When you first meet Katie Jolicoeur you immediately feel her calming energy. The space she’s created at her Be Free Yoga studio in Spruce Grove, Alberta, holds the same calm, relaxing vibe that Katie carries, and it’s apparent why so many are drawn to practicing here — some even commuting from Edmonton to attend her classes.
Life wasn’t always smooth and serene for Katie. Battling depression since the age of 13, Katie has experienced her share of life’s challenges and emotional difficulties. Growing up on a farm just outside of Spruce Grove, horses were Katie’s first mental emollient, then later the discovery of yoga in her early twenties helped Katie move forward after a particularly bad bout of depression, and finally brought her raison d’être — the Be Free Project.
We had the fortune of meeting Katie early on a sunny morning in August at her airy studio in Spruce Grove.
Hi Katie! Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
I was born and raised on a farm just outside of Spruce Grove and after a brief stint living in Edmonton I moved back and now live on an acreage in Spruce Grove.
I’m a yoga teacher, a studio owner, a lover of nature and horses, an acreage dweller, and a wife. My happy place is sitting on my back deck with my husband and our dog, having a glass of wine just looking at the trees and that big blue Alberta sky.
How do you think your husband would describe you?
(laughs) It probably depends on the day. I think he would describe me as brave. We’ve been together for a very long time and have worked through a lot over the years. He’s watched me move through a lot of different seasons in my life. He’s always been open about everything and willing to keep showing up for me.
How did you first get into yoga? What was your first experience like?
I’ve always had a yearning towards yoga that I could never explain. I always knew that I would end up in yoga somehow. I went to Vancouver Island for a month a number of years ago, and wasn’t doing much there. I discovered a yoga studio on the Island and started going and was instantly hooked. That was the first time I ever tried it.
My first class was awful. It was a Bikram studio and incredibly hot. I had to take a break halfway through my first class. I was lying on the ground and looked at myself in the mirror and had an out of body experience — like if I was dead this is what I would look like. I had never had that before. It was a whole different type of connection and space for me. After that, I went back and continued to go every day until I returned to Alberta.
To someone who has yet to discover yoga, when you are ready, you will find it. It’s a space that feels good to get into your body. It’s a space to connect with your body and then slowly to connect with yourself.
Can you describe your journey to becoming a yoga instructor?
I practiced for a few years before I took my training. Part of me always knew I wanted to teach. It’s hard to explain, but I had a sense about it. Yoga was a huge life saving practice for me — literally. I felt that it was really important for me to share that with others.
I’ve struggled with depression since I was 13. When I was younger, I worked with horses and that was my meditation. Horses are very healing. When I got older and moved away from the farm, yoga was the first place that I found solace again. Yoga provided a safe place for me to land. When you get in that headspace of feeling like you don’t really want to be here anymore, it’s life saving to find that spot where you’re totally okay with who you are, even if it’s just for a moment. That is what yoga is for me.
From your journey of discovery to becoming a teacher, what led you to want to open your own studio?
It’s kind of backwards. I knew I wanted to open a studio before I started teaching, but I had to take a few years to learn how to teach and develop that skill set.
I wanted to open a space where you walk in and feel like you are walking into your grandma’s house — you instantly feel safe, grounded, and loved. I’ve found through practicing in other spaces, that sometimes you walk in to a studio and people don’t even see you. You walk in, practice, and leave.
Be Free Yoga is a space where people are getting that connection and a feeling of being seen. I want every single person who walks into my studio, not matter where they are on their journey, to feel loved and accepted.
What does being a yoga teacher mean to you and what are some important qualities that you feel yoga teachers should possess?
The capacity to hold space, just to show up — for whoever comes in your studio, whoever shows up on that day — holding space and guiding them through the practice where they can just be and take what they need.
Being a yogi or a yoga instructor means showing up as truthful and honest to who you are; to let go of expectations of other people, to be authentic and caring.
What does “holding space” mean?
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time: how do you hold space? What it means to me when I hold space, I envision this bubble of love. I am holding the bubble together, feeling love for every single person inside of that bubble. Nothing has to be said when you’re holding space. There can be complete silence.
I’ve had space held for me in really amazing ways, where nothing has been said, but I’ve felt so accepted and so loved right to the deepest, darkest part of me. There’s no judgment.
How has yoga impacted your life?
Last year, I went through a very severe depression. Probably the deepest depression I’ve gone through. It was to the point where I was suicidal every day for three months. My yoga and meditation was the one spot I could show up and be okay, even for just a minute. One of the things that kept me here was my practice and what I get from it.
I’ve experienced a lot of shame struggling with my depression. I would think, “I’m a yoga teacher, I’m not supposed to be depressed. I’m supposed to be happy and loving my life.” Then I thought that if I feel this way, imagine people that don’t have support, how alone they must feel.
This is how the Be Free Project came about. I knew my suffering had to do some good. I wanted to show up for other people going through the same thing and hold space for them. I wanted them to know that I get you and I don’t think you’re crazy — because you feel so fucking crazy when you’re in it.
Can you tell us more about the Be Free Project?
We bring free yoga and meditation to people in our community that are working through mental health struggles or mental illness. When people are journeying through mental health challenges, they are often unable to work or they are living off of EI. This means that they don’t always have the ability to come and pay for yoga.
The other side of the struggle is that if you are in that headspace, it is incredibly hard to step out into a different space and try something new. When you’re putting yourself out there, when you’re walking into a place you don’t know and surrounded by people you don’t know, it’s very intimidating. We offer them a space where they feel comfortable and with peers that they may know, and provide them the tools of yoga and meditation.
What has it meant to you?
This is my heart on a sleeve.
How has the Be Free Project impacted the Edmonton/Spruce Grove yoga community?
This has been an amazing catalyst for starting conversations around mental health. The amount of personal messages I have received has been incredible. I often get people coming up to me saying, “thank you for sharing this” or “I’m going through this too” or “I know someone who is going through this.” I have watched so many people come together.
We had an event for the project this summer and there was the craziest storm outside. The storm was circling us; there was thunder and lightning; it was so intense. Despite the storm, over 100 people showed up. It was the most amazing thing to me to see that support. That just speaks volumes of the community. Everyone that showed up knew it was for mental health and they wanted to support an initiative around that cause.
Why do you feel it’s important to take on initiatives like this?
When you work with underserviced populations, there is a lot of stigma and a lot of judgment around the community and the issues that they are dealing with. When you start to get involved, you realize that they are merely human, just like you and me. It starts to break that stigma and it starts to break that judgment.
It is really easy for us to stay on the outside and be removed and closed off from it, remaining in that “ignorance is bliss” mindset, but some of the most amazing, inspirational people that I have ever come across have been in these types of communities.
lululemon recently launched a program, Here to Be. Can you tell us more about this program and how it might support the Be Free Project
The Here To Be Program is an avenue for lululemon to support their ambassadors in some of the nonprofit initiatives they’re involved in. Here To Be is a community-based social impact program. It’s a movement to make the healing benefits of yoga and meditation accessible in underserved and at-risk communities around the world.
There are so many people doing incredible things in their communities and giving them that level of support is such a gift. Here To Be helps nonprofits, like the Be Free Project, continue to be able to bring yoga and meditation to people who have difficulty accessing it.
How are you connected with lululemon?
I used to work at the West Edmonton Mall store five years ago. I was hired on as seasonal staff for a part-time job while teaching yoga. Now, years later, I am an ambassador.
It was the best Monday ever when I was asked to be an ambassador (laughs). It was a week before my birthday too, which made it even sweeter. I was in for a fit session and I went into the change room and could see something in the mirror. I turned around and written on the mirror were all these beautiful messages, including the question, “will you be our ambassador?” I came out of the change room and I hugged the staff.
I was in shock. I don’t always show how excited I am, but I was freaking out and called my husband to share the good news.
I just feel so honoured and a lot of the time I can’t believe it’s real.
When is the last time you pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone?
Let me think of what I did this week (laughs). I push myself outside of my comfort zone pretty often. Last weekend, I was speaking publically, which has been very challenging for me, but I went and shared my story with a group of people that were in training for Edmonton Respite. That was quite uncomfortable!
I want to be able to talk about self-care through yoga and meditation, and also bring awareness that if you’re going through this journey of mental illness, you are not a broken person. You feel so broken or crazy or somehow wrong, you know? I want to bring awareness around that. You are a whole worthy human being, just as you are, no matter where you are on your journey. Use yoga and meditation and those tools when you get to that spot when you feel that way.
What defines you? What is your “why?”
I love showing up for people and holding space. Allowing people to feel loved and totally accepted.
Describe the greatest adventure of your life.
Besides running the studio because that’s an adventure everyday (laughs)!
My relationship with my husband has been one grand adventure. He also runs a business and we have this crazy life that is just chaos everyday but we love every minute of it. We’ve done some pretty amazing things together. We’ve gone through a lot together.
What inspires you?
People. Stories of adversity, of strength. People that never quit. People that just keep pushing through.
Do you have a life motto/mantra? What do you live by?
This is so hard. I was asked this a few weeks ago and I had to sit on it for like four hours (laughs).
Whatever the day brings, just show up.
Do the best you can with what you have.
Enjoy it. Enjoy the ride.
The big thing for me is that yes, I’ve gone through depression and been to the deepest part of it, but there are still moments when you’re in it when you have laughter, and you have that enjoyment. At the end of the day we are here for enjoyment. For these deep belly laughs. That is so important to me to remember that every day.
What’s next for you?
I hope to continue to grow the studio and to grow the yoga community in Spruce Grove. That is a really big goal of mine. I also want to grow the Project. Then after all of that, I want to take a vacation (laughs). My husband and I haven’t been on a vacation in probably three years. My goal is February 2018 — we are going somewhere for two weeks just to go sit on a beach.
We both really want to go to Hawaii. We’ve never been.