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Conversations with the Inspiring Shannon Werner

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shannon Werner.

Shannon, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
Looking back at the last decade, I can honestly say that I could not have predicted my life today. In 2009, I had just earned my Ph.D. in Biochemistry from UCSD and saw my career path as a cancer biologist laid out before me: a lengthy postdoc, followed by my first job in biotech, a climb up the corporate ladder, and then I’d live happily ever after.

While I plowed down this path for a long time, you might have already guessed that it didn’t work out that way.

While I loved science and the thought of being able to help others through developing cancer therapeutics, I led a double life: I nerded it up in the lab by day, while running, biking, swimming, and yoga-ing all over San Diego by night and weekend. Moving my body fueled me – it nourished my heart and soul, helped me de-stress from my studies/work, and healed me from life’s heartbreaking moments. Music also played a pivotal role in my life – from playing clarinet, marching band, and statewide competitions in high school all the way to my love for house music and learning to DJ later on. While I daydreamed about teaching yoga, owning a studio, or somehow staying involved in music, these things eventually took the back seat so I could focus on my career.

Fast-forward a couple of years: after a very stressful postdoc experience, a cross-country move back to the east coast, experiencing major burnout and chronic health issues, ending a long-term romantic relationship, and realizing that I was NOT feeling fulfilled in by my career, I hit rock bottom. In being brutally honest with myself, I discovered that most of my life choices had been about pleasing others rather than being about me being truly happy.

During that painful time, Yoga became my sanctuary. On the mat, I shed countless tears, soul-searched, and flowed through all the fears that told me I wouldn’t be brave enough to change my life or ever be truly happy. It’s said that doing a yoga teacher training will transform your life, and I found that to be so true that I ended up doing two with Radiant Yoga Boston and YogaWorks. While I loved the idea of teaching yoga, I was still feeling raw, ungrounded, scared, and had yet to find my voice. I was still unraveling myself, so I could finally meet who I really was, and teaching intuitively didn’t feel right at the time.

In 2014, I hit the reset button – I moved back to San Diego, started a new biotech job, and was committed to exploring what would bring ME joy. Within months, I had found my new obsession: barre. I fell in head over heels love with the workout, the music, the contagious energy, and most importantly, the community. After a few months of sweating and shaking, the light bulb went off: what if I could teach THIS instead?! It was a full body “YES” moment. I auditioned to become a teacher at the studio and thought I had a very good shot considering my movement and yoga experience but was not selected that round. I was so disappointed but trusted that the timing was just not right and my love for the practice only intensified. A year later, I re-auditioned – with more experience, confidence, and the alignment of a few stars, I was selected and became a certified instructor. That was the moment that completely changed the course of my life.

When I put the mic on for the first time, cranked up the music, and experienced the power of our community moving as one, I felt a roaring fire inside me. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of purpose, confidence, and sheer joy. My fears and insecurities melted away, and I felt like I could finally (and unapologetically) be me. While practicing barre taught me how much power, fire, and energy I had inside, I quickly realized that I had the incredible opportunity to inspire and motivate others to see that same fierce strength in themselves. I was able to give back to others in a way that I was not able to be doing research or being a cog in the corporate wheel. I loved connecting with clients and learning about their lives and goals, and the community we built left me feeling so inspired. Like a lightning bolt to the heart, I knew I had finally found my purpose. Within four months, I quit my corporate job and decided to teach at and co-manage the barre studio full time. While my mind tried to trick me with non-stop fears and self-criticism (“How are you going to pay your bills?”, “What are people going to think?”, “Are you giving up your career to teach fitness?”), my heart told me it was the right path. I was finally learning how to trust my heart and intuition, even though it was scary as hell.

For over a year, I felt totally in the flow. Teaching gave me life in a way that nothing else did. But life has an amazing way of throwing curve balls to humbly teach you to not get too cozy in your comfort zone. In early 2017, we received word that our barre studio would be closing within three weeks. It was like having your heart ripped right out of your chest. To think that our studio community would suddenly have no “home,” and our years of sweating and shaking together in packed rooms would end so abruptly – my brain couldn’t process it, and my heart was broken. I remember saying at the end of a particularly tearful class, “This is not the end. I have no idea what the next thing will look like, but I am committed to making sure our community has a place to move, breathe, and be together.”

And so Relevate was born. Like a flash, the name entered my mind one day as I tearfully daydreamed about what would be next after the studio closed. The name was a fun play on “relevé” (a barre term) and “elevate” (which is my favorite thing to do – to elevate others). I quickly searched to see if Relevate was a real word, and was stunned to find that it means “to raise or return to good spirits.” It was a sign.

In less than two weeks of our studio closing, I started teaching the first prototypes of what would become our signature Relevate barre class. 30 of us happily crammed into the fitness room at a client’s apartment complex several times a week for the first month. Although we had no barres/props, it was BYOM (Bring Your Own Mat), and finding the location was hilariously challenging, the joy of our togetherness was palpable. I knew that I had to keep going, even though I’d be building the plane as I was flying it. It has been a wild year and a half journey that continues to stretch (no pun intended) and humbles me on the daily, but the fire in my heart to teach this amazing movement practice burns even brighter now than the day we started.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Honestly (and somewhat humorously), it has been anything BUT a smooth road, but every single obstacle has been an incredible teacher. Thankfully, I really enjoy being a student! My sense of purpose and love for the Relevate family runs so deep, and that has certainly carried me through some really low points.

Because Relevate launched so quickly, it was like climbing onto the outside of a rocket ship and hanging on for dear life as it shot out into space. Starting a business like this was brand new territory, and I constantly underestimated how long it would take to achieve certain milestones. Between figuring out how to legally form a business, building the business backend, finding a home for our classes without committing to a commercial lease right away, creating and constantly evolving the class format, and teaching every class, I finished those first weeks wondering if I would make it through the first six months alive. Four months in, I learned that the studio I was subleasing from was being forced to move, which caused a panicked scramble to find us a new, conveniently located studio space with minimal interruption to the class schedule. And to spice things up, I decided to pursue my Level one Stott Pilates certification to expand my knowledge and have the ability to offer additional class formats. This left me consumed by Relevate 24/7, and I struggled to maintain a clear boundary between my business and personal lives. This is an area that I continue to work on!

I decided early on to bootstrap the business without investors, loans, or hiring a big team. While that allowed me more flexibility, control, and to see if Relevate could gain traction in a saturated fitness market like San Diego without taking on huge debt, it certainly has its disadvantages. Without having the PR/marketing engine and resources of fitness franchises, being visible in a sea of competing studios can be a challenge. The biggest disadvantage, though, is the risk of burnout because you’re trying to do “it all” as one person. You eventually reach a tipping point where the business is expanding past your ability to do it all on your own, and you have to be ready to expand past your comfort zone once again.

To women who are just getting started, I would say: first and foremost, discover your “bigger why.” When you deeply connect with your passion for what it is you want to create and who you want to serve, it will be the fuel that keeps you going when things inevitably go sideways. If you lose sight of this “bigger why,” it’s so easy to feel lost or give up prematurely. I’ve spent many days exhausted to the bone, doubting myself and whether Relevate will succeed, and then I teach a class that evening and am immediately reminded WHY I love what I do. Second, see every challenge you face as an incredible opportunity to learn and grow. Mindset is everything – while it’s more than ok to feel all the feels when things don’t work out as expected, focusing on the lessons learned will give you the courage to take more risks and “fail fast” so you can continue to have forward momentum. Third, learn to balance trusting business experts’ sage advice with your intuition. I spent countless hours trying to implement “fail-proof formulas” from business coaches with frustration, only to succeed later when I thought outside of the box and trusted my gut. You know your business best – give yourself credit, get creative, and trust yourself. Finally: seek community rather than fearing your competition. It is so easy to feel isolated as an entrepreneur, and to feel like it’s you against your competitors makes it all the more so. Connect with like-minded entrepreneurs and shift makers in your field and see how you might leverage your strengths to create something totally new and unique. This is the way of the future – the sooner we all realize we don’t have to do this alone, the better!

What should we know about Relevate? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I am the founder of Relevate, a Barre and Pilates studio located in La Jolla/UTC. Our signature Relevate class remixes the best parts of Yoga, Pilates, and Barre, while incorporating cardio and functional movement for one of the most turbocharged, energizing experiences out there. Every class, you will sweat, shake, and be challenged, but always with proper form and alignment in mind. Small class sizes ensure that you receive personalized attention and encouragement, and clients working with injuries have a wide array of options to fine-tune their workout so that it works for them. It is my top priority to connect with every client in class to give them a hands-on assist, a high-five, or help inspire them to push a little deeper. Relevate also proudly offers group and private Pilates instruction based on the STOTT PILATES® method, a contemporary approach designed to restore the natural curves of the spine, while increasing muscle length and strength, balance, mobility, and alignment.

Relevate is more than just a workout: it is an empowering, life-affirming experience. The magic of Relevate is rooted in our uplifting and compassionate self-love philosophy – you are encouraged to listen to the wisdom of your body, to take the offered modifications as needed, and to dial in your effort based on your energy at that moment. In class, we build strength and resilience while balancing the effort with ease. We explore how to be more self-compassionate with where we are in our present experience, all while learning to build more trust and confidence in ourselves. While you’ll hear a few groans during challenging poses, Relevate is about connection, play, laughter, and joyful movement.

What I am most proud of is our inclusive, welcoming community. As a new client, you can expect to be embraced as a Relevate family member immediately. As a regular client, you can expect to see familiar, friendly faces you can connect with and who genuinely care about you. This kind of real-life community is becoming harder to find as we become increasingly consumed by technology and social media. I am committed to creating a safe space for individuals to move, breathe, and show up exactly as they are, and clients can trust that they will be seen, loved, and supported unconditionally.

Do you have a lesson or advice you’d like to share with young women just starting out?
Take your time to get to know yourself and explore what brings you wild, passionate joy. I remember feeling this crushing pressure to have everything figured out at such an early age, which left me feverishly “checking off the boxes” of life (college, grad school, marriage, buy a house) without ever questioning if that’s what I truly wanted. It took my life completely unraveling to finally start living in alignment with my passion and values, and that was a very challenging path. Because our society values conformity, it can be easy to pursue a career path based on societal/family pressures or because you start to believe the voices that tell you that your dream is not possible. If you pursue a path that eventually leaves you feeling uninspired and stuck, remember that it’s never too late to pivot, evolve, and radically change your life. Be the person who has the courage to color outside of the lines. Find a mentor who has walked your desired new path and trust that you can do it too. And most importantly, remember that you have a unique gift that only you can offer the world. It is up to you to discover what that is, believe in yourself, and share that gift wholeheartedly and without reservation.

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Image Credit:
Meredith Grimm

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