Gemma Farrell is tall, blonde, and impossibly flexible—even at 52 years old, she can extend her leg at a 90+ degree angle. Her voice is soft and sweet, yet powerful and compelling. When you walk into Gratitude Yoga, her studio off of Witherspoon Street, she’ll greet you with a warm smile, a prolonged hug and a kiss to the cheek, even if you’re only meeting her for the first time. She knows most of her students by name—between the constant stream of instructions for different poses throughout her hour-and-fifteen-minute long classes, you’ll hear her commenting: “Beautiful, Annie” and “Well done, Sara” at regular intervals.
I’d heard about Gratitude and Gemma’s legendary classes from several people around campus. I finally went with a friend right before spring break—after just one class I knew I wanted to go back. It was the perfect blend of stretching and strength training—a real workout, not the mild, boring stretches I’m always wary of when going to a new yoga class—and Gemma’s soothing voice was encouraging. So her 10 a.m. Vinyasa class became a part of my Saturday morning routine. Soon I started going during the week too, and every time I walked in she would greet me with a smile and a hug. I didn’t really know her, but I wanted to, because she made it feel like she knew me.
When I asked to interview her for the Nass, she smiled and said she would love to, without hesitation. She offered me her email and her personal cell phone number so we could coordinate a time and date. (Actually, both forms of contact are on the back of the schedule cards available at Gratitude’s front desk, which I was surprised by—essentially, Gemma has made her personal cell phone available to all of her students. I soon realized it was a testament to her genuine openness and availability to anyone who practices at Gratitude.)
I walked into the studio for our interview expecting fluffy answers and maybe some preach-y spiritual vibes. What I found was the complete opposite—Gemma, besides being a talented yoga teacher, is intelligent, genuine, and incredibly grounded—and her path to Gratitude is not necessarily what you would expect.
Before she ever touched a yoga mat, Gemma attended Dartmouth College, where she studied Government and Asian Studies. Enamored with the East, she studied Chinese, spending summers in China and even doing academic research there on the agricultural reforms under Deng Xiaoping, the chairman of the Communist Party in the 1980s. She returned to New York after her finishing her undergraduate degree to attend Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on Asian politics.
“I was kind of a nerdy student,” she said about her years in academia. “I think I’m sort of a perpetual student of life.”
If anyone else had said this, I’d probably roll my eyes. But listening to Gemma recount her life’s experiences made me think she wasn’t just repeating a cheesy cliché—she truly did embody this philosophy.
Feeling like she lacked an understanding of the professional world, she took a leave of absence halfway through her studies in order to work as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, which she described as a “wonderful experience, a very intense, really good learning experience.” Though she knew she was not going to pursue a career in finance, she wanted to do it in order to try something new and different.
After working at Goldman, she took jobs in marketing and advertising, and with her “love of publishing” she eventually ended up working at McGraw Hill in their International Rights department, where she worked with their Asian territories. Between her jobs she spent time traveling in Asia.
Hearing about Gemma’s corporate past caught me off-guard. The last thing I expected from a yoga instructor in the quiet, bucolic town of Princeton was a background in the fast-paced financial sector and publishing world. But it was refreshing to hear about ambition and intellectual curiosity that doesn’t depend on a specific outcome, an attitude which doesn’t feel so prevalent among most Princeton students.
After working at McGraw Hill, Gemma and her husband settled down in Plainsboro, where they had their first child. They proceeded to have four more children in five years (they’re currently aged 14 through 19). She homeschooled all of them through middle school. Then, “on a whim,” she decided to pursue yoga, after years of practicing meditation.
In fact, she only started regularly practicing yoga in 2009, and then trained for her teacher’s certification the following year. She opened Gratitude two years later, starting out by just renting a room and giving classes a few times a week. Her following grew, she says mostly by word-of-mouth, until there was enough interest to rent the space as a tenant and start a studio.
When it started, all Gratitude classes were donation-based—if the donations covered the rent, she said, the studio would stay open, and if they didn’t, it would have to close. As its popularity grew, she hired more instructors, and decided to lease the space and make Gratitude a full time operation.
She named it gratitude for the universality of the term.
“Gratitude for me is a very central component to general well-being and happiness,” she said about why she picked the name. “It’s a concept that is nontheistic and not intimidating, because everyone can relate—there’s always something to be grateful for.”
Her classes are full of Princeton students, male and female, many of whom swear by her classes.
“Gemma was the first yoga instructor I went to in Princeton, and she’s easily the best teacher I’ve ever had,” my friend Lulu Al Sayegh, a freshman, told me. She’s been going to Gratitude since October, after hearing about it from her friend’s older sister.
“I usually hate group classes because everyone pretends they’re not competing with each other even though they actually are, but with Gemma it feels different,” she said. “She has such a commanding presence, and once class starts I’m fully absorbed and not remotely concerned about anyone else around me. That being said, Vinyasa Flow with Gemma is next level shit—she works you extremely hard from the first minute, and you’ll leave class drenched in sweat.”
Junior Joe Sheehan started going to Gratitude last fall when his back started hurting from rowing crew. A friend told him he was going to yoga and he thought it might alleviate his back pain and improve his flexibility. After noticing improvement in his pain, he started going regularly—now he goes to Gemma’s classes two or three times every week.
“It’s just a consensus, like if I’m going with my friends to yoga we can all agree on Gemma,” he said. “At first I experimented with other instructors, but none of them are as good as her. Her classes are the most difficult, and that’s what I enjoy. Usually she does sort of five to ten-minute core ab work that I enjoy, because I hate doing that on my own.”
I have to agree with this—I’ve tried out other instructor’s classes at Gratitude, and none of them compare. A couple weeks ago I wanted to try one of their hot yoga classes, and five minutes in the instructor started chanting in Sanskrit—and all of the other students joined in. I was super out of my element, and kind of uncomfortable, so I left 20 minutes in, leaving a note at the desk that I felt lightheaded because of the heat. And so, my lesson was learned: Gemma’s class or no class.
Gemma’s relationships with students from the University vary from acquaintance—though even they are welcomed with a hug—to mentor-mentee. She said that though students are often busy, some will grab tea or take a walk with her.
“Sometimes they want to meet and talk about stuff they are going through and they want a different perspective,” she said. “I love spending time with them—it’s more that they’re so busy, but I’m always available and eager to do that. It’s the best part about being here, making those connections.”
Gratitude now offers up to nine classes a day with over 17 different instructors on their payroll. While all the other instructors charge $12 per class ($10 for students), Gemma’s remain donation-based, and she doesn’t take a salary—the revenue made from other classes covers other instructors’ salaries, rent, building utilities, and maintenance, and a portion of it (around $1,000-$1,500) goes to a different charity each month.
“I want to make [yoga] available to everyone and some students are on a budget,” she said about this decision. “I want people to practice more yoga because it’s helpful. I wouldn’t want finances to be the reason to come only once or twice a month.”
It was around this point in the interview that I began to to think, “this woman is a saint.” She’s done it all, from investment banking to academia to yoga teaching, and yet everything she does seems to either be for the benefit of others or to satisfy some kind of curiosity. Gemma’s self-proclaimed identification as a “student of life” felt more genuine after hearing these things.
If you go to Gemma’s classes regularly, you’ll notice that they aren’t all the same, even if they’re all called “Vinyasa Flow.” She varies the pose sequences from class to class—and they aren’t planned ahead of time. Rather, she assesses the feel of the room to adjust for what she thinks students might want.
“When I teach I don’t plan ahead—I make it up as I go, so the room can feel really different,” she said. “There could be a lot of athletic students who want to get their energy up, or a group with lower energy, so I don’t like to have a plan that doesn’t work for that group. I like to keep it pretty flexible.”
During classes, Gemma focuses on teaching the poses rather than practicing them herself—she does her own yoga at home, early in the morning. And when she isn’t at the studio, she’s most likely at home spending time with her kids. She brings this maternal air to class as well—there’s a filial kind of trust between her students and her, an understanding that she will take care of us and our bodies as we practice. And she makes good on that, walking around throughout the class, adjusting people’s poses, making sure they are pushing themselves to their full potential. That’s probably why my friend joked that he wishes Gemma was his mom after I took him to one of her classes.
Before I left Gratitude, I asked Gemma what advice she would give to her students. “Trust that you have so much ability and potential,” she told me. “You don’t know where its going to lead you. Know that it’s going to unfold in an amazing way. Relax and unfold into whatever is arising, keep being a student of life.”