Area yoga instructors aim to create safe spaces for LGBTQ community to practice yoga

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When Morgan Schoon, 25, first considered doing yoga, he was hesitant. As a transgender man, the idea of moving his body in open, vulnerable positions was scary. Wearing a binder to flatten his chest added extra discomfort and removing it in public didn’t feel like an option, either, he said.

“Imagine if you were a trans person,” said Mackenzie “Ken” Appleby, a yoga instructor at Breathing Room Yoga in Cedar Rapids and a friend of Schoon’s.

“Put yourself in the shoes of having gender dysphoria and not knowing who you are,” she continued. Trying new things is scary to begin with, but “for someone not comfortable in their own skin, it’s hard to be vulnerable.”

Still, Appleby, who is gender nonconforming and queer herself, continued to encourage Schoon to try it. She had tried yoga for the first time two years ago and was “immediately hooked,” she said, touting the “amazing impact it had on her life” and her anxiety.

“Without yoga I wouldn’t have the breath work to settle down and relax,” she said. “It gave me tools to take with me to deal with my anxiety.”

To help Schoon feel more comfortable, Appleby invited him into her home where they could practice yoga privately. As Schoon grew more and more comfortable, she saw an opportunity to help others, too.

Since April, Appleby has been offering free trans and queer yoga classes to try to make yoga more accessible to those who might not otherwise try it.

“I try to make it as comfortable as possible,” she said. “Knowing the person next to you is possibly going through the same thing or supports what you’re going through is comforting.”

The classes are held once a month at Breathing Room Yoga in Cedar Rapids and are open to “all identities, expressions, bodies and abilities,” Appleby said. The next class is July 29.

Meanwhile, in Iowa City, Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz has been offering a “Q-munity Yoga” class at Heartland Yoga since February. Also a member of the LGBTQ community, Fixmer-Oraiz said she also “wanted to help cultivate a space where queer and gender non-conforming people feel really welcome.”

“I’ve turned to (yoga) for self study and contemplation, but also as a place for building community,” she said. “It’s a way of practicing self care and loving ourselves for who we are and as a queer person that resonates for me very deeply.”

Fixmer-Oraiz said that “especially for people who identify as trans or gender nonconforming, yoga can feel pretty exclusive,” whether because of gendered clothing, body image, size, ability or otherwise.

While she said she “doubts any yoga teacher intends to create exclusive spaces,” sometimes they can just feel that way if they’re not “intentionally dedicated to being otherwise.”

“Having a space dedicated to being body positive and queer positive is important,” she said.

“Our community is just deliberately embracing all kinds of bodies, sizes, abilities and levels of yoga. Having a class that’s designed specifically with that in mind just means that is what people expect when they walk in the door. The expectation is already there that it’s a welcoming environment.”

Fixmer-Oraiz’s class began as a four-week series, then to twice a month and most recently expanded to a weekly class every Saturday morning at Heartland Yoga in Iowa City. The class is intended for “all levels,” from beginners to yogis with years of experience. Although it is not necessarily “exclusive” to members of the LGBTQ community, Fixmer-Oraiz said, it is specifically designed for people who identify as LGBTQ.

Both Fixmer-Oraiz’s and Appleby’s classes are like most any other yoga class, but incorporate modifications and language to make the practice as comfortable as possible. Fixmer-Oraiz said she tries to avoid using gendered pronouns and incorporates “community yoga poses” such as a group tree pose with people’s hands pressed together in a circle.

“There is a strong sense of community that emerges from not only practicing together but actually very intentionally practicing together in that way,” she said.

Schoon, who’s been transitioning since 2015, said yoga has improved his mental health and helped him avoid isolating himself.

With yoga, he spends his time with people “doing healthy things,” he said.

“Being able to do this fun activity with friends, I feel so much better,” he said, adding, it’s “important for people to know there are safe spaces” free of judgment.

“There’s a lot of progress and visibility around LGBT issues, but queer people still face a lot of discrimination and bias,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. “I’m white and cisgender, so in a lot of ways I move through the world in ways that are safe that aren’t for other people. ... This is just one way I can use the skills and resources I have to give back to my community. To deliberately cultivate a class that centers and celebrates queer lives.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8364; elizabeth.zabel@thegazette.com

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