This Indigenous Pilates Instructor Is Empowering Her Community Through Exercise

Studio Qila classes

Courtesy of Studio Qila

Bridget O’Carroll is the founder of Studio Qila, the first Native-owned digital Pilates fitness studio. O'Carroll, who is from the Alaskan Native tribe Alutiiq, has created a space to promote fitness and wellness for BIPOC communities.

When gyms forcibly closed due to the pandemic, people had to get creative about how they worked out. Some people used water and wine bottles as dumbbells while others squatted with their friends on their shoulders. For Indigenous entrepreneur Bridget O’Carroll, it was starting her own online Pilates workout classes for her student peers. Little did she know, her online workout classes would grow in popularity and size.

Now, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, O’Carroll launched her fitness studio, Qila

Qila comes from the Alutiiq, O’Carroll’s Alaskan Native language. It means spirit of the earth and is what O’Carroll’s routines are centered on. As the first Native-owned digital fitness studio, O’Carroll hopes to bring Native representation into the fitness space and create a sense of belonging for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). 

Verywell spoke with O’Carroll to about how she’s empowering and uplifting BIPOC communities through exercise. 

Verywell: What inspired you to start Studio Qila? 

O’Carroll: I have been teaching Pilates since about 2016. I worked for one of the major Pilates studios, Solidcore. I taught there for a number of years. Then COVID happened, so suddenly, everyone was stuck inside. After about a month, I realized my daily movement was basically walking from the bed to the fridge and then sitting down on the couch to work all day. So feeling this degree of sluggishness and isolation, I ended up putting on a Zoom class with a couple of my friends from business school. I taught a variation of what I was used to and did this mat style. I was using cardboard as sliders, wine bottles as weights. Then people started asking me if we could do this every week and other people from school started reaching out. So it got to the point where I started teaching classes every week.

Now about a year and a half later, I wanted to launch it as its own company, something with its own identity. It was really important to me to integrate a sense of belonging and authenticity. That started by calling it Studio Qila, which means spirit of the earth in Alutiiq, which is my Alaskan Native tribe. My hope is that it makes other Indigenous people feel a sense of belonging and help other minorities feel like they belong here too.

Verywell: How do you empower the BIPOC community through exercise? 

O’Carroll: Right now, my number one focus has been representation. We’re Native-owned. Given the history of Indigenous people, just having recognition is one of my major goals. We are building our core values directly into the business model itself so 10% of proceeds are donated to BIPOC organizations. In the past, that funding has gone to Loveland Foundation, which brings more accessible therapy to Black women. We’ve also partnered with Second Chance Studios, which helps formerly incarcerated people get job skills to ease back into the working world. We’ve also done a number of donation classes so we can spur more awareness and attention. 

And then the last piece that we rolled out recently is scholarships. We offer free memberships through scholarships to anyone who needs it. It’s basically a no-questions-asked situation. I’m currently looking to partner with some organizations that specifically support Black and Indigenous populations to see if we can provide more scholarships to bring movement to those communities. 

You can check out different Studio Qila membership options here. If you can't afford a membership, you can email the company through their website to inquire about their scholarship options.

Verywell: How do the classes help accommodate many body types?

O’Carroll: Basically, every single thing that we do, you can modify based on what equipment you have, and how you’re feeling. All of our physical body proportions are different. Everyone did something different yesterday, everyone’s working through different injuries. You should focus on that and still be able to have a workout and something that makes you feel good. I give three different variants that you can do for moves based on how things feel for you. So if you are having hip or lower back issues, which are the most common, then you can take certain modifications.

I encourage everyone to either stay after class or even send me videos if they’re doing the workout on demand. By talking to my clients individually, I can better understand how exactly they are feeling and whether these tiny adjustments work for you. That allows me to build more variation options for others. 

Verywell: Where do you envision the studio being in the coming years? 

O’Carroll: Because accessibility and inclusiveness are so important to me, I see this always primarily being a digital offering. I want anyone from any background to be able to access it as long as they have a WiFi connection, and a very small space on the floor or even outside that they can do it on. Because that’s so integral, the digital space is always something that is going to be our primary method. That being said, [the studio is] in Austin, and I’ll be relocating there in July. Eventually, I would love to open up a physical studio where we will record from and have some special pop-ups.

Verywell: What do you want readers to take away from your story? 

O’Carroll: It’s really hard for me to see the lack of coverage or even the lack of existence of Natives in the wellness space. And I actually found out that we are the first Native-owned digital fitness studio, which in some ways is amazing. I’m so excited to be able to make history. But I’m also just saddened by the fact that this hasn’t happened sooner. It makes me even more excited to lead the way in terms of building representation and better support.

We are still here. We are out here and there are different ways to learn and to get involved and to support and uplift these communities. So, try some classes, and let’s continue to raise awareness and celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

1 Source
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  1. CNET. Can't find dumbells? Exercise with these household objects instead.

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.