A yoga studio wasn’t always part of the plan for New Orleans native Valerie McMillan. Creating The Ohm Well, the first dedicated yoga studio in Gentilly, certainly wasn’t part of the plan. In fact, it took her years to even step foot in a yoga studio, but when she finally did, it was then that she realized her power.
“After Hurricane Katrina, I lost my mom to heart disease, and I was 70 pounds heavier than I am now. I said you know what, I want to have a daughter one day and I want to be there for her, so let me try to make a change right now so I’m not another statistic,” McMillan said.
According to the The Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health, heart disease is the leading cause of death among women of color.
Once she decided to make a change, McMillan started small, walking every day after she had moved to Chicago post-Katrina to do social work on the South Side. After taking her first steps toward a healthier lifestyle, she went to her first yoga class, fighting the stereotypes of what she thought a yoga student looked like, and was pleasantly surprised.
“I went to a class with a Korean kung fu master, and there were a lot of curvy women in the class and he was just so calm and so welcoming. I realized that I decide how I feel. If I decide to lose weight, it’s on my time. You have to put in the work and realize your power,” McMillan said.
Still, after that life-changing class in Chicago, she didn’t go back to yoga for some time. McMillan returned to New Orleans in 2007 to a stressful environment, becoming the caretaker of her nephew and simultaneously finding the city in a state of disrepair. She tried to go back to yoga, but didn’t feel seen or welcomed.
McMillan decided to give it one more go.
“I went to Life Yoga, and there were two yogis, and they invited me to come practice next to them. The teacher, Lindsey Crow, made me feel so safe in her class that I cried at the end of it, and that’s what I needed, so I kept going back. I never looked back,” McMillan said.
Finally, she found a home. Fellow yogis started asking if she was a teacher based on the positive environment she created inside the studio. This was the time in her life when she began to realize her full potential.
“I decided I want to be a yoga teacher and focus on black women and changing the statistics around black women’s health. But I realized, it’s so much bigger than that; it’s people of color, it’s the whole city of New Orleans. I want to teach everybody and help them reconnect to this gift, this joy, your limitless potential. And so this is why I do it – I feel compelled to do it,” McMillan said.
McMillan completed her yoga teacher training at Free to Be Power Yoga. At the time she was working in city planning and went on to earn a graduate degree in urban studies and anthropology. During her time there, she began to incorporate yoga into her professional life.
“Folks noticed a shift in me from when I first started. I seemed calmer, lost weight, and was sitting crossed-legged outside. So I brought a free yoga program to City Hall employees, and I did both, teaching yoga part time and working full time until after two years, I had to make a shift,” McMillan said.
When she left City Hall, she had a vision in a Reiki session where, unbeknownst to her, two dreams aligned.
“One of my students did a Reiki session on me and saw me giving birth. I thought, maybe I’m just giving birth to my business, but I got pregnant a couple of months later right when I was launching The Ohm Well,” McMillan said.
McMillan thought she might have to put her business on the back burner to ensure a healthy pregnancy and stable life, but decided to stay the course, and went on to become a finalist in a grant competition (PitchNOLA) through the entrepreneurial nonprofit Propeller. She then found a space for her vision to come to life.
McMillan knew she wanted to put her studio where there was a need: either in Gentilly, New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. It was Gentilly where she found the perfect space, a building with a yard, where she could open the windows, have a space for children, and add a ramp to make the studio ADA accessible.
McMillan offers Empowered Vinyasa Flow classes for students at every skill level, along with meditation, Brazillian martial arts, and her signature Black and Brown Bodies in Motion class.
Beyond being the first yoga studio in Gentilly, McMillan has a broader vision with initiatives for mental wellness, domestic violence, and yoga teacher training at the college level.
While her goals for The Ohm Well are important, McMillan said the most rewarding part of the journey has been seeing her success through her daughter Marley’s eyes.
“Being able to have my daughter, knowing all the work I put into taking care of myself and all the planning was to make space for her to be here, and having her see me work – that gives me so much joy, so much purpose,” McMillan said.