As a young girl, Chelsea Smith was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, and as she got older, she found it increasingly painful trying to navigate a world that did not understand her. She suffered from coprolalia, characterized by involuntary outbursts of obscenities.
“I’ve been kicked out of everything, yelled at, beaten up, because people don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “It was horrible.”
By her mid-20s, Smith was anxious, depressed and exhausted, and her suicidal thoughts became overwhelming. At the same time, she was attending college and had enrolled in a yoga course. It quickly became a light in her life, helping her cope and manage her Tourette syndrome symptoms.
One particularly difficult morning, she gazed at her yoga mat resting in the corner of her room.
“Something pushed me,” she said. “I decided to get out of bed and I got on my mat.”
As she stretched and continued to breathe deep, Smith felt something slowly begin to shift within her. And each day, “I kept choosing my mat, my [yoga] practice,” she said.
Today, Smith teaches at her Chico studio, Freebird Yoga, motivated to help others heal by releasing tension, processing trauma and tapping into their inner strength. She recently started offering free community classes at her studio and various locations around town to help break down financial and cultural barriers to accessing yoga.
“My whole goal is for them to fall in love with the feeling that happens when you regulate your body,” she said. “[You] awaken to what sits within you, and it’s within everybody. Strength isn’t about how many push ups you can do—it’s about how much you can feel.”
At a free community class last month, a small group settled onto their mats at Freebird Yoga’s creekside studio (243 W. Ninth St.). Smith opened the curtains to welcome the morning light, then led students on a challenging hour-long vinyasa (or “flow”) class, which is characterized by continuous movements between yoga poses.
Smith encouraged attendees to modify poses as needed, take breaks and go at their own pace. Throughout the session, she validated how challenging it was for her class to be still and hold poses. She reminded them to witness any bodily sensations or negative thoughts and keep returning to their breathing: “The goal is letting go, that is your response.”
“Our mat becomes this metaphor for life. Whatever we’re encountering on the mat, these are the same situations we encounter in life,” she said. “This journey back to the stillness is the same thing as self acceptance. … Every time you step on your mat, you go on a journey of release.”
Western yoga studios often lack diversity, Smith said, cultivating a culture that caters to white, thin, neurotypical, middle-class women. Smith, who also has autism, said this makes it very hard for folks who don’t fit that narrow identity to feel welcome or comfortable at yoga studios. She’s focused on making her studio welcoming to all.
Freebird Yoga held its first free community classes in January, and has expanded its offerings since then. Freebird, which has four instructors and offers over 10 different styles of classes (including aerial yoga for adults and youth, chair yoga for those with limited mobility, and prenatal yoga), hosts two free classes per week (featuring different styles each month), as well as other free yoga events.
Amanda Hernandez, a local therapist, had primarily practiced yoga on her own during the pandemic, so she was thrilled to discover the studio’s free classes—and the fact that its instructors delve into important tools for well-being.
“That’s something I’m trying to practice: the mindfulness, the awareness—not trying to think about too much that’s not in the now,” she said.
Two years ago, Ali McMorrow had never attended a yoga class and, skeptical of its benefits, didn’t plan on it. But they were going through a difficult year, and their partner recommended they try it.
McMorrow, who is a queer biracial farmer, struggles with anxiety and depression and has witnessed and experienced trauma through their relief work in the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire.
“So I’m breathing and I’m feeling the stuff that comes up when you stop to take deep breaths,” they said. “There’s negative thoughts, there’s memories that are being unlocked. … I was like, What the hell was that? And I was sore and uncomfortable and emotional.”
In April, Smith started teaching free yoga at the South Chico Community Assistance Center, where McMorrow is a board member. The nonprofit provides a free food pantry and other resources to those in need. Smith then partnered with yoga student Marin Hambley to launch Industry Night Yoga, providing free classes at the Winchester Goose to bar and restaurant workers.
McMorrow has been a student of Freebird Yoga now for nearly two years, and in that time, has learned how to access greater self-acceptance and inner peace. They said that at these free classes, they have witnessed “this light turn on in people” as Smith and her instructors have nurtured people into their yoga practice.
“People who don’t have access to this type of connection or assistance or love, they get a free pass to be able to have the same benefits we get,” they said. “These people are vulnerable. There’s a lot of us crying or struggling. … She’s making a safe space.”
June community classes:
At Freebird Yoga (243 W. Ninth St.)
• Wednesdays, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
• Saturdays, 10-11 a.m.
• June 24, 2-4p.m.
• June 14, 5:30-6:30 p.m., South Chico Community Assistance Center
• June 26, 7-8 p.m., Industry Night Yoga for restaurant/bar workers, Winchester Goose
Check site/social media for styles/info, freebird-yoga.com