and I see a steady demand for my services at girls‘ weekends, family retreats, and couples yoga. I also hope to be able to keep the brick-and-mortar studio space open for the community’s sake—to make yoga accessible to all—but it’s difficult because the overhead is not cheap.
OH: How has this experience affected you and how you look at the world?
HJ: I realized that we don’t have control over much but we can take care of our immediate environment and selves. I knew my health was always a priority, but truly the past few years brought it into focus in a big way. The use of immune building herbs, vegetables, and breath exercises have become a much more important part of my yoga practice.
The longest journey of any person is the journey inward.
OH: What are some lessons you learned from your experience so far that you can build on going forward?
HJ: That you truly have to look at each failure as a lesson. It’s definitely hard to learn not to take your failures personally, but once you can grow from them it really is a game changer. The experience makes you wiser and tougher.
OH: Knowing what you know now, would you still choose the same path?
HJ: I definitely would. I would have probably done a few things differently in year one—I probably wouldn’t have spent quite as much money—but there is no way to know what you’re doing until you learn the lesson. I have a Master’s degree in business but when you’re in school you’re running scenarios with play money. In the real world, when you’re in business for yourself, you are spending your money, so it’s a bit different. It’s all part of learning; the only way to learn how to open a business is to step forward and open a business.
Even if I would do some things differently, the one thing I wouldn’t change is taking that chance and going for it. I think that my fearless naivete was actually of value because if I had known there would be a pandemic, or that the road would be under terrible construction for months, I probably would have made a different choice. I wasn’t really thinking about safety at that point; I was in a place where I had nothing to lose. I saw myself approaching 40 and thought “It’s now or never: I either do something interesting and crazy now, or I’m this other thing and that’s all.” I’ve always known there was something more to me than my job, but before I just didn’t know how to get to it.
OH: Yeah, there’s nothing like a stern shove from life in the right direction, right?
HJ: Exactly. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but it worked out great! I’m back home, raising my beautiful kids with someone I love in a beautiful house right by the mountains. I have the opportunity to run my own business, and if it didn’t work, I had the option to try to run it in a different way, because I am now with someone who completely supports me. I was living a very different life before. Taking the chance and being fearless was a good move. Is it working exactly the way I planned? No, but it’s definitely working out. A lot better than the alternative.
Inhale the future, exhale the past.
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