Picture a 12-step meeting from the movies or TV. Do you see a church basement with people sitting in folding chairs, sipping bad coffee? That’s not too far from reality.
For people in long-term recovery like Robert and Arielle Ashford, that was about the only option if they wanted to be with people who shared their experience. But people in recovery deserve to have comfortable places to hang out and be a part of a community, too. So when they couldn’t find that place in Philly, the Ashfords built it.
Their story, and the story of the new yoga studio they’re opening in Manayunk, starts at the White House. In 2015, Arielle, now 36, was a social-work graduate student at the University of Utah when she was invited to speak at a summit at the White House about treatment, recovery, and the Affordable Care Act. She shared her story of addiction and path to recovery. In the crowd was Robert, now 31, who worked for a recovery organization in Texas. He was blown away.
“That afternoon I sent her a direct message [on Twitter] asking if she wants to meet for breakfast the next morning,” he said.
How that breakfast went depends on which of them you ask, but in the fall of that year they returned to Washington together for the Unite to Face Addiction concert on the National Mall. After the concert, in a restaurant with their friends and family, Robert proposed.
The Ashfords have been busy since that White House summit. Arielle graduated with her master’s in social work. They moved to Philadelphia and got married. Robert completed his master’s degree in social work at Penn and started work on a Ph.D. in health policy in the University of the Sciences. Most recently, in April, they welcomed Penelope, their daughter, to the family.
But the Ashfords are not the kind to rest. When most people would have just tried to keep their heads above water, getting used to their new lives as working parents, Robert and Arielle decided to open Unity Yoga: a yoga studio that centers on people in recovery, like them.
Conversations about addiction often focus on treatment and overdose prevention — and during this time of crisis that’s critical. But there is more to life than just breathing. There are millions of people in recovery in the United States, and probably tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands in Philadelphia. A key to long-term recovery is finding a path to being well.
Yoga, mindfulness, and wellness are terms that have been hijacked by corporate culture. But when Robert and Arielle talk about yoga as a part of recovery, there is nothing fluffy about it. “For both of us personally, as people in recovery, we both went to treatment, we both went to 12-step, but what our recovery looks like today is yoga and therapy,” Robert said.
Research supports their experience. There are multiple studies that show that the combination of physical exercise and mindfulness in yoga are helpful in behavioral and mental health recovery.
“A lot of people use substances to get out of their body, to get out of their minds, to not have to feel what’s going on,” Arielle explained, adding, “yoga and mindfulness very much puts you into your body in a good, positive, uplifting way.”
Yoga sessions end with meditation, and the poses that practitioners cycle through, called asanas, are intended to get one’s mind ready for that meditative state. As a person in long-term recovery, Arielle says yoga is critical for her, often eliciting emotions — positive or negative — that she can take to therapy.
“The last couple of times that I practiced since I’ve had Penny, [I thought of] the joy of having a child, which is something that I didn’t know was going to happen,” she said.
So they rented out two stories in a building in the heart of Manayunk’s Main Street and next week formally will open a state-of-the-art yoga studio. It’s called Unity Yoga, and everyone is welcome, regardless of history of substance use. The studio itself looks trendy: It has infrared heating and a large mural painted by local artist Alloyius Mcilwaine. The couple plans on having all the usual yoga classes — hot vinyasa, yin, candlelight flow, prenatal, etc.
But if you look at the schedule, you’ll also see a class called “recovery yoga." It’s not fundamentally different from regular yoga, Arielle explained, but its instructors are just more aware of the stress that participants might be bringing in with them. “Sometimes the people who run the class will do a group check-in,” Arielle said. “Classes might be geared more toward poses that help with anxiety.”
On the third floor of the building, above the yoga studio, is a community space where participants can meet with peer-support specialists. “We don’t do massage or acupuncture or nutrition,” Robert said. "What we’re worried about is what’s going on in your life that we can help with.” That could include resume advice, scheduling a recovery meeting, sharing yoga experiences, or just chatting.
Putting all of these elements together — central location, top-notch yoga studio, recovery services — was critical for Arielle and Robert. They hope to create a place that truly unites people. “Recovery doesn’t need to be relegated to the edges of society,” Robert said. "We normalize and rehumanize people in recovery by saying, ‘You don’t have to be in the fringe of society. We are right here in the middle.’ ”
Unity Yoga is officially open for business after Labor Day, preceded by a grand-opening party on Aug. 31. If you drop by, you’re likely to meet Baby Penny. As parents, Arielle and Robert say their goal is to be an example to her of what it means to be good stewards of the community.
“It’s a way to show our daughter that the world can be what she wants to make it,” Robert said. “She doesn’t know that yet, obviously — she’s four months old. But she’s going to grow up here.”