In a makeshift yoga studio, one of Jennifer Gray’s students recently handed her a framed painting of a multicolored phoenix, the mythological bird that has multiple lives and rises from the ashes as it takes flight.
It’s a fitting metaphor.
Four months ago, the Yoga Center of Minneapolis in St. Louis Park abruptly closed its doors amid financial woes. Now Gray — who founded the studio but later sold it to an investor who filed for bankruptcy — has been working to rebuild and find the community of displaced yoga teachers, students training to be teachers and practitioners a new home.
“From nothing, now this,” said Gray, looking around the second temporary space she has found to hold yoga classes and teacher trainings in recent months.
With the help of four female business partners, Gray is planning to open a permanent new, 7,000-square-foot yoga and wellness facility in St. Louis Park, possibly as soon as next month. The Yoga Center Retreat will have three yoga rooms plus spaces for massage and acupuncture and a retail space featuring goods by local makers. She plans to host book clubs, speakers and workshops from guest teachers.
“This whole thing has been built by the community,” she said, adding that one of her students who owns a construction company has helped build out the space while another has been hired to work on the website. “One miracle after the next kept happening. This thing has had a life of its own.”
Becky Nordeen, who was a manager at the Yoga Center of Minneapolis, has been putting together a schedule that includes many of the same yoga teachers. After months of upheaval, she’s ready for some stability.
“I’m just looking forward to being settled” in the new space, she said. “I think a lot of us are. The feeling of things being up in the air is never a great thing. As soon as we have everything in place and have a home, we can do what we do best.”
From humble beginnings
In 2000, Gray opened the Yoga Center of Minneapolis in the basement of a rundown racquetball club in St. Louis Park. At that time, yoga studios were not a common sight around town. The Yoga Center became most well known for its teacher-training programs.
“It’s one of the most in-depth, all-inclusive, well-known teacher-training programs” in the region, Gray said.
The studio had several locations over the years, and at some points had multiple spots around town.
In 2013, Gray sold 90 percent of the business to a Minneapolis investor, Neil Riemer, in the hopes he could help expand what she had started while she focused on helping with the teacher-training side of things.
It seemed to work at first. But then she and Riemer didn’t end up seeing eye to eye, so she walked away from her remaining 10 percent in the business a couple of years later. She continued to stay involved in the teacher-training program.
She was on a Caribbean cruise in February when she received word that the studio had closed its doors for good. She knew Riemer was having financial problems, which led him to close a second location in the North Loop a year earlier, but she and others had been hopeful he would be able to make it work.
“I feel awful about it,” Riemer said. “I’ve been a successful businessman my entire life, but this one got me. It just went bust.”
He said he kept throwing money at it, investing in more staffing, increasing its retail offerings, remodeling, opening a second location — but nothing paid off.
The main problem was fierce competition as other studios opened and started offering more exercise-focused yoga classes such as hot yoga that students seemed to be more interested in, he said.
While its teacher-training program still was doing well, its drop-in classes and retail offerings languished. He said he lost money on it every year.
When she got back from her trip, Gray immediately got the teachers together and said she would try to pick things up. There were about 125 students in the midst of training, some of whom had prepaid thousands of dollars.
Within 24 hours, she created a new business. Investors, mostly former students, stepped in to help cover the costs to pay teachers.
A few days later, she gathered all of the students in the training programs together to tell them her plans.
“I didn’t know if they were going to come with pitchforks,” she said. “I told them the story and said if you sign on, we’re running on good-faith gasoline right now, but I will assure you your program will be completed. There was a lot of tears and gratitude — and a lot of fear.”
‘The roaming yogis’
Most students decided to transition over, she said. She first found a temporary space in a strip mall in Minnetonka before moving the training sessions to the temporary spot in St. Louis Park.
“It wasn’t perfect,” she said. “We didn’t even have props at first. I called them the roaming yogis. Everyone was living on sheer trust.”
Jordan Nommay was a month into a nine-month teacher-training program when the Yoga Center of Minneapolis abruptly closed.
“I was devastated at first — super, super sad,” she said.
She decided to join Gray’s new venture to complete her training and is now about halfway through it with plans to graduate around the same time as initially planned.
“It’s been a journey, but it’s been fun watching everybody coming together,” she said.
At a recent training session in the temporary space, Gray gave students an update on plans to open the new studio.
A billboard will go up in coming days near the old Yoga Center of Minneapolis promoting The Yoga Center Retreat. It will say: “Good things come to yogis who wait.”
“Take a selfie with it,” she said to the students with a smile.