Arielle Ashford proposed the idea of running a community center-meets-yoga studio to her husband, Robert Ashford, several years ago. At the time, both were well into recovery from substance use, and wanted to support others with similar challenges.
The Ashfords’ intention: to bring substance use issues out of the church basement—where many 12-step recovery programs are held—and into the open, where those in recovery could feel seen and supported by others challenged with the same issues.
A few years later, in 2019, the Ashfords opened Unity Yoga, a recovery-centric and trauma-informed yoga studio in Philadelphia—“the city of brotherly love” that also has one of the country’s highest drug overdose rates.
Through Unity Yoga and its sister community center, Unity Recovery, the organization offers yoga classes and recovery meetings as well as peer support and family groups. Everyone who comes to the studio has access to Unity Recovery if they or a family member is in need of its services. It also provides a place to create friendships that sidesteps socializing over drinks.
See also: Why Yoga Might Be the Secret to Sobriety
Yoga as a means to understanding
Unity Yoga offers an array of accessible yoga classes, some more challenging than others, all of which emphasize the breath and “all the magical things that can bring about,” Arielle says.
The intention is to create a healing environment in which students can experience yogic teachings and “start this grand homecoming back to the body, where so much wisdom is stored,” Arielle explains. “I started a yoga nidra for recovery class where all we do is stay in the body and take moments for deep listening.”
Science supports her wisdom. With its focus on breath and conscious relaxation, yoga nidra may help those in recovery cope and make withdrawal symptoms more manageable, according to a 2016 study published in the IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences.
Part of a bigger picture
During the past year, Unity guided nearly 6,000 students through classes and supported more than 460,000 people in recovery through its online offerings. And this September, Unity launched a 32-hour recovery yoga teacher training program that addresses the psychology and physiology of recovery and trauma. The goal: to help create a generation of more informed yoga teachers.
In the past two years, the organization expanded to include a second location in Philadelphia and launched Unity Taqueria, a taco restaurant that employs those in recovery. The couple also helps other businesses amend hiring practices and workplace policies to be more equitable to anyone with a background of substance use through their Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative, made possible by a grant from the state of Pennsylvania. With its community-centered recovery approach, Unity Recovery has received more than half a million dollars in grants to expand its programming.
“For me, the shame of recovery was never an issue, although it absolutely has been for others,” Arielle says. “This offers me a great privilege in the recovery world. I am able to take the teachings of yoga and share them.”