yoga teacher making an adjustment for a student during class

‘Yoga saved my life.’ : An Interview with Yoga Rouge Founder Heather Kemp

Heather Kemp is the founder of Yoga Rouge Studio in Baton Rouge and the leader of yoga classes offered here at Springfield Wellness Center (SWC). A passionate instructor and all-around wellness advocate, Heather is E-RYT500-certified, Yin-certified, PTSD/TBI/Trauma-certified, and Sound and Energy Healing certified. She especially enjoys working with athletes (professional, college, and high-school), veterans, and people recovering from addiction. She spoke with us about what yoga has meant—and continues to mean—to her own health and well-being.

SWC: What brought you to yoga—and to becoming a yoga instructor?

Kemp: It’s actually a funny story because I was brought up with yoga—my mother has been an instructor since before I was born—and so I hated it. I thought it was something weird only hippies did. I would even get punished by being sent to yoga class!

My attitude started to change when I gave birth to my two sons via natural childbirth. I thought, “If breathing and focusing can get me through the pain of delivering almost 10-pound babies without drugs, there might be something to it.”

I’d been a runner, played tennis, and rode horses when I was younger, and all that pounding had given me some injuries, which yoga didn’t aggravate. So over time, I became a “closet yogi.” I’d go to yoga classes without telling anyone—because I didn’t want my mom to be right, you know? (Laughs.)

But I really started to pursue yoga as a health practice about 15 years ago, when it seemed that my life was falling apart. I was going through a divorce, my sons were leaving home, and I was miserable. I was staying out late, drinking too much, drinking a pot of coffee in the morning to get going again, and eating hamburgers and French fries to soak up all the alcohol. I was on a downward spiral. I truly believe that yoga not only transformed but saved my life. If I hadn’t reversed my patterns, I’d have died or lost my house, or maybe hurt someone else within a year.

The practice that hooked me was hot yoga or power yoga. Power yoga (also called vinyasa) links your breath to your movement. There are no mirrors, no music, just you, your movement, your breath. It’s a moving, breathing meditation, and it was transformative for me. The heat and the movement release endorphins, while the breath-training calms the mind and soothes stress and anxiety. I love it—and I love sharing it with other people.

Soon after I got certified, I cleared out the bottom of my house for a yoga studio, and my life has fallen into place ever since. I gave up my old habits; I didn’t need them anymore. I’d found a way to feel good in my own skin.

SWC: The yoga you’re teaching at Springfield Wellness Center isn’t hot yoga, though, but flow yoga. Why?

Kemp: Flow yoga is a gentler, less intense form of yoga. The essentials are still the same: focus and breath. Breath is such a powerful technology that has been around for thousands of years, but our culture doesn’t cultivate it. The poses, or asanas, are just vehicles for your breathing meditation.

And it’s not just flow yoga we’re offering. On Saturday mornings, there’s a 75-minute class that incorporates sound and energy healing and guided meditation with the yoga practice. The sound healing uses crystal bowls, called singing bowls, tuning forks, chimes, and even a rain stick. It’s a very soothing class.

Most people start yoga for the physical benefits, but they stay for the other reasons—the focus, the connection to yourself. We’re all bombarded constantly throughout the day, but what our brains and bodies need is silence, stillness. Yoga class is an hour in which you can be present in the moment, connected to yourself—body, mind, and spirit.

SWC: You’ve said that yoga helped you with your own recovery and sobriety issues.

Kemp: Definitely. Although I’ve never gone through detox, and I still drink socially, yoga gave me a way to deal with my painful emotions without masking them. It gave me the endorphins some people get from drugs and the breath and focus that calmed my anxiety. That’s why I so enjoy working with people recovering from addiction. It’s wonderful to see them find a better way to cope.

SWC: You’re also certified in yoga for PTSD survivors.

Kemp: Yes, but to be honest, I learn more from my work with the students in my studio than I do from trainings and certifications. I’m completing what is called a “Warrior Track,” which qualifies me to teach yoga to military and former military personnel. But the truth is, most of us have had some, or a lot, of trauma in our lives—and we hold those unexpressed emotions in our tissues. “Our issues are in our tissues,” as they say. Men tend to carry it in their shoulders, while women tend to hold it in their hips. So a lot of yoga postures are designed to release that accumulated stress and trauma.

People with PTSD or acute anxiety have trouble being still and trusting, and the practice of yoga helps them with that. Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai) breathing has been known for thousands of years to stimulate the vagus nerve, which has a calming effect on the brain and the body. This has been medically studied and confirmed. (For example, see here.) I know it from my own personal experience, as well. Yoga helped me get silent, still, and breathe, which calmed my anxiety. It also helped me to sleep.

I can usually tell when my students have PTSD. I’m so gratified when, at the end of a yoga class, while they’re lying in savasana, which is a resting pose, I might walk around and gently touch them on their shoulders or head, and they trust me enough to let it happen. I can also sense the difference in their stress levels.

Yoga has so many benefits I’d like to invite people at Springfield Wellness Center to experience it as part of their commitment to wellness. People from out of town can continue the practice on their own when they return home. Locals can keep coming to Springfield Wellness Center. I have many students who come every day—it’s that important to them. I understand—because it’s that important to me.