Embracing Autism through Yoga
CW: Mentions of ableism, trauma, anxiety, depression.
I can only teach from what I know, and that isn't much. My journey to "Know Thyself" is very much at the beginning, but I received a big ol' piece of information this year that has been incredibly helpful for embracing my path forward: I learned that I'm autistic. It was strange to be almost 40 years old, receiving a late diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental condition that normally gets caught in early childhood. It was validating, though, too, because it gave me a helpful lens through which to understand and process a lot of confusing and traumatic past experiences. Basically, the diagnosis upgraded the flashlight I've been using to find my way through life. Before I knew I was autistic, it felt like I was trying to navigate life with a laser pointer, like the kind you use to torment your cat. It was super bright but the beam was tiny; I had to inspect everything up close. I got a lot of detail that way, but not a great sense of how events connected, and it was tough to see the path I was on. Now that I know I'm autistic and have a better understanding of my nervous system, I have something more like a respectable, utilitarian lantern; I can see my path more clearly, and there is more context and color to where I am and where I'm going. The world makes a little more sense.
I am one of 26% of adults in the U.S. with a disability. Autism as a disability is a type of neurodivergence, describing a person with a nervous system that is tuned quite a bit differently from most other folks, but in a particular way, combining traits that are commonly found together in other people who have similarly different ways of communicating and interacting with the world. Put more simply, what my nervous system takes in from its environment, how information gets processed, and how I respond to and communicate what I am experiencing, is different enough that it makes a good chunk of daily living, especially social interactions, extra difficult. I am living in a different world from most folks around me, so-to-speak. Maybe you know what it feels like to live in a different world; this feeling is familiar to a lot of folks with marginalized identities whose experiences are not being validated.
My own disability stems from the fact that my senses are tuned differently, I think and behave by different rules, and I use and interpret language more concretely. I didn't know this growing up, and neither did anyone else, so when I had difficulties the problem was assumed to be with me, not my environment, and I believed this. My experiences were not validated, and as I internalized the belief that there was something innately wrong with me, I developed anxiety and depression, which were assumed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain, further reinforcing the belief that I was broken. Depression and anxiety are more disabling than my autism has ever been. Most of the time, my autism isn't a problem. I have had almost 40 years to figure out how to navigate life and find tools to compensate for difficulties related to my neurodivergence. But there are still times when I can't compensate, and things get bad... sometimes really bad... and then I most definitely fit the definition of disabled.
Making Peace with Labels
Identity labels are funny things. They describe our relationship to one another and our physical environment, but they don't describe who we are at our core. Identity labels are social constructs and inherently neutral, but we can't help but assign meaning through definitions created by humans for human use, to categorize and organize our world and make sense of our experience. Labels provide a common, shared understanding of reality that can be communicated in words and concepts. They're our language, but they have limitations. As social beings labels are useful, but when they are turned into value judgments, labels can diminish our value and contribute to self-limiting beliefs that prevent us from living life to our fullest.
At first, I was not okay with labeling myself disabled. Disabled, in my mind, was "bad." It equated to being weak, relying on other people, and being a burden. I had already been diagnosed with disabilities like ADHD (another neurotype label), depression, and anxiety in my teens and twenties, but I was accustomed to dismissing and invalidating most of my mental health needs. I had never considered myself disabled before, so why would I now? I brought this mental struggle into my yoga practice, where I made time and space to really have it out with myself about whether I could accept and embrace labels like "autism" and "disabled." It wasn't obvious to me then that my personal understanding of what it meant to be disabled was far from positive or even utilitarian; it was toxic, misinformed, and harmful.
After processing through meditation, journaling, talking with love ones, and spending time in nature, I came to realize how deep my own stigma about disability went, and it was clear that this idea I was holding onto-- that being disabled meant that something was wrong with me-- had to go. If being disabled was akin to weakness, that meant I thought all of my disabled friends and neighbors were pathetic, broken, and less than me, and that just wasn't true. There was nothing innately "wrong" with me; I wasn't a bad seed, though I had been damaged by years of being misunderstood and misdiagnosed, and my own internalized ableism was now at the core of my mental health struggles. Seeing my own bias in this way convinced me that complete acceptance was the only option that allowed me to remain authentic to my core values, and it was time for me to grow myself out of oppressive and self-limiting beliefs, but how?
Yoga for Acceptance
The good news is that even though I didn't know I was autistic when I started practicing yoga, I had already cultivated a solid foundation for self-care that embraced and even optimized many of the traits that turned out to be key to my diagnosis. Through the yoga practice of svadhyaya (self-study) in particular, I'd become aware of my sensory sensitivities and my difficulty with abstract language that resulted in so many misunderstandings (and subsequent attacks of anxiety). I already knew that I love practices that stimulate the senses and rehabilitate my nervous system, like those I introduce in my yoga videos. I also knew that I love practices that support my introversion; balasana (child's pose) is my go-to restorative practice for times when my thoughts are chaotic or anxious, or even just when my eyes need a break from the computer screen. I find healing in breathwork, and intellectual and spiritual fulfillment in yoga philosophy. My connection with nature is also part of my yoga practice, and I often soothe my overstimulated nervous system by breathing along with the movement of the trees in my backyard. All of these yoga tools were already familiar to me, and they really worked. I didn't have to search the internet for "yoga for autism" or "yoga for neurodiversity" to find yoga practices that served me (although this can totally help if you don't know where to start!).
Still, the new diagnosis was illuminating, and I committed to accepting the label and learning more about my autistic self. The neurodivergent community has its own vocabulary, and I soaked in all of the new language that I could use to describe my experiences and advocate for my needs. Thus empowered by new information, I proceeded with purpose and confidence toward cultivating a perfect lifestyle that would intelligently support my needs and promote healing. I was a bit over-eager. When I didn't experience immediate change or relief during this paradigm shift, I began to second guess my body's wisdom and even my new identity. Instead of honoring what I had already learned about myself, I became concerned that perhaps I wasn't practicing "the right yoga" or engaging in "the right self care." I worried that maybe I wasn't autistic enough to call myself autistic, and in the next thought I worried that if I seemed too autistic, I would be rejected. Anxiety was riding front and center, and my focus had zoomed back in to examining life with a laser pointer; new information was not enough to override a lifetime of ingrained behavior patterns.
While I was wrestling with anxiety, self-doubt, and perfectionism, I woke up one morning with a phrase echoing in my head: "Let your practice evolve with you." I love these little aphorisms from dreamland. I took it as a reminder from my self that my yoga practice doesn't have to look any certain way to be valid, and neither do I. I am valid as I am, with or without labels. I don't have to keep pushing myself to the point of exhaustion to prove myself; I am allowed to rest without being lazy. I don't need to expend precious energy hiding autistic traits to avoid rejection; I am much happier living within my values and committing to authenticity. I also don't have to spend an hour moving through poses on my mat every morning to have a real yoga practice; it's okay to choose different self-care practices every day based on what I need. Acceptance is a journey, but I am on my way.
Yoga for Neurodiversity
Ultimately, I realized that there are no yoga practices specifically "for" autism or neurodivergence, even if there are practices that are particularly therapeutic for specific traits. Every person's yoga practice will be unique to them, and this is true for all of us, of all neurotypes. Some days I focus on asana (poses) to exercise my body, connect with gravity, and relieve muscle tension. On other days I get caught up in studying philosophy and science and spend wayyy too much time on my laptop (with my shoulders rounded forward, type-type-typing away). Then it's back to asana and pranayama (breathwork) to unkink my spine and regulate my nervous system. Many days I don't set aside time for a formal practice at all, but instead let yoga happen spontaneously in moments when I stop, close my eyes, and focus attention on my body. I might take long, slow breaths, or go for a walk outside, or write in my journal, or send joyfully nerdy memes to friends. This is how yoga was intended; it was intended to be entirely personal and entirely changeable. My yoga practice is always changing and evolving. As I continue to embrace my neurodivergence, this project, too, will evolve with me.
Today, I am still working to fully embrace what it means to be neurodivergent, and shed layers of shame about my differences. When I feel embarrassed that I still harmful carry biases and internalized ableism, I remember how Einstein changed his mind about many of his own fundamental ideas about physics when he was presented with new information. He allowed his ideas to evolve in time as things made sense, admitting when he made mistakes, and this is growth. I, too, am capable of moving beyond value judgments to redefine labels using the strength of my own experiences, as seen through a brighter flashlight. I evolve as I absorb and connect with new information, and this is yoga. The more comfortable I am with being autistic and ADHD, the less attached I am to wrong-headed ideas about disability. It is always okay to change your mind about who you are in the world when faced with new information, even about your own identity; you won't be the same after that, but that's the point.