Jennifer Gray is a Gracie certified jiu-jitsu instructor, fiancé to Ty Gay (Redline Jiu-Jitsu) and the woman behind She-Jitsu and Life & Death Kimonos. I came to know her through researching her empowering and catchy clothing-line slogan “Real Men Empower Women.” After reading her blog, and talking with her several times over social media she quickly became one of my favorite people. Here’s a 10-question interview not to miss!
How did you come to Jiu-Jitsu?
I had no prior martial arts experience when I began my Jiu-Jitsu journey 7 years ago. It wasn’t until my now fiancé, Gracie Black Belt, Ty Gay invited me to take a class at his school where I experienced Jiu-Jitsu for the first time. I was immediately hooked.
You seem like such a young and enlightened person, how did you get this way?
Lot’s and lot’s of practice. I was not this enlighten jiu jitsu yogi you see on social media most of my life and I’m a little older than people usually think. I turned 32 this year, but I feel like my life is just beginning. I feel like I’m 22 all over again, but a lot stronger & wiser.
I thank jiu-jitsu for my second chance in life. It changed my environment, it gave me an amazing support group, and surrounded me with great people to look up to.
Since I began my journey in jiu-jitsu, I’ve also began my recovery of alcohol & drug addiction, mental illness, Agoraphobia, an eating disorder, & PTSD.
I didn’t have a quality of life until I started training jiu-jitsu. I was very alone in this world. I was on a fast track to jail or worse… 6 feet under. So, like most people that train jiu-jitsu, you could say… Jiu-jitsu saved my life.
Jiu-jitsu definitely plays a huge part in where I am today. Jiu-jitsu liberated me in a way I never thought possible, built my confidence, and helped me a lot mentally. It gave me a purpose. I didn’t go to college, I studied jiu-jitsu at The Gracie Academy from 2011-2015.
After I completed their Instructors Certification Program & became a Jiu-jitsu instructor I began mimicking those around me by applying the people skills & philosophies I was taught; not only on the mat, but off the mat. Eventually, I began to see results when jiu-jitsu started to bleed into my every day life.
Jiu-jitsu only took me so far, though. There came a time when my flash backs & panic attacks became to much. I had to step away from the mat for a while. I didn’t stop training completely, but I would come in sporadically to drill. Grappling during that time made me very uncomfortable and sadly was a trigger for my anxiety & flash backs.
I never stopped teaching my women’s class during this process though. At the time, I was teaching a free women’s empowerment class every Saturday. It was the only thing that kept me hanging on to jiu-jitsu at the time, I think.
When I reached my final breaking point, I was hospitalized. That’s when I was diagnosed with bipolar, agoraphobia, & PTSD. That was when I realized I needed serious help. I could no longer hide from the emotional pain. I could no longer cover it up.
After my hospitalization, I started to isolate myself & my training continued to slow down. Mostly, because going to therapy, teaching, and training did not mix well. It was very difficult going to group therapy and seeing women that had just got out of jail for substance abuse that are struggling to keep their kids, find a home with a felony record, & with no means of transportation besides relying on a bus; at the same time trying to heal myself, talk about my emotions, & keeping up with a jiu-jitsu training regimen wasn’t the best option for me at the time.
The first group therapy I attended & graduated from was a program called Seeking Safety. That’s where I learned how to cope with PTSD & substance abuse.
Seeking Safety is where I learned how to physically & mentally ground myself by using “grounding” as a distraction. Grounding is a set of simple strategies to detach from emotional pain (e.g. drug cravings, self-harm impulses, anger, sadness).
Grounding as a distraction works by focusing on the external world, rather than inward toward the self. You can also think of it as “centering,” “a safe place,” “looking outward,” or a “healthy detachment.”
When you are overwhelmed with emotional pain, you need a way to detach so that you can gain control over your feelings and stay safe. Grounding anchors you to the present and to reality.
Grounding techniques got me back into the world. Once I applied these techniques, I started coming back regularly to jiu-jitsu. I started grappling again.
After I graduated from Seeking Safety, I was put into another group therapy; Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This is where my life really started to change. This is where I was introduced to Mindfulness.
I was given core mindfulness skills, Distress Tolerance Skills, Middle Path Skills, & Emotion Regulation Skills where I learned a lot about the mind. I was given techniques on how not to judge myself & others, how to observe my emotions, and the greatest thing I learned was meditation.
Every class we began with a 5 to 10 minute guided meditation straight from YouTube. The instructor would have us rate ourselves before & after meditation. Of course before I was extremely anxious, panicked, and nervous because that is just how I felt going to therapy each time; after we meditated I felt fine. I was back in my body again.
I started meditating more and more. I started with 5 minutes a day, then 10, then 20, and I eventually reached 30 minutes. During this time, I also started pursuing my journey in yoga.
My doctors had me on 8 pills a day during this time. Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, & antipsychotics.
After being on my meds for a year, I had my worst episode of self-harm I’d ever had.
I’d been fantasizing about cutting my wrist every time I saw a sharp object & it wasn’t until this episode I started cutting my wrist. Thankfully, that was also the last.
As I sat across from my doctor with bumps, bruises, black eyes, and cuts on my wrist that I gave to myself, she said well we will just change your regimen. That was the day I refused to live like that. That was the day I refused to rely on medication for my sanity.
That was the day I took myself off medications & I buried myself into meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practice; for the most part I practice them every single day. Sometimes, several times a day and it’s given me a better quality of life than any of those pills ever did.
My bad days are getting shorter and my good days getting better. I still struggle, and I’m still looking into other treatments like EMDR therapy because I still have days that I struggle with triggers, mania, depression, severe panic attacks, nightmares & flash backs, high anxiety, & insomnia, but I’ve found things that work for me.
Through trial and error I will get there. I have to do the work myself and I’m still working on it. I may struggle, but one thing is for sure, I will never quit.
You’re a savvy business lady, with your hands in many pies – how do you divide your time?
So many pies! Have you heard the saying… entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week? That’s me.
I work pretty much constantly, but I’m VERY fortunate in this department. I’m my own boss, I work from home, so I manage my own hours.
I run 3 businesses: Redline Jiu-jitsu, She-Jitsu, and Life & Death Kimonos. I spend the majority of my time in marketing & advertising, shipping & receiving, managing our online shops, managing our websites, managing our social media, & managing our blogs for all 3 businesses.
I train jiu-jitsu 2-5 days a week depending on what I have going on. I practice yoga regularly every Sunday & Wednesday, but I also have my own private practice at home which I do mostly every single day. I’m an aspiring yoga teacher, so I just recently added that to the mix.
Every day I try to do something that gets me closer to these goals and take it one step at a time. Some days I don’t train jiu-jitsu or yoga. Some days I don’t work on my blogs or websites, or even check my emails, but I always come back to them.
If I’m not working, practicing yoga & training jiu-jitsu; I’m reading or listening to books on audio, listening to music, riding my bike, cooking delicious vegan food, having girl time with my favorite girlfriends, spending time with my family, learning how to play the djembe, spending time outside with my dog, or traveling around with my fiancé watching him live his dream as a musician.
As someone who has experienced some hardship, how do/did you rise above them?
By practicing grounding and mindfulness, and reminding myself that everything is temporary including my emotions. Key word: PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE.
Many people with PTSD & substance abuse struggle with feeling either too much (overwhelming emotions and memories) or (numbing & dissociation). In grounding, you learn how to attain a balance between the two: conscious of reality and being able to tolerate it.
There are many different ways to ground. Jiu-jitsu & Yoga are great examples of physical grounding. It takes you out of the mental state you were in when you get on the mat bringing you to where you are: the present moment. It takes you to another state of mind. However, you must get to the mat. That’s the hard part. That’s what grounding help me do. It helped me get back on the mat.
Three major ways of grounding are mental, physical, and soothing. “Mental” means focusing your mind; “physical means focusing your senses (e.g. touch, hearing); and “soothing” means talking to yourself in a very kind way.
The one grounding technique that helps me the most that I still use a lot is looking at objects without judging. Basically, you look at things and name what you are looking at without judgment. Example: When I look around my living room, I see floor, couch, dog, table, chair, tv, fan. I don’t see a wood floor, a brown couch, a yorkie dog, a wooden table, a comfy chair, a big screen tv, and a small fan.
When I do that, I’m mentally grounded & able to focus on the present moment where the past & future do not exist.
So, then I can start to physically ground by scanning my body: Am I clenching my teeth? (relax jaw) Are my shoulders tense? (move shoulders away from my ears) Am I breathing? (Count to 4 on an inhale & exhale). Once I am better relaxed I can start to sooth myself by talking to myself in a kind way. (It’s ok. These things happen. You are not a bad person. You will get through this.)
Grounding is something you can do anywhere at anytime & it’s what helps me the most with my depression, anxiety, and panic attacks which are really the only thing that keep me from doing the things I love. Like getting to the mat…
The mat is my sanctuary, a place I practice mindfulness, and just like anything else; the more I practice, the better I get. Jiu-jitsu plus meditation, yoga, grounding, & being mindful are what led me to who I am today. What you call: enlightened.
Those mindfulness practices have done more for me than any medication, any therapist, & even talking about it. That’s what keeps me coming back to the mat because I know after each time I get to the mat I will be better than who I was when I got there.
Most people like me are in recovery their whole life and that’s something that is hard to accept, but I accept it. I have learned to accept my set backs, take lessons from my struggles, and take it day by day.
Also, turning to my favorite philosopher, Osho, as he always reminds me….
“Life can only be lived dangerously – there is no other way to live. It is only through danger that life attains to maturity, growth. One needs to be an adventurers, always ready to risk the known for the unknown. And once one has tasted the joys of freedom and fearlessness, one never repents because then one knows what it means to live at the optimum. Then one knows what it means to burn life’s torch from both ends together. And even a single moment of that intensity is more gratifying than the whole eternity of mediocre living.”
What role does yoga play in your life?
I use yoga as a tool to change my state of mind. It helps me stay focused and brings me back to the present moment each and every time I practice. Yoga takes me to a place where I can find answers.
It’s more than exercise or a physical activity to me. It is my mindfulness practice & I believe mindfulness can change the world. That’s why I want to become a Yoga Instructor. Not only because it’s a lot of fun and helps me mentally, but because Yoga has taught me a lot about myself; How to open my heart; and how find connection to others.
If you have a motto that you live by, what is it?
Nothing in this life is permanent, not even our troubles.
As a jiu-jitsu student, what has been your biggest challenge? And what is the best reward?
My biggest challenge is getting to the mat. Dealing with anxiety & agoraphobia makes it hard to leave the house sometimes. When my anxiety levels are so high it’s hard to walk out that door, get in a car, and drive. Once I’m there, though, everything is fine. That’s why I created the slogan “Get to the mat.”
My best reward is witnessing children & adults grow through their journey, showing them what jiu-jitsu can do for them, and helping them through the process.
It’s just a beautiful thing to be a part of.
If you could name only three people that have been inspirational in your life, who would they be and why?
- My mother. She is tough as nails, she sacrificed herself for me & my sister when we were kids & struggled to put a roof over our heads; at the same time keeping food on the table independently. To this day she is one of the hardest working women I know.
- My fiancé, Ty. He’s been my rock, my everything through recovery. Without him by my side, his love, and never ending support I couldn’t have made it this far. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met, the reason I started jiu-jitsu, & he is the reason I’m still alive today. He inspires me with his courage, his passion, and his music. I have learned so much from him. More than he will ever know.
- Ryron Gracie. I admire his mannerisms and sometimes try to be very Ryron-like because I admire the way he carries himself. He is the one that introduced me to the philosophy of being connected, but not attached, how to NOT take others personally, and he also introduced me to the philosopher Osho which helped change my life.
What inspired the message, “Real Men Empower Women” ?
Misconceptions about all men were part of the force that drove me to my breaking point, and so it’s touching that men, my fiancé in particular, and a male dominated sport were part of the solution that would lead me here today.
That’s why I created the “Real Men Empower Women” t-shirt. As an encouragement to both genders – about how cooperation & not division is a key to empowerment and overcoming challenges. I think it’s important for women to see that there are men out there that support them and want to see them empowered.
Most men want to help, they just don’t know how. This is a way for them to do so, by saying it without saying it; by saying it to everyone they meet.
The same goes for women. It’s important that we empower the men in our life. So, this message goes both ways. You gotta give support and encouragement if that’s what you want in return. “Real Women Empower Men,” too.
What is something about Jennifer Gray that many people don’t know?
Oh, man. I could right a book on this question!
Most people don’t know that know all the words to almost every 90s R&B, hip hop, & rap songs. I am a huge fan of 70s, 80s, & 90s Country music. During the 80s I was in LOVE with Michael Jackson & Sinead O’Conner. During the 90s I was in LOVE with Billy Ray Cyrus. I even had a night gown with his face on it.
When I was a kid my mom got this little cable box that had about 30 channels on it and the only 2 music channels were BET & CMT. I would wait till she went to bed at night, sneak in the living room & watch music videos all night long.
My first cassette tapes were Silk, Jay-Z, and Conway Twitty. When I got my first CD player, you had to be 17 or older to get explicit CDs, and somehow I talked my mother into buying me 2pac’s greatest hits. I’ll never forget when she asked for the “Shoe-pac” CD. Probably one of the greatest moments of my life.
If you could have a private, one-on-one with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Probably, Ronda Rousey. I think she is one of the coolest humans alive & I think we would get along really well. Plus, she would be so much fun to train with!
President, She-Jitsu L.L.C.
“The enemy is within. Let’s start a war.”