Nothing would be better than a lie now, or the admission of a genuine misunderstanding, a touch of uncertainty, a single dose of possibility. But if Roxy gave us that she would be nothing more than a yoga student folded in child’s pose, not the unchallenged owner of the elite Hot Yoga studio nestled in the quaint town of Argos, between the gorgeous Pacific Coastline and the ancient redwood forest.
I parked our Prius into one of the two designated accessibility parking spots marked with blue lines directly in front of the studio. As usual, both spots are unoccupied in a crowded lot, a sight that raises the question: Do community businesses allocate such spaces to meet ADA regulations without a genuine commitment to inclusivity?
After I assisted Abby and Woodzie out of the car, we walked in tandem toward the front door. Abby’s right arm is hooked under my left; she has a firm grip on Woodzie’s leash. Abby sets the pace; I follow her cues while remaining vigilant, ready to guide her over the curbs or terrain she doesn’t see.
As soon as I swung open the studio door, our entry to a tranquil Sunday practice was abruptly halted. A young, impeccably fit woman with cascading golden locks emerges from behind the front desk, “Dogs are not allowed,” drawing a clear border in front of our entrance. “Woodzie is a trained service dog for Abby,” I say, with deliberation to practice mixed with an urge to retreat and avoid a potential clash. She requests a pause to consult with Roxy the owner. Abby tips her head to me and shrugs, “What?” I press my lips into a forged smile and give her hand a squeeze.
Sally saunters back with a directive from Roxy, “Your dog is allowed in the lobby today with Abby, and clarifies this privilege will not be extended in the future. My eyes inadvertently fall upon the dog bed nestled in a corner, kept for Lisa’s poodle, a friend and dedicated studio member. A sad thought lingers: Is it the presence of dogs that are unwelcome here, or is it disability that is being turned away?
Dumbfounded, I leave Abby in the lobby with Woodzie curled up around her feet, as Roxy’s ‘Sunday Yoga Church’ is about to begin. I stagger into the 103-degree room, owning my privilege to have an abled body, and already contemplating an early exit to be with my daughter. Today I can’t bear to listen to Roxy’s sermon on belonging, acceptance, and non-judgment—those lofty ideals of perfection that flow so effortlessly from her lips.
I unroll my mat near the exit, ground my feet to the floor, and join the rhythmic breathing exercise. Fingers interlaced, hands under my chin, I inhale elbows rising to the count of eight, elbows lowering, to the count of eight. After twelve repetitions sweat is trickling down my body and moistening my feet.
Gradually, the furious thoughts that spun through my mind toward Roxy’s discrimination against Abby and her service dog began to simmer. I was able to redirect my attention inward and remind myself of the very reasons why I consistently practice yoga—for mental and emotional well-being. It is my lifeline and today, more than ever, I need to let the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of the yoga sermon fade into the background. I need to let go—enough, to replenish myself amidst the current we repeatedly swim in.
About thirty minutes into class, as we approach the ‘balancing pose series,’ I topple over and yield to the mat—my inner tranquility ruptures into a pool of sweat. I’m perplexed and exasperated. This isn’t coherent. It doesn’t make sense!
Abby had been waiting so long for her new companion, her service dog but here we are again, facing yet another barrier related to her disability, one that places us on the sidelines, making it difficult to sustain good health and belong to a community. Abby cried all the way home, announcing repeatedly, “Roxy doesn’t like me. She doesn’t accept me for who I am. She’s judging me. Woodzie needs to be with me. I have a disability.”
Woodzie had been with us for only two days. He arrived the previous Friday, brought to us by two trainers from Guide Dogs for the Blind. This marked Abby’s second service animal. Suki, our previous eleven-year loyal companion before his sudden passing, the exact cause is still a mystery. We waited several years before we decided to welcome a new dog into our lives, to be sure we were ready. Suki’s passing was an enigma for all of us. We knew he was aging, as he gradually slowed down and was not as eager to chase frisbees or jump the ocean waves, but he never seemed in danger of dying.
Sometimes, I consider, was his death was attributed to his constant compassionate nature? It’s as if he sensed the ongoing challenges in our lives and chose not to burden us with end-of-life care. He left quickly and quietly, without the proper farewell he deserved.
The moment Woodzie arrived, I couldn’t help but see Suki through and through him. “I swear they are related. He is the spitting image, in color, size, and mannerisms.” Both are pure black Labradors. A fun fact, since both Suki and Woodzie were raised by Guide Dogs for the Blind, they were able to share their family tree with us. Indeed, they are related; going back four generations, they are biologically connected through Woodzie’s great-great-grandmother.
Lying on the yoga mat, feigning savasana, memories flood in of the weeks and days leading up to Woodzie’s arrival, witnessing Abby transform into an adorable and devoted doggy mama. She consumed countless videos featuring people with guide dogs, absorbing every bit of knowledge. In doing so, she discovered a variety of essentials we need for our home: a kennel, play and chew toys, Congs, water and food dishes, kibble, dog collar, leashes, and more. All of this was validated by an email from her trainer, complete with multiple attachments to assemble a comprehensive Guide Dog manual.
Abby wasted no time implementing her computerized accessibility assistant to read the manual to her multiple times, while her in-home assistant (usually me) printed it out, found a three-hole punch, and carefully secured it into a binder. Her excitement—contagious. Soon, the entire household and our helpers study her manual to show support and ensure all goes well when Woodzie joins our family.
I don’t recall Guide Dogs for the Blind being quite as thorough in their training and preparation when we first received Suki. At that time, the trainer spent an hour with Abby, taught us the necessary commands, and wished us the best. If additional guidance was given, I missed it. This time Abby is invited to participate in an online Veterinary Clinic program which not only provides veterinary insurance and health care guidance but offers a generous monthly stipend to K-9 companions.
The morning before Woodzie’s arrival, I was up before sunrise. We had just returned from a three-week visit to the East Coast; my internal clock hadn’t yet adjusted to West Coast time. I’m immersed in a captivating book, Call of the Wild, How We Heal Trauma, Awaken Our Power, And Use It For Good, when I hear a faint stir from the room next door. Abby is also awake. Curious, I tip-toed into the hallway. Her room’s soft glow beckons and the door is slightly open, just enough for me to glimpse into her world.
Abby dons her glasses and is talking out loud in one of her customary soliloquies. I smile as she meticulously makes her bed, an uncommon sight. Then, she moves over to the corner of the room she reserved for Woodzie, diligently rearranges his shelf and tenderly tidies his doggy bed. “This is your toy,” she says in her mommy voice, “Your Kibble is in the kitchen.” I hold my breath, careful not to disturb the endearing scene unfolding before my eyes.
A little later, we decided to make pancakes together. During our breakfast preparations, Abby voices her concerns, “Are the trainers going to test me?” She feared she might not be inadequate to keep to Woodzie. However, all of her worries dissolve when Woodzie arrives at ten in the morning and snuggles himself up to Abby’s legs. It was an instant connection, love at first sight.
We spent the next four hours with the trainers, absorbing their instructions on his commands, the gentle leader, feeding and toileting routines, and even embarked on a trial walk around the neighborhood to learn how to maintain his focus when other dogs or strangers approach. If it was indeed a test, Abby passed with flying colors.
Three days later, on our drive back from the yoga studio Abby is in tears, lamenting another injustice. This wasn’t the first time Abby experienced shocking discrimination from Roxy, a woman we thought was our friend and part of Abby’s support team. There was a time when Abby attended yoga classes on a regular basis with Roxy cheering her on. I recall members of the yoga community coming up to us on a regular basis welcoming Abby as a source of inspiration. Roxy came to our house once and offered Abby a private session to modify the poses and accommodate her disability. We don’t know what happened to our prior relationship with Roxy and why she suddenly began to treat Abby with disdain.
A few months before our service dog incident, I approached Roxy to arrange payments for Abby’s classes using her disability budget. Abby receives SSI and federal government benefits to support specified needs and goals. In the recent past, these funds were inefficiently managed and administered through a Regional Center. In an effort to streamline the process and reduce costs, the responsibility has fallen on the lap of the family to identify and secure appropriate resources. This transition is not a minor undertaking and weighs heavily on families that care for adults with disabilities, more so in a family like ours with two disabled adults.
Abby’s budget is allocated with a predetermined amount of funds to cover preauthorized services throughout a twelve-month period. It is our job to find businesses within the community willing to serve her as a rightful customer and invoice her fiscal manager for payment, a straightforward process of completing tax and direct deposit forms. Abby’s dance studio and circus arts studios happily participate in this arrangement.
In contrast, Roxy informed me that her studio does not comply with these types of arrangements. She reminded me that I am a business owner who should understand. Frankly, I don’t get it. Despite my efforts to clarify its ease and that payments are guaranteed, she still refused. My frustration led me to a heated moment, during which I reminded her of her stated yoga philosophy “everyone belongs’” and that if Abby’s payment method as a person with a disability is not accepted, I will not be able to practice in her studio either. “I want a refund for my membership, as I stand in solidarity with Abby on and off the mat.
Later, I realized that burning a bridge to my mental and physical well-being was not a good idea. Following her initial refusal to issue me a refund, I sought legal counsel. Surprisingly, the lawyer was acquainted with this studio and indicated that Roxy might not wish for discrimination issues to circulate around the greater community. The following day, I did receive my refund but found myself without a place to practice and the opportunities to engage with an inspiring community.
Three months later, after exploring several other yoga studios in the area, I mustered the courage to return to this cherished yoga studio. Hot yoga is more than just exercise for me—it is a lifeline, and this studio is top quality. Roxy welcomed me back without any hesitation.
Abby came along with me, but she wasn’t quite ready to return to the hot yoga room yet. She waited in the lobby. Roxy and other teachers made a point to visit her, inquiring as to when she would join us in the poses. Roxy’s energy seemed gentler, perhaps more open to inclusivity.
Throughout my continued participation in the classes, I learned that Roxy’s husband was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. Both Abby and I were sad to hear this and extended our heartfelt condolences through a card. Roxy thanked me at the end of one of the classes. It felt like a positive step forward in our relationship.
It was all the more astonishing when she told us Woodzie was not allowed in the studio. Another friend, also an instructor overheard and said she would speak to the owner, as she also found this decision perplexing and unfair. After all, Woodzie is well-behaved, trained, and consistently follows commands as expected. And he is a service animal for Abby, a person with a disability.
Upon returning home that day, I took to Facebook to share about the incident, purposely not mentioning names or the studio’s location. The post gained significant traction, sparking a wave of impassioned comments denouncing the injustice and referencing ADA law and articles about service dogs for individuals with disabilities. Even our friend with the poodle reached out, baffled by Roxy’s stance, as her dog, unlike Woodzie, is not a service animal yet is allowed.
Abby’s sadness continues in the aftermath of this incident. She wonders if she will face similar challenges in other locations. She asked me to call her therapist to confirm it is okay for Woodzie to attend sessions with her. Reassuring her, I made a call to ease her mind. Her counselor’s enthusiastic response was heartwarming, “I can’t wait to meet her new dog. She’s been eagerly anticipating his arrival.”
Abby beamed and cuddled Woodzie, whispering, “There is hope for us, Woodzie.”
We will continue to contemplate and navigate this situation and others like it. As a yoga instructor myself, I grapple with the apparent disconnect between the ‘yoga’ rhetoric espoused in class and the actions we encounter.
Part of my journey is to cherish the memories of Abby preparing for Woodzie and the profound ways in which she is already benefitting from having a constant companion to care for. Her confidence, and emotional, intellectual, and physical engagement currently surpass the benefits of yoga classes. Yet this incident leaves us feeling marginalized. I hold deep concern for this matter and remain uncertain about our path forward in making the world a kinder place for people with disabilities and differences along with their beneficial support animals.