When Yoga Studios Fail Adaptive Students
Mining Disappointment for Growth
by Mary Higgs
As a disabled adaptive chair yoga teacher and an adaptive yoga practitioner, I’m committed to breaking down barriers to yoga. I encourage anyone who wants to try yoga to do so. I believe yoga is for everyone.
Unfortunately, not everyone thinks this way, which can make it hard for adaptive students to find a studio in which to practice. Finding a studio to support my adaptive yoga needs wasn’t easy. In fact, I experienced discrimination at two different yoga studios, which negatively affected my interest in yoga. On the upside, they also taught me what to do when yoga studios fail adaptive students.
The first time I experienced discrimination in a yoga environment, I was a beginner. I had been practicing at a studio for only a few months. I had just returned from the First Accessible Yoga Conference in Santa Barbara, California, and gladly signed on to become an Accessible Yoga Ambassador. I was eager to share our inclusive yoga mission with everyone. On International Yoga Day, we wanted to connect with yoga studios and ask them to share a photo of a disabled yogi on social media. My adaptive teacher seemed interested, but when I followed up a few days later, my hopes were thwarted.
The first time I experienced discrimination in a yoga environment, I was a beginner.
“I asked our owner about taking a photo of a disabled yoga student, but [the owner] said she didn’t want the word ‘disability’ associated with our [studio],” my teacher said.
My heart sank. As a disabled yogi and a beginner, it felt like a slap in the face. I wasn’t sure if my teacher shared the owner’s indifference but I felt blindsided by the exchange and stopped going to that studio. It diminished my confidence. It took months to find the courage to try another yoga studio.
Eventually I found a studio where I felt supported from day one. When I met Orange Sky Yoga owner Jessa Voos, I shared my physical challenges, starting with a spine injury from a car accident when I was 19 years old. I mentioned how standing for long periods is sometimes difficult, and I shared my need to modify poses when and if my back feels strained. This opened the door to talk about my car wreck, explaining how doctors thought I would never walk again. I also shared how I benefited more when practicing yoga from a chair with shoes on. Jessa was accepting from the start. She supported my passion for yoga and my desire to participate and belong. In one notable example, Jessa bought a metal chair for me to use at her yoga studio at my leisure. It felt like we were kindred spirits. She believed yoga was for every body, which was music to my ears.
But finding an inclusive studio didn’t mean never again facing discrimination in the yoga world. Unfortunately, it happened again while taking my 200-hour teacher training at Orange Sky. One teacher training component was to observe or participate in 16 yoga classes. We could choose where to complete this component. Most of us observed Orange Sky classes but I also wanted to try a different studio in hopes of participating in a chair yoga class.
I chose a yoga studio at random and was thrilled to find they offered chair yoga. My enthusiasm waned when I called the owner and encountered her disinterest. It was evident in her tone. Our conversation turned icier when I shared my physical challenges and the fact that I don’t take shoes off for yoga class because I need shoes to walk.
“If you can’t take off your shoes for yoga, you can’t practice here,” the studio owner snapped. “Everyone has to take their shoes off for yoga.”
Once again, the shards of discrimination belittled my confidence. My intuition told me to let go and choose another studio, but I ignored my instinct and pushed harder, hoping for acceptance. After much effort, the owner finally agreed to let me participate but suggested I arrive early.
When I showed up early for class, the owner didn’t remember me or our conversation. Instead, she grilled me with questions about my injury in front of everyone. When she had enough information to satisfy her curiosity, she said I could participate with shoes on. By this time, however, I didn’t feel welcome. I felt embarrassed and judged for being different. I stayed for the entire class (taught by another teacher) but the sting of rejection took root. I was angry.
The following day at teacher training, I shared that experience with our aspiring teacher group, but glossed over the rejection I felt. I acted tougher than I was because I didn’t want to hold on to rejection. I wanted to rise above it. Thankfully, our group had my back, and their kind support eased some of the sting. Yet, underneath my protective armor, I was hurt.
I couldn’t believe that the yoga I loved carried hidden discrimination for adaptive students. I knew at that moment that I didn’t want to practice at a studio that silenced or ignored my adaptive yoga needs. This was a turning point in my practice.
It’s been a long journey to find agency in yoga. As a beginning yogi, I didn’t feel confident enough to confront yoga discrimination. When barriers showed up, I felt shame, rejection, and anger. Yet every step of that journey has led me to advocacy. I’ve come to realize that, for me, mining disappointment for growth is more productive. I now feel compelled to stand up for adaptive yogis like me. I also refuse to support studios that don’t support my inclusive adaptive yoga goals.
It’s likely that not all studio owners are as accepting as Jessa at Orange Sky Yoga. But speaking openly about my adaptive needs led me to find connection and community there. I’m grateful to be able to practice at a studio that celebrates diversity. It feels wonderful to be embraced for who I am.
It takes courage to speak your authentic truth, but adaptive yogis have a right to practice in public spaces.
It’s up to us adaptive yogis to educate yoga studios about our needs. It takes courage to speak your authentic truth, but adaptive yogis have a right to practice in public spaces. Don’t be afraid to stake out space for yourself. I’m committed to this mission.
But I also realize, as Brené Brown says, that true belonging begins with ourselves. If a studio or yoga teacher balks at an accommodation, keep a steady mind and don’t get caught up in the confusion. You will know whether a particular studio is the right place to practice. You are your best advocate. Trust your instincts.
In the end, try not to let negativity interfere with the yoga experience. Remember: Yoga is an internal journey. Stay strong, adaptive yogis. With patience, self-love, courage, and compassion for yourself and for others, the right path will reveal itself.