23 Mar Harjit Naghra – Software Engineer Turned Fitness Solopreneur
Harjit teaches Essentrics and Pilates as the Founder of Willow Fitness. However her journey was by no means a linear one. She started out as a Software Engineer in an office job, but soon began feeling pain in her wrists. Visits to see Doctors to identify the cause turned into a winding road of exploration that forced her to eventually make a choice between two very different life paths.
So can you tell me what you do right now?
In a nutshell, I’m the Founder of Willow Fitness, where I provide online instruction in Pilates and Essentrics. I always struggle with defining myself by a job title though, because as soon as you say ‘pilates’ people think ‘oh exercise, i’m going to sweat, and it’s going to feel like this’. And sometimes you sweat. But I’m more about teaching you how to use your body differently so that you can gain greater control over your movements, eliminate your fear of injury and develop a deeper connection to your body. This is essential when you want to build muscle and get stronger.
It doesn’t sound like your clients are the typical gym rats. Why might a client seek you out?
One example would be my client, let’s call her Alice. She has what she calls a fragile body and a lot of vulnerabilities because she has problems with her connective tissue, and she had gotten to the point where her body lost a lot of muscle tone. She was spending a lot of time in her bed, eating in bed and taking client calls from bed, and that’s a very challenging way to live. Alice used to do yoga a lot but found that her joints were hurting too much to actually do it. She was working with another teacher who wasn’t able to give her the assistance she needed, and the other teacher referred Alice to me because of my speciality in working with more ‘vulnerable bodies’.
What led you to your work with ‘vulnerable bodies’ and have you always wanted to be in the world of fitness?
I actually went to school for software engineering. After University I got married, moved to England and started working for a Financial Institution. After about nine months into that job though I started having a lot of problems with my wrist. I had to take time off work to go and see different specialists, which went on for quite a while. Eventually I found a Rheumatologist who told me I had hypermobility, which is essentially having more range of motion in your joints. But with hypermobility, unless you have the muscle strength around those joints, it’s easy for them to get injured and overloaded.
Eventually the discomfort became so severe that I had to leave work. I was so determined to recover though that I just consumed myself with research, and through my research I found Pilates.
Eventually we moved back to Canada and I decided to begin Pilates Teacher training, simply to deepen my understanding of the practice – I like to know something from the inside out! At the same time I began job interviews to get back into the IT field, purely as a way to start making money again. I kind of bombed them though and that’s when I realized, oh wait, I’m gonna have to do a lot more prep to get myself ready for a job in IT. Because my skills are not what they used to be for the field. I realized that I’m gonna have to make a decision between returning to IT or pursuing fitness teaching. I debated for a while, but in the end pursuing fitness was the obvious choice, because it’s something that had become a necessity to have in my life. At this point, it’s a natural part of my identity. By pursuing something like movement and fitness, I knew I could impact more people positively because of the profound impact it had on me: it drastically changed my life and my ability to function.
Was it difficult for you to move on from Software Engineering?
Yes, it was actually. Leaving that part of my life was leaving part of my identity. When I was young, I always spent a lot of time on the computer doing little programming projects, creating websites and I had developed a competency that just felt very natural. And now I’m diving into something that was very unknown, that I did not feel skilled in, that I did not feel confident at and I didn’t really know how to do.
What about friends and family? Were they supportive of you making the career switch?
I did actually encounter resistance from my family members. My parents were, I think, a little confused. And a lot of people thought I was wasting my degree. But to me, at that point, I viewed it as a step along the way. Everything you do just lays the groundwork for the next step.
Were you surprised by anything once you began pursuing Fitness Teaching as a profession?
There were certain challenges I wasn’t expecting, absolutely. I don’t think they adequately discuss the realities of being a fitness instructor with actual instructors. Or what the lifestyle would look like, what the demands physically and mentally would be and what would be realistic in terms of hours. Yeah, I basically just dove right in.
When you’re working as an employee, you only have to come in and do your job. You don’t have to manage a whole bunch of different things that are unrelated to the job. When you start teaching you have to wear all these different hats. I found it very challenging to effectively manage my time and put the right amount of effort into all the different areas. I felt very overwhelmed by it on top of my lack of experience in the field.
What advice would you have for someone that is looking to make a similar career change?
Take some time to do research because it could save you some of the difficulty. And know that if you are overwhelmed in the beginning, that’s you learning how to do it and things will improve over time. I also think that if you have a calling, or there’s something that you really want to explore, it’s worthwhile to do it because otherwise you’re gonna live with this. You’re always gonna have a doubt at the back of your mind about, you know, ‘who would I have been if I had gone this other path’?