Well Being: Yoga as a way to escape addictive behaviors

Mary Kate Farley adjusts the posture of Robyn Evans during Freedom Yoga at the Soul Center. "The result of surrendering to what's happening in the moment is a feeling of peace," she says.
Mary Kate Farley adjusts the posture of Robyn Evans during Freedom Yoga at the Soul Center. "The result of surrendering to what's happening in the moment is a feeling of peace," she says. (ART CAREY / Staff)
Posted: June 20, 2011

The UPS guy has been leaving jeep parts on my doorstep lately, which is causing the Russian Princess, my sturdy mate, to fret. She fears I'm relapsing, that I'm succumbing once again to a bad case of the Willys, my peculiar lust for flat-fender jeeps.

So it was timely and fortunate that I happened to visit the Soul Center one recent Sunday evening, where they offer a class called Freedom Yoga for people struggling with cravings and addictions.

The Soul Center is in a shopping center on the outskirts of Phoenixville. As its name implies, the folks running the place believe yoga is about more than achieving and maintaining a flexible body.

"Yoga is a mind, body, spirit practice," said Mary Kate Farley, the leader of the class, "and addiction is a mind, body, spirit disease."

The class is called Freedom Yoga for a reason. The goal is to free yourself from the demons and desires that prevent you from experiencing the joy and serenity of living in the moment.

"The result of surrendering to what's happening in the moment is a feeling of peace," said Farley. Quoting Buddha, she added: "Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without."

Robyn Evans, 47, opened the Soul Center in September. Her credo: "Yoga stops the craving and embodies the recovery."

In recruiting instructors, Evans issued this invitation: "If you had one month to live, what class would you like to teach?"

Farley, 35, who is also a massage therapist and Reiki master teacher, wanted to lead a class rooted in her own experience. She began teaching yoga five years ago while working at a drug and alcohol rehab facility in South Jersey. There, she was "struck by a wave of truth."

"During the week, I would teach people how to lead a clean and sober life," she explains, "and then on the weekends I'd go on a drinking binge."

Yoga, she found, was dandy for detoxing the body and reducing stress as well as healing the psyche and nourishing self-esteem.

The fee for Freedom Yoga is a donation. It's open to any kind of addict - alcohol, drugs, food, sex, porn, gambling, hoarding, and so on. Weekly attendance has averaged about a half dozen people.

The Sunday I visited, three women showed up, in addition to Evans and yoga instructor Dave Odorisio. Farley led them through a range of relaxation exercises and gentle "restorative" yoga poses. Her operating principle: "Stretch, don't strain."

Periodically, she paused to share snippets of philosophy steeped in the gospel of the 12-step movement, or quote from the Big Book, the bible of Alcoholics Anonymous.

She read a passage from The Wizard of Oz about the comfort of home, a word that contains the sound of the sacred yoga syllable om. What we are seeking is often no farther away than our own backyard, she suggested.

"The alcoholic is looking for the spirit in the wrong place," she said, quoting Carl Jung.

She cited a Stanford study showing that yoga reduces cravings and negative emotional states that trigger drug use. She urged the class to "surrender to gravity," "settle into stillness," and "connect with childlike summer energy."

"You don't have to believe in God," she said. "Just be in contact with the energy that animates you."

Among her other observations and exhortations:

"Fear is at the bottom of all defects of character."

"Inhalation is inspiration."

"Every moment is a chance to meditate."

"Movement is health."

My favorite healthy movement came when she invited the class to imitate a woodchopper, celebrating each overhead strike with a full-throated "Ha!" (Now that's manly yoga, catharsis you can believe in!)

After class, sitting on couches and sipping tea, the women who attended praised Farley for her patience, gentleness, and wisdom.

"It's a fresh way of looking at the 12-step philosophy," said Judy Moll, 68, a retired nurse who lives in Limerick. Especially beneficial has been the message of acceptance and surrender. "For me, that means accepting that I'm not very flexible and never will be."

Not true, said Helen Mogel, 74, a close friend and fellow nurse. Before practicing yoga, "Judy was so rigid she couldn't do anything; she was walking with a cane."

Rigidity of the mind is reflected in rigidity of the body, Mogel noted. "How you move offers clues to your psyche."

Yoga instructor Odorisio, 29, who moves with the grace and suppleness of a cheetah, offered a physiological perspective. "Most of our lives we live in a place of fight, flight, or freeze," he said. "Yoga engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body relax by releasing deep-seated tension and anxiety."

Yogaheads are big on the teachings of Buddha, who took a dim view of desire ("the root of evil," he called it). A ride in one of my blitz buggies would have set him right.


Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

For more information, call 610-935-2214 or visit http://thesoulcenter.com or www.sunriseofthespirit.com.

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