Covered in tatoos and scars from intravenous-drug use, Aaron Hunsaker is not the kind of person who comes to mind as a yoga instructor.
Despite his appearance, Hunsaker knows better than most how yoga can help ground drug addicts to reality when they are going through the lowest point in their life.
Now Hunsaker and Centered City Yoga, the studio he works for, are trying to blow away the stereotype of the typical yoga practitioner and welcome a new type of yogi (someone who practices yoga) into the studio they are opening downtown.
Several of Centered City's instructors have been volunteering to teach at drug-rehabilitation centers around the Salt Lake Valley in hopes of helping addicts along the tenuous road to sobriety.
'Sensation is an OK thing': Studio owner D'ana Baptiste says that addicts need "something to hold on to" while they try to get clean. In addition to providing a safe and supportive network, she says yoga helps addicts regain consciousness of their feelings.
"Sensation is an OK thing," Baptiste says. "We're not taught to deal with feeling."
Baptiste says many people are uncomfortable with pain or joy, and therefore feed their addiction to avoid working through their emotions.
Hunsaker was a former addict when he stumbled onto yoga several years ago, attending what he thought was a kung fu class. Still heavy into cigarettes and alcohol at the time, Hunsaker says he was the same person he had been before overcoming addiction: violent and angry. The class turned out to be a session on yoga and meditation. On his first encounter, the instructor told him he was not ready for class, but Hunsaker recited some of his original poetry and the teacher let him stay.
Looking back, Hunsaker feels that he was likely to start using again until he discovered yoga. Since then, he has renounced violence and was able to quit smoking, using yoga to control his "bad desires."
That control can mean the difference between recovery and relapse for an addict.
"When someone quits using drugs and alcohol, they are discarding a tool they have used to manage their life," says Terry Campbell, director of operations at First Step House, the recovery center where Hunsaker volunteered.
Campbell believes learning to use yoga is useful to his clients because it helps them calm down and make rational decisions. He says the men at his facility enjoyed the yoga classes and found them helpful in gaining control of their feelings.
Brandi Pennington, of House of Hope, a Salt Lake City drug-treatment center, agrees.
"It gave our women an opportunity to connect to themselves in a healing atmosphere, showing them positive alternatives to substance abuse," Pennington says of the women at her facility who participated.
Spreading hope: House of Hope residents are able to leave the facility and come to the yoga studio for a class taught by Carrie Maurine-Smith. She says many of the women who come to her workshops enter thinking they will be asked to twist themselves into a pretzel, and are therefore reluctant to participate because they believe failure is certain. Maurine-Smith says that after experiencing the class, they are much more receptive and feel better prepared to face reality.
"There's a stigma about what yoga looks like," Maurine-Smith says. "It's become a middle-class, white experience. It has not been allowed to spread out into the areas it could."
Centered City owner D'ana Baptiste is hoping the new studio will become a place where anyone can come to do yoga, regardless of his or her background. She also hopes to garner funding though the Drug Offenders Reform Act, which would be used to transition recovered addicts back into society. The funding would pay for instructors to teach at treatment centers, and for an after-care package that includes 20 yoga classes, a yoga mat and yoga classes on compact disc. Baptiste's goal is for the studio to lend structure to her recovering students' new lives.
Path to freedom: Given the new studio's theme of "raw, real, rebellious," there's plenty of unlikely yoga candidates who could choose to lie on the mats and concentrate on their breathing. Located next door to a bar, and across the street from a tatoo parlor, the new studio is geared toward people who may not feel comfortable in a more traditional yoga class.
Hunsaker is hoping that he can share his experience with yoga to help others gain freedom from addiction.
"They've got a lot of demons calling them," Hunsaker says, speaking from experience.
Those demons may never stop calling, he adds, but through yoga, they may become a little harder to hear.
Find out more
* Centered City Yoga West, located at 625 S. State St., celebrated its grand opening Oct. 20. For more information, call 801-521-9642, or go online at www.centeredcityyoga.com.