He gives a verbal cue to pose. He drops some words of wisdom. Pose. Wisdom. Pose. Wisdom. And so goes class—a dance of postures set to the tune of a gifted, motivational orator. Some say attending one of Dray Gardner’s yoga classes is life-changing. And so goes a dialogue with him. He shifts his cadence; draws out a word or two. Wait for it: He’s whispering to your soul.
Whether on the yoga mat or face-to-face, Gardner’s intentions are clear: “My goal is to work on opening up a healing space for people to come,” he says. And, boy, do they. A local instructor since 2007, his weekly classes at 103 Hot Pilates and Yoga studio have a dedicated following. But it’s his Silent Savasana classes at venues such as the Red Rock Hotel & Casino pool and Brooklyn Bowl that are taking his teachings to sermon status. At these large-scale events, Gardner cues poses to hundreds of participants via LED headsets and imparts his hard-fought insight: “We have to turn our pain into power and our wounds into wisdom. The longer we hold on to things, the heavier they become,” he says over personally curated music, another passion of Gardner’s.
A nontraditionalist, Gardner is the type of yogi who’ll drop a curse word as quickly as he’ll drop an affirmation. But just as it is unlikely for a former college football player from South Central Los Angeles to become one of Las Vegas’ most revered yoga instructors, his story is one that had many chances to end up in a much darker path.
At age 10, Gardner and his brother were kidnapped by their biological father after what was supposed to be a short visit with the estranged parent. Gardner says he experienced abuse both physically and verbally—details not for the faint of heart. “When you’re 10 years old, you think you’re scared,” he says. “When you get older, you realize you damn near got killed.”
Gardner went down a path of self-destruction, in which he inflicted pain on himself every chance he got: car and motorcycle accidents, wrestling, jujitsu, boxing. But it was the fighting, as in bare-knuckled, head-to-head, back-alley street fights, that took him down. “I was always wanting to endure pain, dance with pain,” he says. He fought anyone who slighted him.
Gardner eventually found his way to Las Vegas, but the turmoil followed. A close childhood friend whom he used to fight alongside was arrested on multiple charges of rape and murder. “He was the most violent person I had ever met in my life,” he says, pointing out that this friend also suffered from childhood trauma.
Gardner moved on, intent on changing his ways. He started by washing dishes at Station Casinos and eventually worked his way up. He dabbled in food and beverage and ultimately landed at a career in real estate, but it all caught up.
“My body broke,” he says. “I was 37.” Directed to have back surgery, he turned to yoga instead, diving in headfirst. Not even a subsequent seizure and cyst on his spine were going to stop him.
At that first yoga class, Gardner walked in with a cane. “I made a pact with the man upstairs that if he allowed me to walk again, I was going to spread this message of yoga,” he says.
With two of his friends, Gardner was determined to become a yoga teacher, but as misfortune would have it, all three suffered medical obstacles. One of the friends was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and took his life three days later. It was yet another life-altering moment for Gardner.
“I found my calling in the strangest way,” he says. “I tell people there are lessons in the light and lessons in the dark. Some of my most profound messages came through in my darkest moments.”
Gardner, of course, continued on to become a certified yoga instructor. In addition to 103 and Silent Savasana, he teaches Yoga in the Sky, a class in the High Roller, and HeliYoga, a chartered helicopter ride to Valley of Fire (see “Yoga for All”). He also volunteers at the Clark County Detention Center for Yoga in Jail—a calling that his life experiences have prepared him for.
“Being able to connect with people that I never probably would have, whether it be MS13, Skinhead—you name it, they’re there,” he says. “I tell them they are not their past, so let’s let that go and let’s move.”
Catch a lifestyle and wellness retreat with Dray Gardner in Palm Springs on January 27–29. For more information, visit shiningsoulgoals.com.