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Mind, Body, And Soul: Local Studio, Yoga State, Focuses On Mental Health During Pandemic

Jen Hayes

The Yoga State Studios, in Okemos and East Lansing, Wants to Help Clients Feel More Stable and Secure during COVID-19.

Ten years ago, Jen Hayes and her daughter Rachel started each day similarly. 

Hayes would pick up Rachel, who was 11 at the time, from school and the two would get back to work. They’d head to a run-down Okemos bank and continue building it into the yoga sanctuary it stands as today. It was just them, Hayes’ mom and the occasional friend to help.

They’d work until 4:30 a.m., Hayes said, before returning the following afternoon.

That building stands as Yoga State, a yoga studio with locations in East Lansing and Okemos. Hayes, an East Lansing native, said the building represents more than a studio, but instead an “adopted family.”

“The East Lansing studio is right off campus and a lot of young people come up here, they leave their real birth family, they move up here they don’t know anyone (and) they come to this studio,” Hayes said. “The way that we built it is very warm and welcoming.”

Rachel said as a kid, she did not particularly enjoy practicing yoga, but as part of the family business would witness first-hand people’s journey through yoga. She specifically noticed yoga positively impacted, and in some cases even changed, people’s lives.

“I would meet people and see them on the first day that they were there and then I would see them on the last day that they were there before they moved across the country or started their own life,” Rachel said. “I would see the growth that they made.”

One of those growth stories is Ellie Gaudino, who started practicing at Yoga State in 2011. At the time, Gaudino was a Michigan State University music student who, one day, tried out a small yoga class at IM West. She was immediately hooked and followed the IM instructor to Yoga State and began her journey. 

Gaudino said her MSU experience was difficult at times, but she found comfort within the walls of Yoga State. 

“I'm sure I would have worried about looking crazy anywhere else but because I was at Yoga State I knew that I could just let it all hang out,” Gaudino said, reflecting on a time she went to the studio for nothing more than a safe place to cry. “It was such a healing and beautiful moment to go to a space where I can just sob on my yoga mat for an hour while doing down dog.”

Gaudino enrolled in Hayes’ teacher training the following summer. In the program, Gaudino said students are instructed to meditate every day and practice “yoga eating,” which makes participants more mindful of the food they consume by using rules like putting their utensil down after each bite.

Gaudino said the teacher training program was “life changing.”

Credit Jen Hayes
The lobby at 'Yoga State.'

“I was on anti-depressants during teacher training and through, obviously with the help of my doctor, but also yoga and teacher training I was able to get off of anti-depressants,” Gaudino said. “I was on anti-depressants for three years and since then I’ve never had to go back on them.”

Hayes’ daughter Rachel had a similar experience with her mental health and its improvement from yoga.

“I’ve been to therapy a couple times for my own reasons and a couple years ago I decided to take yoga teacher training at Yoga State,” Rachel said. “Compared to anything else that I’ve ever done for myself mental health wise and just health wise in general, I’ve noticed the most significant change in myself after doing that program.”

But in March 2020, the classes where these yoga students went to cry, to practice breathing and to keep themselves grounded, suddenly stopped. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of all group and in person fitness classes. 

“That was an instant halt,” Hayes said, reflecting on March 16, 2020, the day she sat down with other Yoga State instructors and realized the situation in front of them. “I’ve been practicing breathing since that’s what we do in yoga. We practiced breathing for 20 years and it was hard to breathe with everything that happened so abruptly.”

Hayes has hosted several virtual classes and teacher trainings throughout the past year to keep things going. Recently, since group fitness classes are allowed again, the studio has held some in limited capacity.

Only nine can attend in a yoga room that usually fits 52 people. In a spin cycling class usually holding 18, it now can only have seven.

The restrictions have put Yoga State in financial crossroads. Struggling to pay rent, the studio has created a Go Fund Me page and Hayes has applied for several different grants to receive financial support.

Credit Jen Hayes
The hallway at 'Yoga State.' Hayes and her daughter Rachel built the building together.

“There’s an enormous amount of small businesses in need and they (the grants) can only touch about five percent,” Hayes said.

Rachel said the pandemic has made it difficult for her to practice yoga. Despite the benefits of practicing during these times, the lack of availability and community she can have in the studio separates her from the art. 

Despite those times as a child when she might’ve not wanted to practice, Rachel, and other yoga students, find themselves needing the studio now more than ever.

“Our studio is really focused on not just physical health but also mental health at the same time,” Rachel said. “I would see people who would come in and say, ‘You didn’t know this about me when you first met me, but I didn’t want to be alive anymore, and then after I started doing yoga here, I did.’ That was what made the most of an impact on me."

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