Yoga Taught Me That Being Vulnerable Is Worth the Risk

Confession: I hate having my photo taken. It makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. This may sound odd coming from an adaptive chair yoga teacher creating online content for her own website. Putting myself out there and allowing myself to be vulnerable still feels scary, but confronting my discomfort was a powerful yoga lesson.

In 2015, I had a breakthrough. It happened at the Yoga and Body Image Coalition photo booth at the Accessible Yoga Conference. YBIC is a yoga diversity organization that is breaking down yoga stereotypes. Launched in 2014, their “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” campaign creates and shares photographs they’ve taken of yogis of all backgrounds and abilities. As a disabled beginning yoga practitioner who champions diversity, I was eager to participate in a photo session. But the closer I came to having my photo taken, the more resistant I felt.

YBIC co-founder Melanie Klein assured me that she and photographer/YBIC member Sarit Rogers would be there for support. Her words made me feel better, but deep down I wanted to hide.

The more resistant I felt, the more I realized it was time to deal with my discomfort about being visible and having my photo taken. After all, giving in to fear goes against an important yoga principle.

In yoga, we try to sit with discomfort by stilling the mind and being at ease in the moment. The Yoga Sutras teach that holding on to discomfort can cause undue suffering. The best way to silence suffering is to embrace the uncomfortable.

When I sat in the photo booth, my heart was racing. I was terrified. Negative self-talk echoed in my head. You’re not good enough—who are you kidding? You’ve never taken a good photo in your life, I said to myself.

Sarit sensed my anxiety but had a solution. She suggested I place my hand on my heart.

The second I placed my hand on my heart and connected internally with my body, I immediately felt a sense of ease. I was able to ground myself, relax in the moment, find self-compassion, and locate calm and peace from within.

By the end of the photo shoot, Melanie, Sarit, and I were in tears. We all felt the shift that had taken place in my being. I was visible and exposed. I felt brave and grateful for taking a risk.

“This is what a yogi looks like,” I said in gratitude to Melanie and Sarit. “My inner guide knew what to do. I feel liberated. I’m so glad I did this.”

My fear of being vulnerable began after surviving a car accident when I was 19 years old. I went from being an extroverted athlete deeply invested in dance, sports, and cheerleading to learning to live with the physical and emotional trauma of a spine injury that left me with limited mobility.

Doctors said I would never walk again. They also said trauma from a spine injury would dismantle my identity. They were right. Letting go of my dream of dancing on Broadway left me feeling hopeless. I used to say, Who am I if I’m not a dancer? I don’t know what to do with my life.

After a month of bed rest, when the back swelling had gone down, I had spine surgery with Harrington rods installed. I was then fitted with a neck-to-waist body brace that had to be worn outside my clothes 24/7.

When it was time for physical therapy, I dove into it as if it were a job. I learned how to navigate a wheelchair and forearm crutches. Physical therapy lasted more than a year. Every step, no matter how small, gave me confidence, but accepting my spine injury wasn’t easy at first.

I wanted to hide from reality. I thought calling myself disabled would make others see me as not enough. I masked the emotional pain because I wanted to protect myself. I didn’t want to expose how broken I felt. Being guarded made me feel safe.

I experienced a miracle relearning to walk with foot orthotics, but emotional healing unfolded in pieces over the years. I got a lot done during that time. I earned several college degrees. I studied French in a summer abroad program in Strasbourg, Germany. As editor of my college newspaper, I interviewed Larry King and later became a freelance film critic and writer for The Wichita Eagle and other publications. As a graduate teaching assistant in English, I won a scholarship to attend the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. I fell in love with teaching college English and earned teaching awards from my students. I also worked on a federal grant that gave free mammograms to women without health insurance. Those experiences gave my life purpose, but I didn’t feel whole until I found adaptive yoga more than 30 years later.

Standing in wholeness began when I became curious about my fear of vulnerability and allowed myself to be seen in spite of it.

From the outside, my life was a success. Inside, though, there was room for growth. Yoga taught me to trust my body again, a revelation for a former dancer. In addition, yoga helped me find the courage to be vulnerable and talk about my disability in a deeper and more meaningful way. The more I share my experience as a disabled yogi, the more I feel complete.

Yoga continues to be my best teacher. Standing in wholeness began when I became curious about my fear of vulnerability and allowed myself to be seen in spite of it. It’s funny that the thing from which we try to protect ourselves can sometimes become our biggest strength.

It’s important to remember that everyone we meet or interact with is going through their own struggle. Sharing our stories connects us. Heart-centered connection is what I found at the YBIC photo booth. Being vulnerable can be terrifying at first. But, in my experience, it’s worth the risk.

Photography: Sarit Z Rogers

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Mary Higgs

Mary Higgs

Mary Higgs, MA, is an Online English Instructor for Butler Community College in Kansas. She’s a writer, RYT 200, educator, risk taker, yoga diversity champion, social justice and disability... Read more>>