Next up in our YOU interview series (in partnership with Manduka), meet Ela Wojtowicz.
CR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Ela. Why don’t you begin by sharing about what initially brought you to the mat?
EW: I know that as the saying goes, “Never say never…” but I really never thought that I would be practicing Yoga.
(laughing) Yes, I know that feeling.
But really, I don’t think I so much came to yoga. Yoga kind of came to me. I was a hard working, dedicated student, and I shared with my mom that I felt like I needed to do something for myself, to relax and not to have my head in the books all the time. I walked into my first Yoga studio almost five years ago, and I haven’t looked back.
What was that first experience like?
My first experience practicing yoga was really rewarding. I felt at ease and calm – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I imagine, because you have cerebral palsy, that your first experience in a yoga studio might have been especially challenging. Did you find the class intimidating? What was it like?
Well, I started off with private classes – mostly restorative yoga. Because I got into it that way, it didn’t feel intimidating at all. But when I started going into group classes… Yeah, a lot of insecurities came up! My first thought was “Wow… can I really do this? Will people look at me funny?”
What insecurities showed up? How did they shift through the practice?
Well, when I first started going to these group classes, yoga appeared to be such a physical practice. I wondered if I could really do it, whether people were staring at me during the practice…. But the more I got into my practice, the more I realized that really, yoga isn’t about what you’re doing with your body. It’s really what’s in your heart.
Over the years, my experience in yoga has become a much more internal, spiritual practice. It may look physical, but really, it doesn’t matter if you can get your leg over your head. What matters is what you’re cultivating in your heart… how you show up for yourself. No matter what’s going on, you come back to your breath and bring yourself into the present moment. Yoga is an expression of your inner-self.
Do you think your experience in a yoga class is different from others’?
Physically, I do what I can. I do most of my practice on the ground, and I do each pose in the best way I’m able to. For the most part, I notice the teachers walk around and adjust students are doing the poses “normally” if you will. But it’s not that they don’t notice me or treat me differently; I feel like they give me the space to do my expression of the poses.
But once again, I don’t think yoga is about the physical practice or what the poses look like on the outside. Yoga isn’t about flexibility – it’s about breath, and how we express ourselves in the pose. Even if my yoga looks different from your yoga, we’re doing the same practice. Yoga is about creating union between body and breath, and as long as you’re doing that, we’re all practicing the same yoga.
I strongly believe that things happen for a reason. Our challenges and “disabilities” make us stronger, and I truly believe that’s been the case for me too. You know, a little while back, I saw this Extreme Home Makeover episode where they built a house for a woman who cares for children with physical disabilities. They were interviewing her, and one of the things she said is, “My kids don’t have disabilities. They have different abilities.”
That really resonated with me. I don’t think of myself as having a disability, I just have different abilities than most people. It makes me appreciate things differently, and there’s a reason I have it.
Would you say you’re grateful for it?
You know, I would. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly have my moments. I don’t like to get in that place of “why me?” but I have to say, right before Wanderlust this year… I was having a hard time.
But anytime I come back and get to be a part of this yoga community – whether it be a festival or event or workshop or whatever – I really come back to this place of gratitude. My “disability” is a gift in many ways… it inspires others, it’s taught me resilience and courage in the face of challenge. Disabilities give us strengths and help us appreciate and see things in a different light.
Would you say yoga has brought you into a sense of community?
Yoga has definitely brought me into a sense of community.
Since I started practicing yoga, I’ve become more confident and open to meeting people. I used to be the shyest girl in school. Really,I had to be bribed with a Snickers bar by my aide just to get me to say hi to my guidance counselor! But now, I love to meet new people on the mat. I get so excited to make connections with beautiful souls, because we each have something to offer to one another. Being in this beautiful community of like-minded people has benefitted me tremendously. Coming to festivals like Wanderlust reminds me that we are all in this together.
It’s true. We never would have met otherwise! Okay, last question. What would you say is your intent in practicing yoga?
My intent in practicing Yoga is to help people with physical challenges realize that anyone can do Yoga. It doesn’t matter how we do the practice… what matters is that we show up and are willing to be seen for who we are, challenges and all.
Don’t let your disability or challenges define who you are meant to be in this world. When you look deep into what Yoga is, it’s a very powerful gift that unifies us and connects us all. Spiritually, yoga is about opening our hearts to receive the beautiful gifts that God/Spirit intended us to experience.
How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.
The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. Read inspiring stories from yogis we meet at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, and see the bottom of this post for how you can share your story as well!