In 2001, before Jessica Gardner could drive her car out of the University of Rhode Island parking lot, she had to remove a flyer, which someone had slid under the driver’s side windshield wiper. Although consumed at the time with her full-time nursing school studies and debilitating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, Gardner responded positively to the flyer’s invitation from a local Bikram Yoga studio. “I read it, and my first thought was ‘I think this is something I should do to bring balance into my life,’” says Gardner, who later founded her own Bikram Yoga Voorhess studio.
Totally new to yoga, Gardner had no expectations about Bikram Yoga classes or any results that come with regular practice. So, after three months of classes, she was surprised to physically feel better. “When I began, my hands were so clawed and cramped that my fingers couldn’t hold a pen,” advises Gardner, who adds that the condition of her hands was so severe that she had to pay a typist to transfer nursing class notes she recorded on cassettes.
At the age of 16, Gardner’s physician discovered 5 tumors on her thyroid, which he removed. Left with one-quarter of her vital endocrine gland, she refused any other treatment and was put on synthroid, a thyroid hormone. By the time Gardner stepped onto her first yoga mat to begin a series of 26 Bikram Yoga poses, which start with 2 breathing exercises, she’d been heavily medicated for years with additional prescription drugs: methotrexate, used in the treatment of autoimmune disease, prednisone, a synthetic corticosteroid drug used as an immunosuppressant, and plaquenil, an antimalarial drug used to treat arthritis.
During her first class, it only took 3 or 4 standing breaths and Gardner needed to sit down. “I’d never taken in that much oxygen before,” she recalls and adds that initially she could only do every other posture because she couldn’t stand. A feeling that something wasn’t right slowly began to enter Gardner’s awareness. “I was weak but I knew I should have been able to stand,” she says. This simple revelation brought Gardner to a deeper appreciation for how unhealthy she was from medications and arthritis. The most physically grueling thing Gardner had ever done, also allowed her to comprehend why practicing for 90 minutes in a 105 degree room was helping her to drink more water, detoxify, and feel better.
At six months, Gardner was attending classes three times a week. Her doctor took her off synthroid because what little thyroid she had was functioning. In 2007, at the age of 25, she signed up for 9 weeks of in-depth teacher training with Yoga Masters Bikram and Rajashree Choudhury and their staff of teachers. “Not only did I realize that the rest of my medications weren’t working, I knew intuitively that I needed to be fully immersed in yoga because each one of the hatha yoga postures has a health benefit. Bikram’s sequence of 26 postures are systematically arranged so that the physical dynamics—extension and compression of the body and muscles, ligaments and tendons—delivers fresh blood to every joint, muscle, and organ,” notes Gardner.
Gardner’s husband Neil is a business consultant. The couple moved frequently for Neils business purposes until he accepted a permanent position in Philadelphia. A rather nomadic lifestyle allowed Jessica to maintain her practice for years across numerous cities including: Las Vegas, Atlanta, Providence, Baltimore, Vancouver, British Columbia, and London England. It also offered Garner the perfect opportunity to experience the Bikram Yoga community, meet wonderful people, and enjoy everything the Yoga has to offer.
Today, Gardner anticipates taking her successful studio and her students in a direction that helps individuals to clearly recognize the healing aspects of yoga. “Yes, yoga gives you a great butt as a side effect,” she says with a smile, “but the most important part is that I know that yoga keeps me healthy, happy, and mentally strong.” Another another significant side effect: she’s been off all medications for some time.
Bikram Yoga has also led Gardner to compete nationally and train others who want to do the same. “For me, competition is challenging because I have to ask myself, am I yogi enough to control my mind and adrenal glands so that I am not nervous in front of 400 people who are all watching me,” explains Gardner, who believes that competition inspires others. Watching others compete, she sees hard work, balance and control. “I walk away inspired, telling myself, if they can do that, so can I,” enthuses Gardner. In 2011 Bikram Yoga Voorhees, was voted Best Yoga Studio in South Jersey by South Jersey Magazine.