Gwendolyn Elliot is a fitness/wellness instructor who founded and runs, Best Self Health and Fitness, a holistic fitness company that builds health from the inside out. Gwendolyn offers group classes in Zumba, Bellydance, Bellyfit, Yoga, as well as one-on-one therapeutic yoga sessions.
I wanted to interview Gwendolyn for two reasons: the first being that the motivation to start and maintain one’s own business requires an incredible amount of discipline, and the second being that a business centered on health and fitness is a wonderful way to encourage others to practice self-care, and that requires a heck of a lot of self-esteem. I can’t really think of a better example of a bad-ass, inspirational woman.
So you run your own business, that’s incredible! Was it always your goal to make fitness/wellness your career? If so, how did you set yourself up for success? If not, what choices brought you to where you are today?
As a child, I either wanted to be a musical theatre star, an 80s aerobics instructor or a teacher. I am an Ontario Certified Teacher (I can teach Phys Ed and Drama at the high school level, surprise, surprise), but I didn’t realize that teaching fitness was an actual career and not just a joke with bad hair and a leotard. I fell into it by accident because my mom told the owner of her gym that I would be happy to teach Zumba. I had never heard of Zumba before, but it was in such demand that without any other certifications I walked into a relatively well-paying, busy career.
My other option was to try to stick it out in the teacher surplus, but I never had my heart set on classroom teaching. I think I just got lucky; that one chance event ended up being my life’s calling. Looking back, I realize that all of my educational choices, hobbies and interests led me down this path long ago while I thought I was taking a different route. One thing led to another and now I am in the process of becoming a IAYT certified 1000- hour yoga therapist and Thai yoga massage practitioner working with clients in a more therapeutic format.
I can’t really say how I set myself up for success. I’m still not sure what my younger self was thinking and why I couldn’t just play by the rules and get a “job.”
Can you describe some of the challenges that you’ve faced with starting and maintaining your own operation and brand?
There is no regulation in the fitness industry and many trainers and instructors seriously undercut the market by devaluing their own services or working without any certifications. There is very little awareness and respect for those of us in the fitness industry who are constantly engaging in professional development training and have high professional fees to maintain. It’s a hard sell to say that I might charge double what another person or business charges, but so far everyone has come back to me to say that you get what you pay for. It also never ceases to amaze me that since I don’t have a storefront, people get really confused about what exactly I do.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
I love it when people come to me in pain – physically, emotionally or spiritually – and I can facilitate the movement to a pain-free experience. Sometimes it takes five minutes and sometimes it takes five months, but it is always rewarding to see my clients improve their own quality of life. Yoga is a very empowering healing practice, which means that rather than taking a pill or having a treatment, my clients have to put in the work to do it themselves. That makes it even more powerful for them because they know that they built their health from the inside out with their own internal power and no one can take it away. I also like being able to tackle any new creative ideas I have. This past year I started yoga therapy and Thai massage and I recently decided to launch one-on-one yoga over Skype.
Is there anything about your line of work that is frustrating or disheartening?
It’s so awful when I hear about how some gyms and studios function. They charge the members an arm and a leg and the instructors and trainers get paid less than an ethical amount. Lots of these facilities are anti-social, heartless places and they are often dirty with terrible staff turnover and customer service. Companies should better invest in their staff and clientele. I also work for my local community centres and I feel that it is a much better place to go for services because it fosters community connections, is better priced, the staff are better treated and the benefits get recycled within the local community – yay!
Are there any common misconceptions about your job or line of work in general? How do you address those misconceptions?
Ah! Sometimes people think I am a high school student and that I just do this for fun. Or that I make up my complex routines on the spot. I don’t even have to address those concerns. Once people do a class or private session, they get to know me and they laugh at their initial misconceptions. I really hope I don’t like look I’m sixteen anymore.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to any young woman looking to follow in your footsteps to spearhead her own business?
If you were raised to be a “good girl,” don’t be one because people will walk all over you. Find successful role models and take a page from their books. You also need to be a little bit nuts. Every time you look in the mirror, tell yourself how great you are. Don’t consider failure an option. Take risks. Don’t take shit from anyone. Ask for more money. Stop caring if you look good or if people like you. You need to know who you are and stay true to yourself. Don’t compromise your values. Stick to your guns when your back is against the wall. Have a plan and stay organized. Decide whether you need to work with your emotions or set them aside. Do what you need to sleep soundly at the end of the day. If you need a pep talk, give me a call and I will get you fired up. I think I might do that in my next life: Professional pep-talker for business women.
What is one piece of advice that you’d give to anyone struggling with starting and/or maintaining their fitness and/or wellness goals?
You can never change your body unless you change your mind. Once you start to love yourself and work with your body rather than against it, you will start to make headway. Don’t worry about any gimmicks or fancy products, just respect yourself. And then stick to it. Either you will find a way, or you will find an excuse. And a great support network of friends, family and professionals helps.
What motivates YOU most in your day-to-day life?
I’m the greatest ever. The end. I don’t actually believe that, but when I’m having trouble with a project or task, I tell myself I am fantastic and that I can tackle anything. Then I take a deep breath and go.
Do you have a “life-motto” or words that you live by?
“Know thyself.” I have lived by those words for more than a decade now and I credit them with where I am today. And more recently as I see the decisions people around me suffer with, I quote Frank Zappa: “If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”
I wasn’t always like this. I had to do a lot of self work to get to know myself, to bolster my self-esteem and build myself up from the inside. The world will drag you down if you give it half a chance so you have to show up for yourself and build a world around you that lifts you up.
Is there anything else about being an entrepreneur you’d like to add?
We all bring our own gifts to this life. Don’t let anyone else enjoying success discourage you and never hesitate to help someone else succeed. Just keep being your Best Self and learn something new as often as you can.