I love Sydney but she can be A LOT sometimes, especially for neurodivergent folks and people with heightened sensory sensitivities. As an autistic and nervous human, I’ve always got my antennae pricked for neurodiversity-affirming spaces which provide a cushioning from the chaos.
The Quest for Neurodiversity-Affirming Spaces
Living in a city means near constant exposure to sensory stressors that can cause an autistic person to experience a near-permanent state of agitation, physical discomfort and nervous system dysregulation. For me, yoga and meditation are helpful to soften life’s spiky, especially when armed with a sturdy pair of noise-cancelling headphones and dark sunglasses for the commute. I am highly sensitive to sound layering (multiple noises at a time, especially unexpected ones), and I’m often so blown off course by drills, leaf blowers and honking cars that I wished I’d never left the house, let alone walk into a fluorescent-lit yoga studio with pumping tunes.
So when a mate sent me a link for an upcoming class at Zenly-hot yoga, I flicked through the photos of the cosy, dimly-lit interior and the tagline ‘Yoga for your mental health’, and my fingers couldn’t book fast enough.
Coping Strategies: Yoga and Meditation
Drawing from Sonny Jane Wise (@livedexperienceeducator), a neurodiversity-affirming environment is one that is safe and inclusive for neurodivergent individuals. Of course, each autistic person’s needs are different, but this can include accommodations such as modified tasks, extra breaks, honouring all forms of communication, and minimising loud noises. For me, this looks like nonabrasive sounds, soft lighting, a quiet space to retreat when overwhelmed, and gentle, clear communication.
Breaking the Mold: Redefining Personal Comfort
Heading out to a yoga class to calm my nervous system then experiencing sensory overload can be disheartening. My last class was more stress inducing than relaxing. It wasn’t the instructor or the others in the class, but the environment itself. It was at a gym I chose for its level of soundproofing in the studio room, but even that has limits for the number of decibels it’s capable of blocking. During Savasana the outside thunk and vibration of weights crashing to the ground were interspersed with screams of “CMON!” and the steady thud of techno beats. Panic flooded my body as I Lay on my mat, trying to tune into my instructor’s words about being one with my breath. When the class finished I hot footed it out of there, still in hamster brain mode, and internally shaming myself for struggling when no one else seemed to have an issue with it.
Zenly’s Commitment to Inclusivity
On Zenly’s website Sarah ‘Frankie’ Frank (Founder, Co-owner & Lead Facilitator) explains; “Zenly was opened to provide a space that’s warm, inviting and notably not overwhelming for people who have diverse accessibility needs. We built the space to cater for sensory sensitivities, create a feeling of safety and provide community (and vital mental health practices) for people the wider yoga industry doesn’t cater to. This is for neurodivergent, BiPoc, Queer, fat, disabled and just plain nervous people to experience movement and grounding for their mental health.”
I hadn’t even been to a class yet, but simply scrolling through Zenly’s website filled me with hope that maybe I can find a place to unfurl and honour my needs in the safe arms of a community.
“It’s about moving away from changing the individual to recognising what we can change within the environment” Sonny Jane Wise
Anticipation and Anxiety: The First Visit to Zenly
Venturing to Zenly for the first time I was nervous (shocker) and walking there in a dysregulating-ly spicy 36 degrees. I walked into dim lighting, orange and pink furnishings, a subtle, earthy scent and the quiet. Even the people waiting for the class were speaking in low voices. Looking around, I noticed everything about the place contrasted sharply to the outside highway noise, petrol smells and sweltering heat.
Frankie greeted me and gave me clear instructions for using the space and where everything is. This can be helpful for autistic folks on the anxious side who prefer clear communication and structure. At the counter there are stickers for ‘non-verbal today’ and one for not wanting to be touched that allow folks to self- advocate without the embarrassment of asking.
Hope for Greater Accessibility: A Call to Action
I’m slowly trying to break the internalised beliefs that I must adapt myself to environments that cause me discomfort, to grin and bear it only to collapse into exhaustion once I get home. Waiting for the class to start, I plonked down on the fluffy couch in the ‘quiet corner’, popped on some ear defenders, had a sip of water, and caught my breath. I felt validated and accepted, that my need for quiet and calm in an unfamiliar environment is a perfectly reasonable response.
“Zenly is honestly a blessing. The space they have set up is so peaceful, warm and inviting I’ve never felt calmer in a yoga space.”
“Such a unique inclusive and comfortable space. Zenly has an amazing energy, & love that the lights are dimmed, I have never felt so comfortable in my life.
It feels like hanging out at your best friend’s house.”
Affirmation Through Sanctuary
Inside the yoga studio it was lit just enough that I didn’t sit on top of someone. Frankie instructed us in a calm voice and made it clear that we could leave the room whenever and opt out if we needed to. Throughout the class we held simple poses, regulating our breath to calming music (without distracting words, bonus!)
This isn’t a class where you don’t stop moving but more about slowing down and reconnecting to your body. The semi-darkness removes the instinct to compare my abilities to others. The harshness of the outside world melted away, giving the hamster brain a much-needed rest.
Towards a Joyful and Successful Life
After I walked home, grateful the clouds were now filtering the sun and my headphones blocking the sound, I thought about how affirming it is to be able to access a sanctuary like Zenly. It makes me hopeful that other places might catch on and increase their accessibility too. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way, like limiting the noise during the tail end of a yoga class targeted at relaxation. Initial research into the larger field of autism design for architecture have shown that these considered spaces benefit not only autism and neurodiversity, but other user groups with diverse needs.
There are promising developments including the government’s establishment of a National Autism Strategy, aimed at improving the life outcomes of autistic Australians. This will include key reform in areas including access to services, healthcare, education and employment, and importantly be developed in a consultative process that is informed by autistic voices.
It’s a step in the right direction to come out of our nervous shells and in Frankie’s words, “…live in ways that support our success and our joy.”
Written by Amaya Lang