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Life on the mat

October 19, 2015

by Nicole Foster

The latest hot spot in Albany doesn’t serve drinks in red Solo cups, greasy burgers, or Sunday morning regret. And depending on the day, it’s literally hot-90 degrees, to be exact.  JAI Albany opened its doors in July, welcoming anyone who is ready to explore his or her potential in yoga.  The studio is decorated with thick, rustic wood pillars and wafts of earthy incense meet you at the door, invoking clarity and calm.  A corner of floor to ceiling cubbies offer a safe nook to place shoes and bags.  White orchids perch beautifully on the desk and a sign spelling “LOVE” sits on a window sill.  Welcome to JAI.

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Meg Allen in the studio/Nicole Foster

Located next to Junior’s on Madison Avenue, the studio offers an alternative to eating and drinking as pastimes. Classes of varying abilities are available seven days a week, beginning early in the morning and lasting through evening.  Twelve talented instructors make up the “Dream Team” and are ready guide students and residents of Pine Hills through bending, balancing, and binding.

“I feel like in a college neighborhood, we should offer more than restaurants and bars,” said Meg Allen, 32, owner of JAI. “Pine Hills feels like our neighborhood.   We love what Tierra is doing to make it more hip and we’re close with the people who work at the restaurants.  This spot felt right.”

The other half of Allen’s “we” is her fiancé, Dustin Horan, 35. He owns Dead Presidents Lounge, a tattoo shop and art gallery, which used to occupy 1092 Madison Avenue, the same space JAI now occupies.  Horan’s decision to move his shop around the corner to South Allen Street was the perfect time to bring dreams of JAI to fruition.

After months of paperwork and waiting, the permits were issued and the couple began extensive renovations to transition the space from several small rooms to the serene, cozy yoga studio that exists today. The couple’s vision while choosing colors and design was to make JAI a special place.

“We had to wait a long time to actually get in here,” said Allen. “Dustin was starting to move his tattoo shop, and building a studio here was a fantasy at first, then we manifested it.”

Pine Hills residents have certainly taken note of JAI. “I’ve heard great things from some of my neighbors who are dedicated to taking yoga with Meg,” said Leah Golby, Albany councilwoman.  “She’s a superstar in the local yoga scene, and it’s a score for us that she chose to open her shop here!”

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Welcome to JAI/Nicole Foster

Allen’s parents have enjoyed taking classes at JAI, as well. “Meg and Dustin had a vision for the studio and through hard work made it a reality,” said Allen’s mom, Nancy.  “Friends who have attended class with me have told me they haven’t seen a more beautiful yoga studio anywhere in the country.”

Acknowledging yoga often begins as a physical activity for people, Allen is confident it inevitably invites those practicing to find a deeper connection within themselves.

“No one is bad at yoga,” said Allen. “It’s for everybody and every body.  It’s your practice and we, as your teachers, will meet you exactly where you are the day you show up.  If you take deep breaths on your mat for an hour, I would consider that a successful time here.”

Rather than naming each class, Allen chose to number them one through three so people can choose a level they’re most comfortable with. Deeply devoted to the neighborhood, Allen has formed JAI to serve as a community space rather than simply a yoga outlet.  She encourages people to create relationships and meet friends.

Samantha Wanglund, 27, has practiced yoga for eight years and now teaches at JAI. Before meeting Allen, she struggled with the lack of community that can exist in other studios.  “I felt like I would attend classes and no one would talk to anybody unless they already knew each other,” said Wanglund.  “It felt nearly impossible to make connections with other practitioners after classes. I was so eager for that spiritual community. Meg and Dustin have facilitated just that with the opening of JAI.”

Emily Furthman, 33, found herself in one of Allen’s classes, seeking life and spiritual inspiration. “The space she and Dustin have created at JAI is a gathering place for family, connection, and friendship,” she said.  “I came to yoga to find something:  refuge, comfort, purpose, God.   Meg’s teachings provided me a safe place to continue on that journey.”  After Furthman’s first class at JAI, she “left feeling connected to something greater than me, and I wanted to experience it again.  I continued with Meg’s classes and became a devoted student.  ”

Allen is a hybrid of a soulful, wise earth-mother and a chic, cool girl who could have just stepped out from the pages of Athleta. She speaks just as easily about finding her path in life as she does about her favorite hair stylist.  Connecting with Allen is easy and during conversation, she’s also subtly inspiring.  “I’m just normal.  I try to practice yoga once a day.  Being a mom is my top priority in life,” she explains.  “I try to do my best every day.”

Her son, Judah, is 5 and found a helpful past time while at JAI. Before classes, he sits by the studio door and makes sure everyone takes their shoes off.  “He wants to be cop and a yoga instructor,” laughs Allen.  “I think that’s a good balance.”

More than a decade before Judah was born, when Allen had not yet practiced a sun salutation, she was living an entirely different life. The studio space wasn’t the only thing needing to go through an extensive transformation.

During high school, Allen, like many teenagers, hadn’t yet developed the tools to cope with the growing pains of stress, anxiety, and the desire to fit in. Lounging on the couch in her sunny office, Allen recollected how she turned to drugs and alcohol by the age of 15.

“It didn’t get bad until my early twenties. It wasn’t as pretty and fun and light anymore,” she said.  “I spiraled into more drugs.”

As she started considering a life change, Allen turned toward exercise. She attended a yoga class, thinking only of accomplishing a strenuous workout.  A revelation quickly presented itself to the budding yogi of how deeply the practice affected her.

“I got more serious about my life,” said Allen. “I started listening to my intuition and heart more.  I cleaned up my act, stopped drinking and doing drugs.  I realized what’s important; became more present and grateful.”

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Meg Allen strikes a pose/Nicole Foster

Her newfound life happiness took its toll, however. Allen lost a lot of friends during her transition.  They couldn’t understand why she needed a change and rather than supporting her, tried to hold her back.  As she began to grow in her practice and see things clearly, it was obvious to Allen she had to move on from what had become destructive relationships.  Letting go of people continues to be a difficult process.

“They’re welcome to come with me on my path, but I’m not going to hang out with them at a bar,” she explains. “Whoever you cross paths with in your life is your teacher in some way.  You have to find people who will inspire and guide you and stay around them rather than the people who bring you down.”

Along with Wanglund, Zoë Isdell, 36, is part of JAI’s “Dream Team” of teachers. Her introduction to yoga began as a quest for fitness, like Allen’s, and she soon became immersed in the culture of the healing, non-judgmental studio.  Isdell’s appreciation for Allen is palpable.

“When you meet Meg, you are received with her enthusiastically smiling bright blue eyes and you can’t help but feel welcome, supported, and loved,” she said. “Through her own experiences, she has developed a deep sense of compassion and her teaching comes across as real and raw.  My life is forever changed for the better because of Meg’s presence in it.”

Before becoming a couple, Allen and Horan began envisioning their own yoga studio as friends. They met while she was getting tattooed at Horan’s shop and a couple years later, Allen was a committed client.

“During our sessions she managed to talk me in to taking up asana practice,” said Horan. “We became yoga buddies, taking classes and little trips together.”

Horan is thrilled to see the impact JAI has had on the community. Though he and Allen live in Voorheesville, they both consider Pine Hills an extension of their home.

“I’m seeing a lot of people and friends try yoga who maybe wouldn’t have if we weren’t there. Pine Hills has been great for us.  I wouldn’t change a thing.  It’s a great block and neighborhood.”

Allen hopes to see Saint Rose students and faculty at JAI, taking much needed time for themselves on a yoga mat. She offers both student and teacher discounts and has plenty of mats for those without.  A detailed, explanatory schedule can be found at jaialbany.com.

Reflecting further on her time at JAI, student Furthman seems to conclude what those affected by Allen recognize, “Meg offers the Albany community a new way to live. And for that we are grateful.” -30-

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