For my 10 year high school reunion (pre-Facebook and social media) the class president found my number, called me, and told me she thought she was going to have to call every prison to find me.

Yes, I was a rough teenager and my mom prayed for me every day.

I was born and raised on Capitol Hill in a poor Catholic family. Life was simple and fun with my four siblings, no TV and a stay-at-home mother. We moved to Wisconsin for three years when I was going into the third grade because my father got a scholarship to Marquette University. This was the time my family began to fall apart and my walls started to build. Upon moving back to Seattle the day before my tenth birthday, life was extremely different. Parents were getting a divorce, mom had to raise five children by herself, with no prior job or college degree, dad had left for us for months and my mom had started to drink heavily. Being the Cancer middle child, caretaker at heart, I found myself becoming the mother of the family. My three older siblings were teenagers and off doing their own thing which left me to take care of my little sister and the house. My childhood stopped and I became the parent.

Life continued and I just stayed numb to the issues that lay beneath. I graduated the eighth grade from St. Joseph’s school on Capitol Hill and had to attend Garfield High School in the central district. WOW, what a huge change for little 13-year-old Rebekah! At this time my mom had quit drinking and was trying her best to be present with her family. My job as parent was done, my walls were fully built, feelings were shoved down and I was a ticking time bomb.

Throughout freshman year I learned how to skip classes, smoke pot and cigarettes, drink, party, drop acid, be a bitch….typical high school lifestyle. This was all so amazing to me; rebellion, freedom, claiming my childhood, letting loose. Junior year I met a guy……yes, we all meet that guy, the one you know is bad and your parents hate. I started to become more rough and tough. Nobody would mess with me, I wouldn’t allow it. I carried my boyfriend’s 9mm gun in and out of school, chewed tobacco and stole cars or just broke into them on the weekends. I was becoming a gangster! At the same time, I was still involved with sports and was a cheerleader, which was very confusing for my little soul. Picture this: a cute little 15-year-old girl with a cheerleader outfit on, gun underneath the skirt, holding on to a spit cup with a big wad of chew in her mouth, chasing down girls threatening to beat the shit out of them. I didn’t really know what direction I was going for, but I do know that I let out a lot of anger towards other poor defenseless high school girls. Getting into fights was something I craved, letting people know that I was cool, not allowing myself to be let down or disappointed by anyone. It felt good to be a badass. Little did I know back then that this was a fighting mechanism to not grieve what was taken from me during my early years.

After barely graduating high school, I immediately moved out of my house and into more trouble sharing a horrible apartment with a fellow cheerleader. This was the worst year of my life. My mom did admit that she would pray for me every day in hopes that I would survive. She would come visit me and there would be broken beer bottles in the bathroom sink and no food in the fridge. Needless to say, I had no idea how to be on my own and honestly don’t remember much of that year. I do remember a lot of parties, endless nights and no clear road for my future. Thank God this only lasted a year and I had to move back in with my mom.

Around this time, my mom’s dear friend was in the process of opening a little business on Phinney Ridge called Red Mill Burgers, and needed some girls to come work for him and his sister. So at the age of 19, I began what was to become my career. I worked for John and Babe (owners of Red Mill) for almost 16 years! I witnessed how brilliant they were as business owners who managed the difficult task of surviving a small business. I learned so much from them and began to grow up and understand the meaning of the word responsibility. However, I did still keep up the tough exterior of my gangster side, getting into many verbal bar fights and not letting anyone truly in. I developed a personality of only allowing troubled girls to be my friends. Little did I know at that time, I was ignoring taking care of myself so I just took care of others. During year four of working at Red Mill, in walked the new phase of my life: Glendon. I knew right away this man was for me and two years later we were going to have a baby.

My stepmom bought me prenatal yoga classes at the Seattle Holistic Center with Collette Crawford, and that was the beginning of my yoga experience. Oh how I loved those classes, a bunch of pregos in a room crying, sharing stories and doing the bare minimum of yoga poses. I continued yoga after my first daughter was born with back to belly classes, baby and mom classes, etc. Through the next seven years I dabbled in many different styles and places for yoga. I loved the feeling but was not yet in love with letting go of my thick walls. Yoga was on the back burner but always there. Many times I talked to Collette about how to become a teacher and how to know it was time to try.

It wasn’t until the birth of my second daughter that I had the light bulb turn on. I went back to prenatal classes with Collette and asked if she would like to help with the birth and be present in the room. During that birth experience Collette had me doing many different breathing techniques and positions I had never heard of or seen before. I was blown away at how helpful they were and literally thought to myself as I was pushing my baby out, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I wanted to share this experience with other people, to learn more on how breath work alone can be so powerful. This is when I discovered hot yoga and started to practice four times a week. Yoga was no longer on the back burner, it was to be my next journey.

During this part of my life, my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer many times and had switched her path to become a reiki master and had found her spirituality. I learned a lot from her and how she overcame being a victim of cancer to understanding and embracing her journey. Her strong spirituality was an eye opener for me and through my adult years she taught me more than I could learn in several life times. I was getting closer to my life calling.

With the support of John and Babe and my family, I took a year off of work to study yoga and start looking for my own studio. Teacher training changed my life and my walls were starting to come down. I began to understand my habits and gathered tools to take care of me. Going balls out, I opened Sweat Hot Yoga using the business knowledge I learned from Red Mill and substituting burgers with yoga. It was scary but I knew it was something I would be good at. As I developed my new yoga family, my spirit began to soften and the gangster began to fade. I had never been around so many real, honest, strong and caring people. We often put yoga teachers on a pedestal as the person who is helping you heal, helping you to let go or the person who helps you gain. In my experience, I see students helping me heal, helping me let go and I have gained so much from them. It goes both ways. Ten months ago, my mother’s journey on this earth ended and if it wasn’t for my studio and students, healing would have been much harder. The love and support I received after her passing was tremendous and unforgettable. Students have told me many times how much they appreciate how real I am and how comfortable they are walking through my doors. I feel I owe this to my journey, the path that has unfolded to who I am today.

I often speak about finding acceptance and embracing your life, the highs, the lows and the sideways. I do believe everything happens for a reason and I am now able to look at situations in a different light. What am I to learn from this? How can I grow from this? I don’t see mistakes now or in the past, I see wisdom that has been gained or to be gained. I surround myself with love and light and hold compassion for me. Sometimes I look back at my life and am just thankful that I survived and that I am okay. I hold no judgment on myself or anyone and try to see the beauty of every feeling, every emotion. If life was easy we would never learn and strengthen our spirit and soul. Sometimes it’s a challenge but I know that this is my path. I have learned to embrace and nurture my inner gangster!

Rebekah Santiago

Rebekah Santiago, a Seattle native, was first introduced to yoga through prenatal classes when she was pregnant with her first child in 1998. She continued to immerse herself in yoga after the birth, where she learned greater body control through postures and breath work and discovered how truly amazing and enriching yoga could be.Over the years Rebekah has become acquainted with a variety of different styles and developed a deep love for yoga both on and off the mat. She eventually discovered hot yoga and knew she had found what she wanted to devote her life to. The increased health benefits and overall feeling of well-being and balance she experienced by adding hot yoga to her practice is what has inspired her to open her own studio so she could share this experience with others. Her primary focus is to grow a family of supportive, non-judgmental people who can share their love of yoga within a community while at the same time focusing on developing their own sense of inner awareness.