Many studio owners are former athletes or dancers who turned their passion into their business. Yet it’s not every day you come across a former Olympian who managed to pivot their passion into something new, like former ice dancer Jamie Silverstein did when she opened her yoga studio, The Grinning Yogi, in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. In honor of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, we spoke with Jamie to learn more about how she made the transition from an Olympian to a yoga teacher and what those years of competition taught her about running a business.
Can you share what your experience was like training for and participating in the 2006 Winter Olympics?
Being an Olympian was really the culmination of years of dedication and discipline. I am so proud that I got to go but, in a strange way, I’m more proud of all I did to get there. The path to the Olympics taught me so much about my own grit and heart and these lessons shape so much. The Olympics was the cherry.
I was skating from the time I was three and a half years old. When I was eleven, my family moved to Michigan for me to more seriously pursue ice dancing. For any athlete that makes it to the Olympics, you’re seeing the product of a lifetime of doing something. Skating was my life and my career and my everything for a really long time.
My path to the Olympics taught me so much about my own grit and heart.
I had two partners. I ended up going to the Olympics with Ryan O’Meara, but the partner I was actually with longer was a guy named Justin Pekarek. I struggled with eating disorders when I was in my teens competing with him. I took a break from skating because I didn’t feel like I could participate in a healthful way, so coming back with a new partner and being able to make the Olympics in 2006 was really huge for me in a lot of ways. Beyond just the victory of going to the Olympics, it was a way for me to take my health and my power back.
How did your experience in the Olympics and with ice dancing influence your current career path?
I think being weaned as an athlete, I couldn’t imagine not having a career that was “embodied.” Figure skating taught me about persistence, responsibility, determination and that “just keep swimming” mentality. This has been hugely influential in how I run and sustain my studios.
Having made such a huge commitment at a young age and for so long, when I stepped into the business world, I didn’t expect it all to be easy. I was prepared for it to be a journey. And that’s because I’d had a journey already. Any career is, even if it’s something that you love.
When did you begin practicing yoga and what inspired you to open a studio?
I started yoga when I was 15 in Michigan. It was much less mainstream at the time and I thought I was being rebellious! Initially, I did it for the reason most people do–flexibility and fitness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but yoga would become one the most healing practices in my life. While I suffered from eating disorders and stopped skating, I never stopped yoga. Yoga gave me a home within myself without judgement or body drama.
I opened The Grinning Yogi to provide a place for more people to find this home. Ironically, it was a yoga class that I did not connect with (to say the least) that motivated me to go for it and open a studio. I took a class and the teacher was using these negative cheap motivators (burning calories, food rewards) while instructing. Having worked through similar negative self-talk in my ED recovery, hearing this type of teaching really broke my heart. I figured, if my heart hurt then I probably wasn’t the only one. I found a studio space a few days later and Grinning was born.
I now have two studios in Seattle and one in Portland. I opened the first studio in Seattle about five and a half, almost 6 years ago. It was awesome. I had no idea what I was doing. It was either grad school or open a studio, so I thought if I’m going to go into debt for something, I’d rather try this because yoga has been so transformative for me. I opened up in Portland about three years ago because my fiancé (now my husband) got a job in Portland. I opened the third studio in Seattle because we had just gotten to a tipping point where we were really full and decided to expand the brand. This month we just added a second little room to the original studio, so it’s a little bit bigger now.
Have there been challenges you have faced as a yoga studio owner that you did not expect? How have you overcome them?
Oh yes! There’s two buckets of challenges. There are the things I know I don’t know, that I can hand off to others. I don’t know anything about taxes, and I don’t want to know anything about taxes. For me it’s been huge to let myself off the hook and have someone else handle that. The simple advice is don’t try to do it all. Do what you’re good at and let other people do what they’re good at.
The other challenge — and the hardest thing for me — has been boundary setting because early on, it was very kind of “live and let live,” and that worked up to a point. In yoga, everyone comes to it with such an open heart and a love of the practice, but there’s that fine line between running a business with professional boundaries and having really personal relationships with all your staff. It gets a little bit muddy when we have a lot of teachers who are doing stuff for themselves and their own brand.
Communication always helps, as well as starting from a level of generosity. For me the biggest thing has been to be clear and up-front with boundary setting as in, “This is what we can do to promote you, this is what we can’t do to promote you. This is our expectation of what you share when you’re in the studio.” It’s an ongoing conversation with staff. I’m really grateful that I have a leadership team keeping things going in Seattle. For me, I’m still a voice person. I’d much rather have a call and see where people are at and see what I can do to help them. It’s been going well, but it certainly has been a learning curve.
I try to lead with vulnerability. I ask for help. I grow. None of it is easy.
A yoga studio is a people studio. And, people (much like me) need TLC. I try to lead with vulnerability. I ask for help. I grow. None of it is easy. I’ve certainly had mistakes and miscommunications. I’ve also been really lucky to find an incredible team of women who have Grinning Yogi’s back—and mine. I feel honored and grateful for that.
Do you have advice for fellow competitive athletes who may not know what’s next for them career-wise?
As cliché as it sounds: Just try something. In all honesty, nothing will fit like your sport—at least not at first. And, it shouldn’t. That’s okay. It’s also okay not to be the best—despite what expectations you’ve weaned yourself on. Still working on that one myself!
After the Olympics I did what I think a lot of athletes tend to do, which is I found a job within the context of the sport. I was co-directing an ice dance program in Connecticut, and I think for me it was a little too close to home so shortly after having been on the Olympic stage to be coaching like that and it just didn’t feel like what I wanted to dedicate my life to. I took a bunch of jobs and worked for a non-profit, which is when I started teaching yoga more seriously. I ended up teaching a lot of yoga at the time, and I was under the wing of an amazing studio director. She’s now one of my mentors. I fell in love with the teaching aspect of the practice. Teaching gave me community and a place to find my voice.
I kept teaching and kept exploring things, and when it got to that adulting moment of, “okay well what am I going to do for a career?” I realized I was still really connected to yoga. I thought if I’m going to take a risk, now would be the time. And then Grinning Yogi was born and a lot of stuff lined up for that to happen.