Jennifer Gibson has an infectious laugh and a way of teaching yoga that makes you wish her classes would last just a few minutes longer - all of which is something her students in the Hasidic community love about her. Yes, one way or another for the last six year, she has been teaching yoga to religious women throughout Brooklyn, at first in a yoga studio, and more recently bringing yoga into the homes of three generations of women and their friends, ranging in age from girls in their teens and to an octogenarian.
And they were really excited when she told them that Dar Dowling of YogaCity NYC was going to be telling her story - which was their story too. (But they were too shy to have their pictures taken, so we borrowed from the great artist of Jewish women, Marc Chagall.)
Dar Dowling: You've started teaching women in the Hasidic community how did that happen?
Jennifer Gibson: Well, I started out teaching a group of four women, from the same family, which included the daughters who are in their 20's and the mother and her friend who are in their 40's and 50's. Lara Kohn Thompson, who has been a mentor of mine ever since I took the pre-natal teacher training referred me to Leah, the mother, who wanted to set up a private session for the group.
Lara knew that I had worked with this population before and enjoyed it. For about five years I was teaching at Body and Soul Central, a studio where a lot of religious women go to practice yoga. I used to call them the early birds, because they would get up and come to class 6:30 am. They were really great.
DD: Are they allowed to take yoga? Do they wear traditional yoga gear?
JG: Yes, they can take yoga classes as long as its taught by a female instructor, in a place where there aren’t any men, and there's no chance that any men will be passing by. Leah's husband leaves the house or stays upstairs during class. The women wear very modest yoga clothes, with three quarter or long sleeves, high cut shirts and leggings. Usually during class they take their wigs off, so they can be comfortable.
DD: How have they responded to yoga?
JG: They have been really positive. I've learned a lot about their culture and realized that they really need it. These women do a lot, have lots of children, and lots of stress. Yoga helps them take time for themselves, and this way they can de-stress and relax. They are always really grateful for it and looking forward to class. They've said that they feel better after practicing yoga regularly – having better alignment, feeling stronger, and experiencing more body awareness.
DD: When did you start doing yoga?
JG: I started doing yoga when I was a 6 or 7. My dad used to do sun salutations with me before I got on the bus for school in the morning. My Mom would do yoga nidra and creative visualization exercises with me – I loved it. But I didn’t really appreciate it at the time. I thought everyone was doing sun salutations before getting on the bus, but now I really do appreciate what they gave me.
I also did a little yoga in high school, but I got serious about it in college. I really needed it because I was having lots of anxiety and panic attacks. I was far away from home and realized I was alone with my stress so I dove right back into yoga.
DD: How did you go from being a student to being a yoga teacher?
JG: I was a dancer from the time I was 6 until my early 20's. Right after college, I was accepted into a company in Washington, so I packed up and moved there. When I got there they said they couldn’t use me at current weight, and were going to terminate my contract if I didn’t lose 20 pounds. I was already pretty tiny, so that wasn’t going to happen. I was devastated and went into a deep depression.
I danced with a company in Connecticut for a few years after that but I was still not in a good place, my mom was worried about me and said “you need to go to an ashram right now.” I found Ananda Ashram, and being there yanked me out of my depression. I got a strong feeling while I was there that I wanted to be a yoga teacher. A friend suggested that I check out the Integral Yoga Institute, so I did and it felt like home. I took their teacher training, moved to NYC and then took several other training's too, including intermediate teacher training, prenatal, post natal, and yoga for labor and delivery. These days I am also the Teacher Coordinator at Integral.
DD: What have you learned from these women?
JG: I really respect their sense of family and community. They really look out for each other in a way that I haven’t seen before. There is a lot of love there, and they spend so much time with their families that its inspired me to spend more time with mine. They have a sense of disciple and focus, so when they commit they really commit, which is really great to see and makes me feel like I am really helping them.
DD: Are you teaching more groups in the community too?
JG: Yes, that first group has turned into three and a private. Besides the original group, I am teaching another group of women put together by Judy, Leah's sister and her neighbors. They also asked me to give their grandmother a private, and then decided that I should work with their daughters, who are in their teens - so I am teaching them too! All in all I am teaching three generations of women in one family.