November 10, 2010

Yoga For People Who Need It

This article is about good people doing good things in the world.

Laura Winslow, RYT 200 Yoga Alliance, Integrative Yoga Therapy

Many people who practice yoga nowadays have extra cash around.  They can afford to pay for classes at an upscale yoga boutique, and supplement their practice with eco mats and cute Lulu Lemon spandex.  I’m not putting these people down – yoga is good for everyone – but the way our culture has adopted yoga so far means that it appeals to and is accessible for only a small percentage of the population.

Now imagine a 17-year-old who was arrested for drug possession.  She attends classes at a special high school for incarcerated teenagers where she’s constantly being told to do things she doesn’t want to do.  She comes from a family of addicts – both parents have been imprisoned in the past, and now they are undergoing parent education while she stays with a foster family until she finishes high school.  In addition to their art and music program, the school offers yoga on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  She finds herself in sweatpants on a rented purple yoga mat with 12 other girls.  When the teacher asks her to close her eyes for the beginning meditation, she doesn’t want to; it’s just another thing she’s being told to do.  But she does kind of like the teacher’s style, which includes a nose ring and a dark shirt that has some kind of eastern symbol on it.  Kind of edgy, kind of interesting, if she lets herself admit it.  The soothing music comes on, and the teacher asks everyone to breathe deeply and pay attention to the breath moving in their bodies.  She feels her lungs take in a little more air, and soon she finds herself relaxing and letting go.  She stretches her hamstrings in Triangle Pose and flinches as her quads protest in Warrior Two.  In Savasana, the final relaxation, she falls asleep to the sound of the teacher’s voice,  music filling the background.  Her body feels more relaxed than she can ever remember.  And for the past hour and 15 minutes, she’s been thinking about something other than when she’s next going to use.

Integrative Yoga Instructor Laura Winslow’s passion is helping at-risk teenagers find this kind of inspiration and healing through yoga, meditation and other mind-body practices such as guided relaxation.  Laura took her first yoga workshop in 2000, where she expected to learn how to decrease her stress levels.  Instead, she experienced a profound shift in inner wellness.  Having undergone recovery herself, and watched addiction wreak havoc on her family, Laura discovered that addiction recovery programs based on yogic techniques can bring inner freedom to individuals by providing coping skills that circumvent reactive and violent behavior, and thus benefit all of society.

After receiving her Integrative Yoga Therapy teacher certification, she began volunteering at a variety of social service centers in southern Oregon.  She taught teenagers at South Medford High School, where she started an extra-curricular yoga club.  She also served at Genesis, a recovery center for substance abuse treatment, as well as the Addictions Recovery Center and On Track, other programs for addiction recovery, all based in the Rogue Valley.

“Addiction is at the crux of so many issues,” she told me in a recent interview.  “We see its thread through every societal problem.”  Obviously, many health problems result from addiction, as do psychological disorders, unemployment, and various crimes.  Addiction causes people to reach outside themselves for remedies to their pain, whereas yoga encourages awareness as an antidote to the unconscious patterns fostered in drug or other substance abuse.  People learn that they can choose not to engage in this kind of striving, that they have an inner strength waiting to be awakened.  Yoga and meditation lend themselves particularly to remedying addiction because they encourage self-reflection, this spirit of inner awakening.  Max Strom, a renowned yoga teacher from Ashland, Oregon, says this about the freedom gained through yoga practice: “People think freedom is being able to do whatever you want whenever you want.  But true freedom is being able to not do whatever you want, and not being a slave to your desire.”  For addicts, daily yoga practice can bring about a profound shift in re-establishing the mind-body connection, helping them to remember their innate peace and wellness.

Kathryn Reppond, RYT 500 Yoga Alliance, Yoga Therapy Ananda Seva, Movement Integration Techniques

Acknowledging this potential, Laura Winslow, along with Kathryn Reppond, another gifted yoga teacher from southern Oregon, have created a 12 week study program called Integrative Recovery TherapyTM , which integrates breathing practices and meditation along with asana, mindfulness, Qi Gong, self-massage, deep relaxation, and Yoga Nidra.  They have begun offering this program to a variety of populations in the Rogue Valley, including clients of Kolpia Counseling Services and Addictions Recovery Center.  In order to expand their outreach, Laura founded Southern Oregon Mind-body Outreach Project, which is a program of Yoga Blue, an outreach organization dedicated to teaching yoga as support for people in recovery from substance abuse and other destructive behaviors.  They received their first grant during the summer and began teaching yoga to as many as 30 students in Lithia Springs School, an alternative middle and high school for incarcerated youth.  They conduct two classes per week, one for boys and one for girls.  When I spoke with Laura, she had just finished her seventh class with the Lithia Springs teenagers.  She hopes to help them develop a daily home practice, as long-term training is what brings about lasting recovery for addicts.

By utilizing key concepts such as witnessing and self-awareness from traditional 12 step programs, Laura and Kathryn created a holistic series of classes (see bottom of page).  Kassandra, a 22-year-old student in the program, had this to say: “It has helped me center myself and thoughts, and learn breathing techniques when I’m angry to help me approach situations more appropriately!”  Although Laura finds much challenge in endeavoring to convince initially disinterested people that these practices are worthwhile, her dedication continues, in part by receiving positive feedback like this anonymous quote: “The effects of the program have been very beneficial for me.  It reminds me to stay serene in the process of life, gives me a moment for self-care in my busy week and reminds me of how good it feels to take care of myself.”

Laura and Kathryn and their team of yoga teachers hope to continue offering yoga recovery classes to a variety of people in southern Oregon and beyond, but as with most charitable projects, they lack funding.  They have found that teachers working with these populations find tremendous challenge in volunteering their services over the long run, and that offering small stipends proves more sustainable and successful, especially in maintaining a high quality of mentorship for the students.  To read more about their work and to offer sponsorship for the program, please visit the following websites: www.yogaforrecovery.netwww.somindbodyoutreach.orgwww.yogablue.org.

Integrative Recovery TherapyTM 12-Step Program

CARING FOR THE SELF, Planning and Maintaining a Personal Practice

AWAKENING SELF AWARENESS, The Restoration of Presence


LIVING IN BALANCE, Discovering Patience & Calmness

PRACTICING INTEGRITY & HONESTY, Non-Harming of Self and Others

ALLOWING FORGIVENESS, Non-Judging and Self Compassion

EXPERIENCING UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, Moving from Emptiness to Readiness

SETTING INTENTION, Sowing the Seeds of Self Empowerment

OBSERVING THOUGHTS, The Key to Transforming Feelings

PERCEIVING VISION, Manifesting Purpose


CULTIVATING GRATITUDE, The Creation of Harmony

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