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The power of yoga at work in a WNY addictions recovery center – The Buffalo News

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Yoga teacher in training Ashley Feneziani wasn't sure she was ready to lead her first class at Turning Point House, an addictions recovery center for men in the Southtowns.

"When I go to yoga classes, it's usually me surrounded by a group of other women in Spandex pants," said Feneziani, a high school French teacher in the Williamsville school district.

Turning Point resident Christopher Kessler wasn't sure he was ready for yoga, either. The 36-year-old North Buffalo resident dabbled in it while in his younger days following the trail of Grateful Dead concerts, but his wardrobe was limited after his arrival to the 21-bed house in early January.

He showed up for his first class wearing blue jeans and a plaid button-up shirt. It didn't take long to break a sweat.

"Before I did yoga, I thought it was a workout for girls," Kessler said. "As I got involved with it, I realized it really works the body out. You wouldn't think it but the next day I'd feel like I'd hit the gym. Some of the poses I still can't do. It's intense but it's also relaxing."

Gabriella Pelosi, senior counselor at Turning Point House, in Eden, asked her bosses at Cazenovia Recovery Systems to add yoga to the treatment repertoire last summer. It's become a weekly complement on a rural, 4-acre swath that also includes a horseshoe pit, basketball hoop and hiking trail with 12 stations, each with a plaque describing one of the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. A weight room/recreation center also sits on property.

“Yoga is an alternative intervention that has a more physical spin to it,” Pelosi said. “With substance abuse, it’s been proven to help many of our residents reconnect with their bodies and minds after trauma. It’s a different coping skill for many of our residents.”

Feneziani  generally draws six to 10 residents to her classes, as well as Pelosi, who has practiced yoga for about five years.

Kessler, 36, who goes by the nickname Topher, helps set up and clean up. His journey to yoga is fairly typical of the men who spend four to six months at Turning House when they leave inpatient recovery care. He has battled depression and anxiety, struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and lost several friends to overdose deaths and suicide.

"There's no magic pill out there for me," he said. "I have to keep all of the areas of my life balanced. I have to address my health with mind, body and spirit. I have to go to a therapist. I have to do the yoga and meditation. I have to take my medication. I have to go to support meetings. I don't know what specific thing is necessarily working but if I continue to do them all, I seem to be OK."

Q: How does this fit in with overall activities on a typical Tuesday?

"There's no magic pill out there for me. I have to keep all of the areas of my life balanced," says Topher Kessler, third from left, in a yoga class on Tuesday at Turning Point House with, from left, senior counselor Gabriella Pelosi and residents Donnie Cristiano and Rudolph Fix, right. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Pelosi: They start mornings with their own meditation and they have groups all day: coping skills group, barriers to recovery. I teach a mindfulness meditation group, as well. I teach a relationships group. We have family and parenting groups, tobacco awareness groups. They’re in those groups depending on their own recovery goals. They have meals here, attend Narcotic Anonymous and Alcohol Anonymous meetings at night. They’re working with primary counselors to do one-on-one sessions to help them meet their recovery goals and figure out what happens after their time here.

Q: Ashley, you're training with Yogis in Service, which provides free yoga to underserved communities in the region. Can you talk about the trauma-informed principles that drive your yoga classes?

Feneziani: First, we come to our mat knowing that we're worth the effort. No matter what you've been through in life, the struggles that you've seen, bad things that you've done, things that you regret, you're always worth the effort. Moving from there, we talk about our breath being our most powerful tool. It's the belief that you need to feel what's happening in your body in order to heal. I think a lot of that is stuff you'll hear mirrored in therapy sessions all the time. Coping with your history or whatever you're sharing, it's OK to feel the experiences that you've had in order to be able to work your way through them.

We talk a lot about choice, safety in your body. You know what feels good for you. You're the only one that knows what feels good for you – and you always have the ability to choose when to stay, when to go, what feels good, what doesn't. It's a lot of things you'd hear health teachers talking about in terms of relationships or what you would hear in a domestic violence situation. If you believe that you are worthy, then you will do what's right for you. You'll feel empowered to make decisions that are good for you instead of continuing that victimization in whatever situation you're in.

Q: So it's reinforcing what they're learning here.

Turning Point House yoga instructor Ashley Feneziani, left, and resident Adam Gozdan participate in a class on Tuesday. Many of the male residents of the addictions treatment recovery center start to take the class reluctantly, though many by in for the reasons anyone sticks with yoga: It clears the mind, helps heal the body and promotes a greater sense of well-being. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Feneziani: Exactly. And it underlines that you have to do the work. Yoga is not easy. It's not just about breathing. It's different than meditation. It engages your muscles and your mind. You need to be fully present with what you're doing. I hear Gabriella saying all the time, "Your recovery is up to you."

Q: Is Yogis in Service using this sort of class anyplace besides Turning House?

Feneziani: Yes. We have a few different programs. There's one at Martha Mitchell Community Center. A few Buffalo public schools have brought in after-school programs. We run free community classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This program started as part of the training. I had to do a few sessions in the community somewhere and pick a group that we wanted to work with. When I talked with Gabriella about it, it was a perfect fit, plus it was something that was really different for me. …

Coming here, my first session I was really terrified. You don't know what the group dynamic is going to be like. A lot of people in situations like this maybe don't necessarily want to be here. They're coming to yoga as part of treatment but it's not necessarily the first priority of things to do when they get out of bed. But I was really surprised in terms of how well they accepted me, how supportive they were, and willing to try things.

It's been an interesting mix. How do you take something and not make it too spiritual, not make it too traditional, not use to many funky Sanskrit terms, but bringing it to a level that's understandable, that gets someone engaged with their body? It's sometimes being funny and silly, and trying to appeal to them in different ways.

Q: What sort of reaction have you gotten?

Feneziani: In the beginning, a little bit of skepticism and thinking that they couldn't do it. There were a lot of excuses at the beginning of class: "I'm going to be really bad at this." "Sorry, I'm just not flexible." "I don't know what I'm doing; I've never done this." There were a few people though, who had tried meditation and breathing practices as part of other recovery plans. Some had actually done yoga before. Some of them said it was a great complement to their workout routine. By the end, I've had guys stay and give me hugs after class or were so excited that, when they were going to move on, asked where they could find yoga in the community.

The ultimate goal is not to convert all of these men into full practicing yogis. It's to let them know this can be one of the many tools they may need, or can rely on, when they get back out into their real lives. If it's falls with somebody and it fits in their life, that's great. If not, they know it's out there.

Q: What is it like teaching a class of all men?

Feneziani: It's important to find a place where you're challenging them enough so that their competitive nature gets involved – but also not looking at perfection. It's not about more pain, more gain that you might hear in a gym setting. It's the opposite of that. It's "OK, push yourself to the point and back off." It's also being silly sometimes…

I think having one or two in the group that buy into the practice is really helpful. The nice part of having classes here is that while participants change from time to time, there's usually some overlap from group to group. When you get a guy or two who says, "It's really not that bad, we're not doing handstands in there, lifting our leg over our heads, it's more of a relaxing time," that helps. They really love Savasana (the Corpse pose) at the end of class. We have lots of sleep, snoring. I can't even imagine what's going through these guy's heads most of the time. To take 50, 55 minutes where, maybe, they can shut some of that down to the point where some of them can fall asleep … where they can feel comfortable and safe enough to do that, that's success.

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Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon



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