Remember those friends in college who incited envy because they had their career path all worked out … in eighth grade? Well, relax. That’s not Julie Eisenberg. “I had no plan,” she shares. “Really, no plan! I don’t think I ever thought about the future when I was in college, or even now,” she insists.
But despite her claim that she was never one to look to the future, when you listen to her story it’s clear that she always paid attention to the, perhaps subconscious, need for community participation in her schooling and career choices. Lending her voice and skills to those in need and helping build communities is a thread that’s woven throughout her varied career, one that goes from union organizer to yoga studio owner.
In the early eighties, after the Linguistics and Women Studies major graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Eisenberg spent a year backpacking through South America, getting up close and personal with the people and politics she had been studying the past four years. Her attachment to the region deepened and she headed back to Madison, Wisconsin, to add a Master’s Degree in LatAm studies to her resume. Shortly thereafter, she returned to South America, this time to Chile.
Eisenberg cites a string of family and friend influences that led her to work in the union movement but it was her own experiences that played the biggest role. “I got a job on campus my freshman year at Madison and signed my first union card then,” she says. She felt strongly about the issues and felt close to that community. So when she went back to Chile, she landed a job as a community organizer, where she began to hone the skills she had begun to develop in her union.
“By the time I came back to the States three years later, I had been a card-carrying member of a union for years,” she added. “So it seemed like a natural fit to take a position as a union organizer for a teachers’ assistant union.”
She was young and had lots of energy for the job and she excelled at it. She would stick with this career for nearly 20 years. After five years in Millwaukee, where she worked for teachers’ and other unions, she was offered a job in DC working for a division of the AFL-CIO that represented some of their affiliate unions. Her division assisted unions seeking analytic research to secure financial data and anything else necessary to make their case in negotiations.
“It was a fantastic job. I loved it, but it was also very high pressure.”
Eisenberg was on the road a lot, working long hours, and representing everyone from airline to healthcare workers, but she spent the most time with meatpackers.
As real evidence of her passion for worker’s rights, the life-long vegetarian worked with the meatpackers union for years fighting for better work conditions. “It was challenging for me for sure. The smell of death around the meatpacking plant is brutal, but it’s a horrifically dangerous job for the workers and there are lots of injuries. When you talk about workers that need a union, meat and poultry workers are at the top of the list.”
Eisenberg’s Spanish-speaking skills were vital to help her communicate with many workers and get a real sense of the conditions. Despite the long hours and challenging conditions, Eisenberg didn’t consider a change. “That would have involved thinking about the future,” she jokes. Instead, she found another outlet – yoga.
Soon after she moved to DC, Eisenberg reluctantly started practicing yoga thanks to “a hippie neighbor from California who taught classes out of her apartment.” The natural athlete was skeptical at first: “I sort of went kicking and screaming … there was lots of stretching and I wondered if it was really doing anything, but I kept going back.”
After four years of practicing yoga, she realized she was getting more serious when she sought out classes on the road while traveling for work.
“I went to a class in Omaha, Nebraska, once that I loved. It totally resonated with me. I also had a teacher in North Carolina. I was practicing all over the place.” So, Eisenberg began taking teacher-training modules on weekends and immersion yoga weekends whenever her schedule allowed.
Upon moving to the Petworth neighborhood of DC, she found a new studio teaching Kundalini yoga. “It beat the crap out of me,” Eisenberg recalls. “It worked on postures but also a lot of breathing and chanting. It was very powerful and different from anything I had ever done. I found it so challenging but I loved it.” She loved it so much she became certified as a Kundalini teacher.
It was right around this time that Eisenberg’s longtime employer decided he needed a change. “He was a wonderful boss and had given me so much opportunity, but when he decided to shut down the office, I realized I was tired too, and I didn’t want to go work for another union. It had been nearly 20 years and these campaigns really sap you.”
So Eisenberg decided she was just going to teach yoga and see where it led her.
“The financial transition? Oh my gosh — it was crazy. The things you take for granted when you have a full-time job, like going out to dinner, that all had to go, but the teacher training itself is powerful and gives you the sense that you can go off in a different direction and make it work.”
Eisenberg, who was single at the time, realizes she was very lucky to have severance and unemployment to get over the transition hump. She had a very low mortgage which was also a help but, “without the severance, I don’t think I would have been able to make a go of just teaching.”
It was just enough of a cushion to give her a couple months to develop a steady slate of classes. She picked up students whenever she could at a variety of locations and then – fortuitously – a friend who worked at Miriam’s Kitchen called and asked if she’s be willing to teach yoga to the homeless there. She loved the volunteer time trying to “bring a little bit of peace and tranquility into the lives of the homeless men and women.”
It was through her work there that she connected with another instructor who was launching a non-profit to provide outreach yoga to underserved areas. Eisenberg was offered the executive director position and took it. Finally, through the combination of the office and the teaching jobs, she felt like she was back on her feet. But fundraising, a key part of her new job, was not really a natural fit. So, eighteen months later when a friend mentioned a space in Petworth that would be perfect for a yoga studio, she jumped at the chance.
Eisenberg initially partnered with a friend, but now runs Lighthouse Yoga Center on her own. At first, the overhead and rent were low, so the transition was smooth. After two years in the first location, she has moved the studio to a more central space in Petworth and expanded its offerings.
And in a way, Eisenberg has come full circle: no longer an official community organizer, her business has become the heart of her community: “My favorite thing right now about running Lighthouse is that we are becoming a great part of the community. Our students say all sorts of people feel comfortable coming here and we take that role seriously. We want to be there for the people in our neighborhood, providing a break from the stress of everyday.”
Tips from Julie Eisenberg:
- Let go of your material needs. Stop shopping for things that aren’t critical, for example.
- Develop a good network of friends and colleagues who will support you in your new venture. Don’t be shy about emailing them to invite them to classes or events.
- Don’t get overly hung up on how much income you need to bring in each month. Build a little cushion and then realize that some months may be better than others, so you can make it through the slower months without freaking out.
- In fact, try not to freak out in general. Everything works out in the end.