Healing is often thought of as an individualistic journey. Still, for many, true healing occurs when we find a community, a sense of belonging and purpose, and surround ourselves with other supportive like-minded people. Each person’s healing journey or road to overall better health is different, some take longer than others, but I believe it is something we all seek in one way or another. Having spoken to many people over the years who have overcome immense challenges, I have learned that we must permit ourselves to feel all the feelings, we must learn to forgive ourselves, show compassion, and be kind to ourselves. A person’s healing journey is ongoing and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

I enjoyed speaking with someone who has learned these things and so much more on her healing journey. Dawn Chartrand is a wellness warrior. Currently based in Winnipeg, she is Anishinaabe from Rolling River First Nation, Manitoba, and is a yoga instructor, a Laughter Yoga instructor, a visual artist, and a musical entertainer. Her story tells an all too familiar history of disconnect and trauma caused by colonization and residential schools. “My mom was raised in a residential school, so her family connection was broken early on,” says Chartrand.” One of five children, Chartrand was raised primarily in non-Indigenous communities where her parents were ministers and ran a family church. “My parents were very hard workers and wanted the best for us, but I always remember being the minority in the community where we lived and in school,” notes Chartrand.

Dawn Chartrand

With no connection to her Indigenous culture, Chartrand often felt disempowered and alone. “We didn’t have a family connection, nor did we have any type of pride in being an Indigenous person or what that meant,” says Chartrand. A childhood filled with experiences of racism and exclusionary behaviours, and no sense of belonging soon led Chartrand to seek out people, places and experiences that were so unlike what she was familiar with, and soon found herself in a vicious circle of addiction.

 

For a long time, there was a lot of stress, heartache and poverty as Chartrand tried to navigate the world as a young mother of three with no support system. “It was lonely and I didn’t have coping mechanisms that were healthy. I was just barely surviving. I fell deeper into addiction in my twenties and went through some severe depression and anxiety,” explains Chartrand. “Back

then these things weren’t acknowledged and supported or talked about the way they are now.” She has struggled with addiction since her teenage years but always managed to find solace in moving her body physically.

“I suffered a lot of grief. That’s when I started working out at home. It became my coping mechanism. I couldn’t afford cable, but I could buy VHS tapes from thrift stores. I started working out and even started yoga at that time. It’s something that helped me to feel better and that’s how I began my physical fitness journey.”

For many years, Chartrand tried to get better on her own, battling addiction, getting clean and sober, and then relapsing. “I lost everything for a while,” she says. “It was this vicious circle of constantly trying to get better, trying to do better, and be better.” Chartrand and I spoke for some time as she graciously shared her story of heartache, resilience, courage and success. Chartrand has experienced many challenges throughout her life but has worked tirelessly over the last few years to build a community around her business OM-Digenous Yoga and Wellness, that integrates her First Nations culture and is inclusive of all Indigenous Peoples. With her permission, here is more from our candid interview.

SAY: What was your turning point—the catalyst to lasting change?
Chartrand: One major factor was eventually finding a great job with the government. It was a job I never thought I could get. It wasn’t until I was able to feel like I was contributing to society, and people looked at me and didn’t know exactly where I came from, that I was able to start to string together some meaningful sober time and start to rebuild my life. Working out—weight training, kickboxing, jogging, running—also helped me to kick that addiction. My life started to heal. I was able to get my children back into my care. I met my current husband when I was in my early thirties, I was clean, and we started building a life together with my children and his.

SAY: When and why did you start to increase your yoga practice?
Chartrand: In my thirties, I started experiencing chronic pain in my hands. They would swell and they would be very painful and stiff. It made it very difficult to work out and that was my outlet. I went from being in the best shape of my life, feeling like I was on top of the world, to walking with a cane. My quality of life drastically changed and eventually, I even had to stop working because of the progression and increase in pain. I finally got a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia. Because I was in so much pain, my first thought was to stay more still, but less activity was not the answer. I was very sporty and enjoyed high-impact activities but that wasn’t ideal with how my body was changing, so I decided to try hot yoga. I walked into my first class and I was the only visibly Indigenous person there, and I did not feel comfortable. It was triggering, to be honest. I did not feel welcome. I felt self-conscious in my attire and with my braces on. I remember feeling very out of place. I also remember crying in pain through that first class. But when I left that 90-minute hot yoga class something felt better. So despite feeling unwelcome in that space, I kept going back.

SAY: How was yoga instrumental in your healing?

Chartrand: Yoga became my safe place to deal with everything, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I experienced a lot of physical pain daily, but I was also trying to manage mentally, dealing with the guilt I felt being a mother who struggled with addiction and how that impacted my children’s lives. I did a lot of healing and healed a lot of wounds on my mat. That’s been my personal experience and the practice of going to yoga. After about five years, I finally felt physically well enough to do away with my braces. When I maintain my regular practice, I experience a great deal of healing.

SAY: When did you decide you wanted to become a certified yoga teacher?

Chartrand: I never thought I would become a yoga teacher, ever! It was quite the process and it was a lonely practice. To me, a yoga teacher had to have certain criteria and look a certain way, and that was not me. I also felt that most yoga teachers seemingly came from privilege, so it never really crossed my mind. I tried many different studios and different types of practices, but no matter where I went, I was always in the minority. I rarely saw an Indigenous person in those spaces and that bothered me. Truthfully, it never was a welcoming environment, but I stayed with it. I wanted to continue to challenge my body. It wasn’t until I attended a BIPOC women’s retreat in British Columbia that everything changed. There was morning yoga as one of the sessions, and the yoga teacher did not fit the mould, she was not the stereotypical yoga teacher. It was a beautiful class and I left inspired!

SAY: What was the process of becoming a yoga teacher?

Chartrand: I kind of threw myself into it. Once I decided to sign up for a teacher training course, it started one month later, so I didn’t have time to think about it. As always I was the only Indigenous person, and so much of what I had felt as a child resurfaced during the duration of that training. The other women didn’t have the physical limitations that I had, and I became overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. It was triggered so deeply in me, and that’s been the ongoing theme of my life—that’s what drove me into addiction and into relationships that were not good for me. It was four months of intensive training that took place on weekends and it was incredibly challenging. Once I completed my training, I decided I never wanted anyone to feel how I felt. This was such a big accomplishment and it changed the way I wanted to share my practice with others. The more I taught, and in spaces where I felt accepted, the more confident I became. I started building a community of people, Indigenous people, that would come and practice with me. This was in the spring of 2020.

SAY: What are the parallels between yoga and Indigenous culture and how do you meld them together? 

Chartrand: I’ve created Indigenous Wellness Workshops to incorporate the two. I honour where yoga comes from and acknowledge that this is a practice that originated in India. I honour the teaching that yoga is for all people, and I truly believe this is for everyone of all ages. It is more than making shapes with our bodies on a yoga mat. Yoga, as with the medicine wheel, embodies our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual and teaches us to connect to our truest selves. The meaning of the word “Yoga” is “Union” (in Sanskrit). I grew up disconnected from my culture, and have only begun that process of learning in the last few years. When I’m on my mat, I am in ceremony and I feel that connection to Creator, ancestors, and spirit. It’s some of the best self-care that you can commit to doing for your body.

 

SAY: Please tell us about Laughing Yoga.

Chartrand: About one year after my yoga certification, I heard about Laughing Yoga. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve always been a laugh-out-loud kind of person, with a fairly distinguishable laugh. I love laughing. I figured it was the perfect fit. Sandra DeLaronde, who I admire very much, offered a two-day training, so I jumped at the opportunity to take that. It’s a little unusual, so the hardest part was trying to figure out how to integrate this into my practice. One of the teachings we learned during our training is that laughing is the quickest way to feel better. Laughing is one of our seven natural ways of healing, given to us to be able to release hard feelings and release negativity. Sometimes we laugh even when it’s the last thing that we feel like doing.

SAY: How has the teachings of Laughing Yoga helped you personally?

Chartrand: My whole world was turned upside down again with the sudden passing of my son in the fall of 2022. During the hardest times of my grieving process, I remembered Laughing Yoga. After going through all the emotions, including extreme anger like I never felt before, I just started laughing. It was just something that came from deep inside, and I laughed and laughed and laughed because I’d already cried and yelled so much. I remembered back to those teachings and I released energy through laughing. I needed time to heal again. Returning to work and maintaining my commitments, teaching yoga, and doing art shows have continued to be a source of healing for me.

SAY: What suggestions do you have for others who want to start a journey of better overall Wellness?

Chartrand: I began to meditate and practice yoga at home in my living room as a single parent, in the evenings after my babies were asleep. I’ve always felt the drive to do better, to challenge myself physically and mentally. When I began, there was no access to the internet or social media, and losing weight was never my goal. I practiced physical fitness all these years because it made me feel better. Some days it was the difference between doing something that felt better that could hurt me, or help me. Most times I chose the latter. I encourage anyone who would like to begin a healthier journey to start small. Many yoga/gentle movement and workout resources are free online and if you don’t have access to online resources, deep breathing, stretching, or walking can be the beginning of your journey to better health.

Drinking a lot of water and mindful eating also helps. Explore new skills or hobbies to find what gifts you never knew you had. Reach out to others who might be in a similar situation and build a community. Get together, and talk about better health. There will never be a better time to begin your journey to a healthier and happier you. Nike said it best and I say this to myself all the time, “Just Do It.”

 

 

Chartrand offers workshops for children, youth, and adults, including Movement and Wellness

Yoga, Laughter Yoga, Painting, and Wellness Workshops. She is particularly excited about her newest workshop called Movement in Love which she developed with her mother. Chartrand leads others through movements based on the seven sacred teachings, while her mother teaches Anishinaabemowin. “The response has been so great,” says Chartrand. “I didn’t expect how much children would also love yoga. It’s so important for them to see an Indigenous person in this space.” For community events and more information about Dawn Chartrand and her workshops, make sure to check out OM-Digenous Yoga and Wellness on Facebook and Instagram.