On a Sunday afternoon at Sojourn Studios in Bayview, the calming sound of a cello softly echoes throughout the room as people stretch to hold poses, breathing deeply throughout.
But, this isn’t an average yoga class. In between stretches, participants are encouraged to share their thoughts or what’s troubling them, whether it’s problems they face concerning addiction or personal trauma, while soothing music surrounds the room.
This is Yoga 12 Step Recovery: a supplemental therapeutic exercise program for those looking to combine the catharsis of physical activity and support groups.
“The class is all about coping skills,” Sojourn Studios owner Jennifer Lovely said. “The group is in no way a replacement for a 12-step meeting, a sponsor, or any other part of a 12-step recovery program. It’s rather an adjunct program providing what we believe are other helpful tools in addressing trauma and the physical, mental and spiritual disease of addiction.”
Lovely’s therapeutic classes are open to all, whether her students are going through substance abuse, codependency issues, trauma or conditions such as depression or anxiety. Her classes are a combination of healing exercises that blend the spiritual nature of yoga sutras, the open dialog of support groups and the progression of steps seen in anonymous programs.
The class begins with Lovely laying out the session’s ground rules and going over the spiritual steps that her program bases off the 12 steps of anonymous programs. The floor then opens to those who would like to share. Sunday’s topic of discussion was expectation — Lovely opened the dialogue by discussing the difference in the expectation of honesty between her and a codependent. Her discussion sparked a vulnerable conversation by those in attendance, with yoga poses peppered in between. According to Lovely, talking about those thoughts and holding lengthy yoga poses helps clean the body of stress.
“Our muscles are where we carry most of our stress,” Lovely said.
Lovely began teaching such classes after addiction impacted her personal life. She says her two sons, ages 21 and 20, are currently in the recovery process from heroin addiction. The situation led her to use her yoga instructing skills in a rehab center in Southern California. When she began to realize the exercises made recovering addicts feel calmer and more aware of their feelings, she knew she was on to something. It was then when she read about a program Indiana-based yoga instructor Nikki Myers started that linked intersecting elements of the sutras and 12-step programs.
“We all have issues in our tissues,” Lovely said. “We store baggage and when we talk about those issues and allow our bodies to move, the emotions get unstuck.”
Having recently moved to Whidbey Island, Lovely started offering the therapeutic yoga classes in March to kids at Ryan’s House for Youth after wanting to turn her own pain into “something that could positively impact the lives of others.” Although some approached the classes with skepticism, some in the youth outreach program eventually warmed up to the idea.
Executive Director Lori Cavender said that in addition to many kids liking the classes as a healing supplement, Lovely turned two youth into complete “devotees” who regularly attend her yoga classes. Despite the name Yoga 12 Step Recovery, neither suffer from addiction, rather depression and anxiety. The success led her to offer the classes in her studio and open it to all, and she’s hoping to turn them into a weekly occurrence. The sessions are donation-based, and all proceeds go to Ryan’s House for Youth.
“The yoga classes have been very helpful to a lot of the kids,” Cavender said. “It helps them relax and focus on something positive rather than the negative things that pop into their heads because of the trauma they’ve faced in their lives. Jennifer has been able to calm and re-center them, and it’s been a wonderful gift.”
One woman, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who asked not to be identified, said the yoga classes have become a constant coping mechanism in her life. She has since included the yoga classes into her regular routine which helps her overcome her addiction, alongside the Alcoholics Anonymous program and counseling. Without one of the three activities, she fears a “snowball effect” would follow and she would end up getting inside her head, risking her three years of sobriety.
The yoga class satisfies her need for physical activity as part of her battle against addiction, she said. But, she sees the sessions as more than just a chance to let off some steam and get the endorphins going. It helps her remain grounded, while also improving her emotional and physical health. The combination of physical activity and spirituality is unique, she said.
After only a few months, her weekend afternoons with Lovely have become an important part of her life.
“You get three things in one meeting: you get exercise, the therapeutic aspect of AA and the mental grounding from the sutras,” she said. “I’ve never heard of or been to any sort of treatment like that.”
“I think Jennifer has really hit on an amazing thing that I incorporate into my life on a daily basis.”