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Jessica Parsons was born into a family of yoga teachers. Both of her parents are yoga instructors and owners of the first yoga studio in Santa Barbara. Her older siblings started practicing yoga since they were small. But shortly after Jessica was born, she was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Child development specialists told her parents to lower their expectations for Jessica, but her family didn’t let that stop her from participating in their practice. She took classes, helped at the studio, and even completed a YTT. Now she’s known as the first yoga teacher with Down syndrome—and she’s made it her mission to continue her family’s yoga legacy: offering yoga classes that welcome people with all abilities. This is her story.
Sue Anne Parsons: “Our daughter’s diagnosis set us on journey we didn’t expect.”
I started the first yoga studio in Santa Barbara in 1986. Three years later, Jim came in for a yoga class. We fell in love, got married later that year, and have been teaching yoga together ever since.
Jim had two children, Janelle and Jeremy, and yoga naturally became a part of our family’s life. When I got pregnant with Lauren, we offered prenatal yoga. As our children got older, we started teaching kids’ yoga classes. The demand for yoga increased, and we needed teachers, so we started teacher trainings. Everything just grew organically and magically. As our lives blossomed, so did our practice.
In 1992, our twins, Emily and Jessica, were born. When we were told that Jessica had Down syndrome, it set us on a journey that we didn’t expect. We had no clue what was ahead. For the first year, we were in a fog, navigating all the emotions, challenges, and resources.
Practicing yoga from birth
When Jessica was born, some professionals who specialize in children with disabilities told us that her Down syndrome would limit what we could expect of her. Thankfully, there were also encouraging teachers, therapists, and caregivers who helped us realize what she could learn and achieve.
We were part of an early intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities—and it made a huge difference for us. Because of the program, Jessica was able to work with physical, occupational, and speech therapists.
One of her physical therapists told us that Jessica had hypermobility and low muscle tone, so we would need to help build her strength. The exercises the therapist gave us were similar to yoga. So Jessica started doing “yoga” when she was a baby.
By the time the kids were seven or eight, they were able to participate in our adult classes. Whenever we taught Let It Go Yoga teacher trainings at our studio, our kids joined right in. Jessica and Emily were 12 years old when they attended their first training.
It wasn’t our intention for Jessica to become a teacher. We included her in yoga teacher training because it was an opportunity to deepen her focus, strength, and discipline. But she surprised us all. When one of the teachers at her Down Syndrome Association of Santa Barbara County yoga class got sick and couldn’t teach, Jessica jumped right in and taught the whole routine. She’s been teaching ever since.
More strength, more confidence
Jessica is 29 now and she’s thriving. As a teacher, she has developed good leadership skills and has increased her ability to communicate. There is always another yoga teacher to help her in her classes, and those relationships have taught her how to work as part of a team and discuss any problems that arise. She has made many friendships, and she is a contributing part of our community. She has had the opportunity to teach at yoga conferences and workshops in all kinds of settings.
Yoga turned out to be a game changer for all of us— but especially for Jessica. Her consistent yoga practice has helped her develop focus, discipline, and stress- relieving skills. As she became stronger, she became more confident. She has more control of her body. Her posture improved and she is more in alignment. I feel yoga practice has enhanced her cognitive abilities and increased her awareness as well.
We’ve seen firsthand that developing core strength develops confidence and that balance on the mat tends to add balance to life off the mat. All the yoga postures have benefits beyond the physical body—not just for people who have disabilities, but for everybody. We see that in Jessica and have seen it in other students who attend classes. It’s all connected.
I think that our whole community has spiritually evolved by practicing with Jessica. We’ve heard from people all over who are inspired by her story. It’s heartwarming when a mother with a disabled child reaches out to learn how yoga can help their child.
My dream would be to get to a point where you don’t have to educate people anymore—they would just accept that people with differing physical and mental abilities are an integral part of our society. That’s what it’s like in Jessica’s classes. Everyone leaves with a smile because her vibe is a beautiful thing.
Jessica Parsons: “I said, ‘I can teach class!’ I have been teaching ever since.”
I first started yoga when I was a younger kid at homeschool. I also went to yoga class with my helper, Molly. It was a Down syndrome group. One day, Molly was sick. She couldn’t teach, and then suddenly I said, “I can teach class!” I remembered all the poses and I have been teaching ever since.
I teach at the Carrillo Recreation Center in Santa Barbara. The name of my class is Inclusive Yoga for All. That’s because it’s for everybody! I use yoga props in class because they help people get into the poses. Some people who are in wheelchairs can’t do all of the poses, but they can use their arms. Everybody in my class has a helper if they need one. The helpers do the class, too. My class is inclusive for everybody. Everybody can do something.My favorite poses are Down Dog and Triangle because they feel very good (and my service dog does Down Dog with me!). I do not like Plank and Side Plank. I do them because they make me stronger.
In our opening meditation, we close our eyes and inhale and exhale, and I tell [students] to think of their favorite color or something they are grateful for. And then right after that, we do one “Om” and then everybody says what they’re grateful for. Everybody can share in my class.
I’m grateful for my family, my friends, my sisters, and myself. And my dog, Kenny! I love teaching yoga to my friends and to new people. If you want to teach, you have to practice a lot and write down the poses. Then you can teach it to a friend or someone in your family. You can teach yoga to everybody!
K. Anoa Monsho is a wellness writer based in Atlanta. A yoga teacher and practitioner for more than 30 years, she also facilitates restorative wellness retreats and workshops.
From Summer 2022