PAWTUCKET — Alicia Petrarca used to smile when her 9-year-old daughter, Lataysia, would demonstrate a yoga pose such as the “downward dog” that she had learned in an after-school class at Cunningham Elementary School.
Now the young mother, in substance abuse recovery, is practicing yoga moves alongside her child and says the ancient art is helping greatly with her healing process.
“It's such a reliever of stress,” said Petrarca, after a recent Recovery in Yoga class at the Shri Studio in downtown Pawtucket. “When I walk out of here, I'm a different person. I look at things from a different perspective.” She added that sharing yoga with her daughter has also helped her to realize “that my sobriety means so much to me.”
Instructor Kate Hawley, who guides the Yoga in Recovery class, has worked in the field of substance abuse prevention and also has a personal understanding of how yoga can help re-establish the mind-body connection. This, she notes, is something especially important to those who have a past history of seeking “out of body” experiences through drugs or alcohol.
In the Yoga in Recovery classes, which began earlier this year, Hawley weaves the basic philosophy and teaching of yoga with the principles of the 12-Step program used in treating addiction. Most of the current participants are also members of the nearby Anchor Recovery Community Center, which offers peer-to-peer support services for adults at various stages of recovery. She begins each class with readings highlighting common themes that the students may become aware of as they practice yoga and which helps to set the tone for personal revitalization.
Hawley, who has been a licensed yoga instructor for over a decade, noted that the word yoga means “union.” “A union of the mind and spirit, and a union of all things,” she said. “The reason I think this works as well as it does is because there is an overlap in the intention and the practice of yoga and recovery. The practitioners are willing to change, grow, expand. They are willing to let go of the old ways of living and be open to change.”
Hawley, who originally practiced yoga back in the early 1980s and then rediscovered it, said she thinks the practice helps people live their daily lives. “A lot of yoga is about finding answers to the questions 'Who am I?, ' 'Why am I here?” and 'How should I live?'” noted Hawley. “And these are things that are important to those in recovery.”
Hawley, like Shri Studio's founder, Alison Bologna, believes in the benefits of yoga for a healthier mind and body. She lists the numerous positive physiological effects that include bringing about a relaxation response, improving flexibility, stimulating the endocrine system to elevate mood, increasing blood flow and helping the body release toxins.
“Yoga makes me a better human being. But it doesn't do anything different for me then it would do for anyone else,” Hawley said. “Yoga can be for everybody. People should not come with the expectation that you should already be flexible, be able to take deep breaths or stand on your head. That's why you come to practice...it's a practice,” she said.
As Alicia Petrarca alluded to, Hawley said that yoga can help people to start looking at things differently. “You gain new perspectives and are less reactive. You find that you can take some of the balance that you get from the practice and from standing on the mat and can take it out into life and be more emotionally and mentally balanced.”
About a dozen people, men and women ranging in age from 20s to early 60s, were taking part in a recent Thursday afternoon Yoga in Recovery session. Practitioner Leslie Miller, who has been in recovery for seven years, said she suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and other health problems and has benefited positively from yoga practice.
“I've been taking the class for about eight weeks, and it has improved my health incredibly,” Miller said. “My neurologist has been amazed at the improvement in my balance and flexibility.” She said that yoga also helped internally by straightening out something that was out of alignment from a past surgery.
Marion Cleveland, who just completed her second class, said, “I love it. It helps with relaxation, and meditation. You feel like you can just let everything else go.” She added that she used to do yoga “years ago,” and was glad that she rediscovered it.
Another practitioner, Dan Christoph, said he has been coming to the class for about six months and finds it “very relaxing. It's exhilarating. This is the best I've felt in a long time.”
Christoph said he also enjoys the class because of its group environment. “In recovery, you can feel pretty isolated. This is a like-minded atmosphere, which is good.”
Sarah Smigliani agreed, saying, “I feel very grateful to be here. I find this class is a very accepting space. You can come as you are and feel supported.”
Smigliani said she had done yoga on her own in the past and had even taught some classes, but then got away from the practice. “I'm getting back into it and this is a nice space to do that in,” she said, of Shri Studio's modern, airy rooms.
As a decades-long practitioner of yoga, Alison Bologna, currently a TV news reporter and anchor at NBC 10 News, said it was always her dream to open her own yoga studio. A Pawtucket resident for the past few years, Bologna opened Shri Studio in a renovated brick office building at 21 Broad Street a little over a year ago.
Bologna said the Yoga in Recovery classes came about through conversations with James Gillen, the director of recovery services at the Anchor Recovery Community Center, which is located at 249 Main St. While the Yoga in Recovery classes are free for members of Anchor Recovery thanks to grant funding, they are open to anyone for a small fee. The sessions are held on Thursdays at 12 noon and on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m.
Gillen, who has been open about his own journey from addiction to recovery, said he had met with Bologna to talk about holistic ways for people in recovery to expand what they do. “Part of the recovery process is making healthy choices,” he said. “Kate (Hawley) had spoken at Anchor about healthy living...maintaining a healthy lifestyle through things like stress reduction and breathing. Breathing is a big part of it, because people in recovery feel like they have weight on their shoulders,” he stated.
Gillen, who is taking Yoga in Recovery himself on Tuesday nights, said he enjoys the class because it “looks at healthy living as a way of life. Not just as a narrow box.” The tall and lanky Gillen joked, “I don't bend that well. But for me, it's a real nice way to relax.”
More importantly, Gillen said he likes the way that Hawley has incorporated the tenets of the 12-Step program into the yoga class. “It's a way that people can see and relate to how the steps apply to other ways of life—not just abstinence from drugs or alcohol—but can be utilized in a broader sense. You can apply the 12-Steps to almost everything in life,” said Gillen. “And also, people relate well to Kate,” he added.
Bologna said her goal was always to make her practice space an active part of the urban community. “I didn't want to just have a studio for people with disposable income. I want people to feel welcome here,” she stated. As such, she has been working for forge partnerships with other non-profit organizations, including the Pawtucket YMCA, the Gloria Gemma Foundation and the PeaceLove Studios. She also began this spring teaching yoga with Special Olympics athletes.
Bologna also said that when she opened, there were not many yoga studios in the local area—most were in the suburbs of Rhode Island or in southern Massachusetts—so she wanted to introduce the practice to people who might not otherwise have access to it.
Of the partnership with Anchor Recovery Community Center, Bologna said, “This is such a terrific collaboration and one of the reasons I wanted to create an urban studio...to make immediate connections in a neighborhood where the practice of yoga could make a real difference in people's lives.” She noted that the sense of balance and centering that is created through a yoga session “stays with you when you go off the mat and into the world.”