Yoga turned trauma into inner peace for Selam DebsJackie Gill - January 28, 2020
For Selam Debs, yoga is more than just a job. Yes, she’s the owner of Juici Yoga, a studio based in Waterloo that offers everything from mindfulness classes to kids yoga. But the practice also helped her find her way after a lifetime of trauma, including poverty, rape, abuse and systemic racism – all while building a better life for her son.
On and off the mat, she’s a force for acceptance, respect and love as a holistic life coach, a singer and songwriter, a mother and an activist who stands up for (and educates people about) diversity in all shapes and forms. This is her story.
I was born in Amman, Jordan. My parents are both Ethiopian, and they came to Canada in ’84, when I was just two years old.
There was a lot of conflict in Ethiopia with the regime taking over. My father was a student advocate and activist, and the student activists were fighting against the government by protesting and educating communities. My father was jailed at one point as so many were during this resistance. They tried to torture him and many others in jail to get information to find out who these students were working with, and he was released after some time. Shortly after that, they fled by foot to Sudan for refuge.
My mom had fled Ethiopia at a young age too, and moved to Sudan. And so both of my parents have the story of walking for days without food and water and making their way to Sudan, for freedom.
Eventually, her family moved to Amman as her father attended the University, and then sought refuge in Toronto, Canada.
But migrating to Canada didn’t mean life was easy – especially after her parents divorced.
My dad started working and also going to school. He spent many years pursuing multiple degrees. My mom had a very different experience because she didn’t have an academic background, with an education level up to grade five. She worked multiple jobs at minimum wage at a time when minimum wage was difficult to live off of.
We grew up in Regent Park for the first years of my life, which is one of the most dangerous parts of Toronto in the ’80s and ’90s. And then we moved from this underserved area to Scarborough, which, in the Warden and St. Clair area, was also another overexploited area.
“We lived among shooting, yellow tape and police brutality.”
– Selam Debs, owner of Juici Yoga
We lived among shooting, yellow tape and police brutality. There was poverty of course in these invisible cages, which creates crime. We were of all cultures, ethnicities and faiths, and we were all pushed to the peripheral of society to be forgotten. Beyond the challenges were beauty, music, food, culture, resiliency, connection and love. These neighborhoods in Canada are a product of systemic racism, a reality and vibrancy most Canadians have no awareness of.
And she had her own challenges to overcome, too.
I was molested at the age of nine. I was raped at the age of 16. And my journey of healing is constant, evolving and like peeling away an onion. I also see how these experiences have shaped the way I move in the world, the empathy I foster and the type of impact I hope my story has on women of colour and those impacted by abuse.
First, she found an escape through music, but there was an even better plan in store.
Singing has been a big part of my life since I could speak. I spent a lot of time as a young girl listening to cassettes, rewinding them, pausing them and just practicing singing, not because I wanted to become a good singer, but because of how I was so in love with music. Music was just my way of healing, and it was my way of escaping the realities of my life to envision new possibilities.
The plan was to move to the States to pursue music. And then I found out that I was pregnant a couple of months after I got to the US, and I came back to Canada. I had my son at the age of 22, when I was in the midst of really building my musical career, and that changed everything.
“I knew this was my opportunity to start a new chapter in my life. He was truly the light of my life and changed me.”
– Selam Debs
Initially, it was scary because I felt like I was disappointing my father, who disowned me at that time when I told him that I was pregnant. But then after my son was born, everyone just loved him. I knew this was my opportunity to start a new chapter in my life. He was truly the light of my life and changed me, and I started thinking about this little human being and how we could interrupt these cycles of fear and abuse to guide this boy to experience the world much differently than I did. In this pursuit, I grew up really quickly.
Then, she discovered meditation.
My aunt was actually tragically losing her life to cancer, and her family knew she had very little time before transitioning. My cousin introduced me to some meditation by mailing me some CDs. These CDs helped her get through these last parts of her life.
It was the first time that I felt like I could be with myself. Meditation was powerful. I didn’t know that this type of peace of mind was possible as I lived in fight, flight and reactivity for such a long time… For the first time, I was able to turn inward.
“It was the first time that I felt like I could be with myself.”
– Selam Debs
I had grown up very religious. So, I understood the value of prayer and the value of connecting in silence or through music, but this was different. I didn’t have to believe in anything in order for me to have the experience of just being safe in my body, and so it became a big part of my introspective and healing journey.
Meditation led naturally to the practice of yoga.
I was never really an athlete, never really felt like I fit in the fitness world. I always felt like I was unique – I had a curvy body, and you didn’t see a lot of people of diverse backgrounds in the places that I went to. And even though yoga was not diverse, it spoke to me. I felt strong and at ease in my body. I felt l could move fluidly, with a sense of empowerment.
I remember my first yoga practice and thinking, “Oh, I was meant for this.” I wish I’d known about this a long time ago. It transformed the way I saw my thoughts, my body, my reactions, my experiences and life itself as so much focus is on the breath.
So when she became frustrated with her corporate job, running a yoga studio felt like the right move.
I was working in the corporate world. I was raising my son. It was paying the bills, and it offered me stability but I felt like I was selling my soul every day. I felt that I was meant to do more.
The overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction was so huge that I knew I could no longer work in the corporate world. I took the risk and started exploring other possibilities. I loved yoga. I loved movement and I loved meditation. Perhaps I would become a yoga teacher, but I truly wasn’t sure if this would be a sustainable way to earn a living.
“I felt like I was selling my soul every day. I felt that I was meant to do more.”
– Selam Debs
I explored different options. I explored becoming a massage therapist, maybe going back to school and becoming a teacher. And then I finally realized that yoga was the way that I wanted to go. I didn’t know just how much my life would transform.
I took over the studio about five years ago. The studio was called Community of Hearts Yoga and was at this location for over 15 years. About two years later, I rebranded the studio to Juici Yoga with a vision for living your most inspired, innovative and influential life, off and on the mat. This vision has truly come to life.
Today, Selam is stronger than ever – and she uses that strength to help others find their own.
I have no shame anymore about all of the quote-unquote mistakes that I’ve ever made. I see my setbacks and painful experiences as fuel. And today I can share my story openly and unapologetically with people in the community because I know that they shaped who I am today and the compassion that I have for those most vulnerable.
I think the reason why I’m able to guide classes from such an emotionally centered and loving place is because of my experiences, because I know what it feels like to not feel seen. I know what it feels like for people to say that your body is too curvy, or that you’re too fat, not attractive, black or poor. As a woman of colour, I know what it feels like to not see people that look like you succeed, heal or cultivate their dreams.
“I see you as you are… and nothing needs to change.”
– Selam Debs
And so the way I teach comes from this place of seeing each person in the room and offering a radical compassion of, “I see you as you are… and nothing needs to change.” This is how we change the landscape of belonging and this compassion for myself is how I have forged forward in wisdom, resiliency and grace.