Mind and Body

A safe place where you will always belong

Shri Yoga expands its yoga recovery classes to women in a residential recovery program

Photo by Richard Asinof

Charlene Breggia, left, instructor for the Yoga and Recovery class at Shri Yoga studio; Donna McDonald,a nurse who helped to set up the private yoga class for women from Eastman House, and Robin Sousa, right, a yoga instructor with Shri Yoga.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/30/18
The efforts to expand yoga as a healing art in Rhode Island continues to drive the mission of Shri Yoga, with committed outreach to schools, seniors, teens, members of the recovery community, and adults with disabilities.
What will it take for health insurers to be willing to reimburse patients for yoga classes as an affordable approach to prevention and health? Is there an opportunity for the School of Public Health at Brown University to conduct research about the effectiveness of yoga in working with complex populations, such as veterans, the recovery community, and people with disabilities? How can the work of Shri Yoga be built into the place-based approach of the Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls and in the numerous health equity zones in Rhode Island? What are the ways that the practice of yoga can be built into the practice of physical therapy as a recommended best practice for chronic pain?
As the class for the 11 women in “yoga and recovery” ended with a resounding Om at Shri Yoga studio, an impertinent question occurred: was there a potential unmet need for a yoga class for politicians? The image of all the candidates running for Rhode Island Governor in 2018 sitting in a circle, on yoga mats, breathing in and breathing out, having to participate in an intention, saying “I am…” and providing a positive, emotional answer, might seem like a skit from Saturday Night Live. But why not, as a way to find common ground and as a positive, light-affirming practice?

CONVERSATIONS: PART ONE

PAWTUCKET – In the current tense midsummer world of disrupted lives, unsettled weather patterns, rampant wildfires, divisive politics and so much anxiety ruling the airwaves, 11 women gathered to find a small oasis of calm at Shri Urban Revitalization Yoga studio early Friday morning on July 27, to find balance in their lives as part of their recovery journey, breathing in and breathing out in unison, connecting with their own bodies and finding support from each other.

Call it a conversation in breathing and movement, where everyone participated and everyone was welcomed in the space – and listening to one’s own body became the focus of an engaging dialogue.

The yoga class, one of several offered weekly by Shri Yoga, called simply “Yoga and Recovery,” was being led by instructor Charlene Breggia. “If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it,” she reminded the women at the start.

Breggia also conducts classes in girl empowerment community yoga through Shri Yoga with students at Shea High School, teaching girls how to connect with empowerment skills early on.

With the 11 women sitting in a circle on yoga mats on the wooden floor, the class began with what is known as an intention, “I am…” answered by each student with a ringing of the tingsha meditation chimes: I am open, I am here, I am grateful, I am empowered, I am at peace, I am thankful, and I am here now. In the background a soothing raga of Indian flute music played, with percussion provided by the reverberations of a portable air conditioner.

During the breathing and stretching exercises, Breggia often intoned the answers given to the intention, as a kind of prayerful reminder: I am open; I am love; I am peaceful; I am here.

This particular weekly yoga in recovery private class for women was developed as part of an initiative created by Donna McDonald, R.N., who works with residents of Gateway’s Eastman House, and Alison Bologna, who founded Shri Yoga in 2010, with support for this class coming from the June Rockwell Levy Foundation. [Bologna also works as a TV anchor at NBC 10 WJAR in Providence.]

Every Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. the women arrive together in a van from the residential treatment program, and return when the class was completed. Sometimes after class the women will borrow books from the Shri Yoga library to read; one member of the class borrowed three books last week, including a biography of Mahatma Gandhi.

The yoga and recovery classes with Eastman House women are an extension of continuing work that Shri Yoga has been doing with the recovery community, beginning eight years ago when Jim Gillen, one of the pioneering leaders of the recovery community, serendipitously walked into the studio of Shri Yoga, introduced himself, and suggested that perhaps they find a way to work together to offer classes to people in recovery, according to Bologna.

“Jimmy helped us with some of the trauma-sensitive curriculum,” Bologna explained, with a focus on language, tone and rhythm.

The keys, Bologna continued, were “to create an accessible, safe space that people could come to practice yoga once a week, and to speak the language that was appropriate for them, without pressing any triggers.”

In many ways, Bologna continued, the yoga classes mirrored the work of the peer recovery movement: when you walk through the door at the Shri Yoga studio, there was always someone there to greet you with a smile, to say hello, creating a safe place where you always felt you belonged.

[Each year, in honor of Gillen since his passing in 2015, Shri Yoga has awarded the Jim Gillen Honorary Award for Extraordinary Service to the Community. The 2018 award winner is Nancy Tumidajski; she will receive the award at the yoga studio’s annual fundraiser, Shri Soirée, to be held on Sunday, Aug 19, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Dunes Club in Narragansett.]

Positive vibrations
For yoga instructor Charlene Breggia, the most positive outcome that is created through the yoga in recovery process was how “women open up and really connect with themselves, finding a peacefulness here.”

At the end of each class, which lasts an hour, Breggia said she conducts a relaxation period.

“Their bodies, they need that,” Breggia said. “So I make sure that we have a full 10 minutes of relaxation. Some of the women snore, because their bodies need to rest. It’s relaxation, it’s opening up, it’s calming our thoughts. It’s taking a break from everything. We let the whole world fall away for a while.”

For Robin Sousa, another yoga instructor with Shri Yoga, the most positive outcomes are the joy she can see in the women. “They find something that they can connect with, that makes them feel good on so many different levels,” Sousa said. “You can see it in their faces.”

Changing the culture
In Sanskrit, shri is broadly defined as “life-affirming energy,” that which diffuses light, radiance and abundance, according to the Shri Yoga website.

In 2017, Shri Yoga served more than 5,000 students in both its own first-floor studio at 172 Exchange St. in Pawtucket and in the field. By the numbers, some 2,500 students received free classes through the organization’s nonprofit arm, 100 students participated in Shri programs on any given day, and more than 20 instructors carry the mission into the community.

The mission of Shri Yoga is “to brighten communities through the practice of yoga, making yoga and wellness programs affordable and accessible to all students.”

The organization described itself as “the only yoga outreach organization of its kind in Rhode Island, serving adults and children with developmental and intellectual disabilities, veterans, children in schools, hospitals and shelters, incarcerated youth, men and women in recovery, and in clinics. The outside locations include Bradley Hospital and the Providence VA.

Shri Yoga has also developed a tracking system to measure impact and outcomes, using a specialized software program.

Shri Yoga also participated in a pilot study on the use of yoga in outpatient eating disorder treatment in partnership with Hasbro Children’s Hospital, which was published in The Journal of Eating Disorders. One of the findings was: “In participants who completed the study, a statistically significant decrease in anxiety, depression, and body image disturbance was seen.”

Tracking the results to demonstrate the benefits of yoga is seen as an important next step in creating the body of evidence needed to make yoga a reimbursable therapeutic intervention recognized by health insurers, according to Bologna.

The challenge
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, explained Bologna, has been a generous partner working with Shri Yoga, providing some $50,000 in grants in the last few years to support the yoga studio’s work in schools and with seniors. “I am very thankful for their continued support,” she said.

By measuring the outcomes, Bologna continued, the goal is to show that the practice of yoga is a more affordable option that can prevent illnesses, lower stress, improve emotional and physical flexibility, and promote health.

Shri Yoga, she continued, “is [currently] conducting three classes inside the VA, working with the veterans’ community.” There is a growing recognition of the role that yoga can play in the healing process, Bologna said.

Investing in yoga, she concluded, “is a investment in an affordable way to take care of one another.”

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