It's a question that Bridget O'Carroll has asked herself all her life. For years, O'Carroll moonlighted as an instructor at boutique fitness studios like solidcore while working a full-time job at Uber. The week the pandemic hit the U.S., O'Carroll was scheduled to teach her debut SLT class. Instead, she opened her laptop and started teaching online, using the hashtag #bodywithbridget to connect with her community. As 2020 blurred into 2021, O'Carroll developed a fitness technique of her own that combined mind, body, and spirit. Just like that: Studio Qila, the first Native-owned digital fitness platform, was born.
From the very start, O'Carroll knew that Studio Qila would be more than a physical workout: It would be a conduit for connecting with her Native Alaskan roots. The word "Qila" means spirit in the language Alutiiq: an Alaska Native language spoken in western and southwestern Alaska. "Studio Qila came out of me reconnecting with my Alaska Native background," says O'Carroll. "I am trying to build representation for Native people in the wellness space. You won't necessarily see necessarily Native traditions coming out in my classes, but my whole method is about belonging and inclusivity," she tells Well+Good.
Growing up, O'Carroll felt deeply in touch with her Native Alaskan heritage. Year after year, she attended intergenerational camps designed to help indigenous people connect in a community setting. "I would learn about beading. We'd make moccasins and masks. We'd watch the jingle dress dancers, and it was something that was just part of who I was," says O'Carroll.
As she got older and her family moved to various spots around the globe from Ireland to Hawaii, however, O'Carroll began to notice a widening schism between her Native Alaskan heritage and the other facets of her identity—like school and her social life. "In my high school U.S. history class, we would skip the Native history chapter because it wasn't on the standardized tests. Little things like that signaled to me that Native history was not something we were allowed to talk about," she says. "Eventually, it got to the point where I felt like I really wanted to re-embrace that. 2020 in particular was an awakening in so many ways, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, I am taking active steps to be a representative myself, because I feel like I'm regaining the confidence to call myself a Native woman, and to integrate that into who I am and what my brand is."
Beyond acting as a representative for Native people in the wellness space, Studio Qila also gives back to the community in several impactful ways. "At Studio Qila, our method is centered around pushing through discomfort in order to create change. We bring that same mentality to create change within our broader communities and are always looking for ways to extend our impact. As an Indigenous-owned brand, we are especially passionate about supporting under-resourced communities, and amplifying Native and Black voices," reads the website. O'Carroll accomplishes this by hosting donation-based classes, allocating 10 percent of proceeds to support organizations supporting BIPOC communities, and giving scholarships to anyone in need.
"I am trying to build representation for Native people in the wellness space." — Bridget O'Carroll, founder of Studio Qila
The "spirit" portion of Studio Qila is also hugely important to O'Carroll. Physically, her workouts marry Pilates and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but she wants her workouts to go way more than muscle deep. "I want to move away from something that is purely aesthetically or physically-focused like #bodybybridget, and move towards something that brings together a physical, mental, and spiritual focus. It's tough. It pushes you out of your comfort zone. And so much of that is a mental challenge. Being able to breathe through the discomfort and commit yourself to something and realize that in pushing through that discomfort, you can allow yourself to become stronger," she says.
It's true that O'Carroll's classes challenge you in more ways than one (although, the physical elements are definitely demanding). Her style is characterized by repetitive, tiny moves that target muscles you didn't even know existed. But while many trainers would be tempted to use the final 20 seconds of plank saws or glute bridges to give a pep talk about "embracing the burn" or other cringe-worthy motivational phrases, O'Carroll's instruction centers around being fully present and calm with discomfort. Her approach feels holistic—and maybe that's something so many of us are missing in our workouts right now. Maybe we need to know that movement can mean more. More than a good sweat. More than an individual experience. More than an agnostic pursuit.
Well+Good readers can try their first Studio Qila class for free. Use code "WELLANDGOOD" at checkout.
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