On the mat // A tale of transformation

Jennifer Gray, the owner of the Yoga Center of Minneapolis, is no stranger to adversity. Before she fell in love with yoga, she was overweight and battled a host of health problems. On the suggestion of her doctor, she turned to yoga and felt transformed within six months. Then she decided to open her own yoga studio. That was 10 years ago. Now, the mother of three has two studios — one in St. Louis Park and another in the Warehouse District.

She’s eager to share the transformative power of yoga with others in the community, too. The center’s special month-long Yoga for Transformation program kicked off April 27. It includes tips on building a practice designed to create lasting lifestyle changes and workshops on nutrition and meditation, among other things.

Here are highlights of a recent interview with Gray:

What drew you to yoga?

Twelve years ago I was in a pretty bad place. Two months after having my son, I found out that I had a cancerous tumor growing over my spine. They removed it while I was awake. It was a surgery that lasted from 9 in the morning to 6 at night. Then I was placed on bed rest for the rest of the summer.

… When I was finally lifted from bed rest and cancer-free, I was 200 pounds and atrophied. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go to the grocery store. So I’d sit in a chair and take care of my kids. I went back to a different doctor and said, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m dying.’ I had sinus infections and stomach issues — I was a ball of mess.

[The doctor] said I was suffering from a pretty severe anxiety disorder. One of the things you need to do is go to yoga class. … I went to a yoga class expecting to lay on the floor and say ‘om.’ I went in with my big white T-shirt and my black leggings, and I’m sitting in this mirror-filled room going ‘oh my god, oh my god.’ Then I realized that I could not do one thing that they did in class. It was an Ashtanga class. They never laid down to say ‘om.’

So I went home and I don’t know why, but I went back. I went back and tried one thing and then I went back again. Six months later, 55 pounds [lighter], 36 inches [gone], anxiety free — I was a new person.

After I had this huge transformation and realized not only was I physically a different person, but mentally I was anxiety free, but also I responded differently to the world. I wasn’t as sensitive or reactive.

What’s your take on the yoga community?

I think there are many different types of yoga. I think you have to be careful today in the world of yoga because there is no government regulation of how to teach. There could be a teacher who has gone through a program for six weeks and a teacher who has gone through a program for a year. How do you compare those people?

I love that there are so many different kinds of yoga out there. Everybody has to have a starting place.

We really focus on providing quality. You will never find a class of 80 here — you will never find a class of 40 here.

What’s your long-term vision for the Yoga Center of Minneapolis?

The Yoga Center is now in the middle of starting a nonprofit foundation so we can have a nonprofit arm. We provide yoga to people who are in life-threatening situations who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. Right now we work with people with AIDS and cancer, in particular, but we will work with anybody. We provide free classes for them through a donation class that we run. We want to start a foundation with a board that provides all kinds of fundraising opportunities so we can really provide for the greater community some of these benefits.

“On the mat” is an occasional column in the Journal exploring the city’s yoga community.

Yoga Center of Minneapolis

Downtown studio: 212 3rd Ave. N, suite 205
St. Louis Park studio: 4200 Minnetonka Blvd.
More info: yogacentermpls.com