Serenity House adds yoga to substance abuse program

Calm after the storm
Kelsey Cusack has been teaching yoga to Serenity House clients. Handprints from previous graduates of the substance abuse program fill a wall of the room where she teaches.

Focusing on lifestyle changes needed to live life free of substance abuse is an arduous task -- mentally, physically and emotionally -- for people who have developed harmful addictions. Doctors and addicts do not consider meditation a pertinent priority for recovery, but Lydia Bower of Serenity House is practiced in the healing power of yoga.


"I had read about and personally experienced the therapeutic benefits of yoga and decided to explore yoga as an option for our residents," said Bower in an email.

Serenity House is part of Central Peninsula Hospital's behavioral health services. The center offers recovery goals and ongoing support to clients through its 12-step program. It has a wide range of services to help people recover from alcoholism and drug abuse.

A local yoga-studio owner leads a group of the program's clients twice weekly in a restorative yoga class, which focuses on relaxation and stress management rather than the physical aspects regularly associated with the practice.

Long-held postures aided by props, such as blankets, blocks and straps, allow the participants to turn inward, focusing on breathing and calming the mind, said Kelsey Cusack, owner of Yoga Sol.

She said she's heard restorative yoga referred to as an organized nap.

"It's soothing, not nearly as physically demanding as some more traditional styles of yoga," she said. "People spend most of the class either sitting or lying down."

Restorative yoga triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS); responsible for balancing the body and bringing its response system back to equilibrium. Stimulating the PNS helps lower heart rate and blood pressure, and it stimulates the immune system, she said.

Researchers are studying restorative yoga. Dr. Suzanne C. Danhauer of Wake Forest University's School of Medicine conducted a pilot study about the health benefits of restorative yoga on women diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer. The majority of women were undergoing cancer treatment at the time of enrollment for the study. Danhauer concluded significant improvements were seen for depression, anxiety, mental health and overall quality of life.

Bower said she sent a request to various yoga instructors in the Kenai Peninsula, and Cusack was the sole responder. Cusack offered her studio for less than half her normal rate and volunteered to provide an additional lesson at Serenity House. She has taught about two months of classes.

The local Alaska Peace Officers Association provided props. Many Serenity House clients have had unpleasant encounters with law enforcement. An APOA grant for therapeutic purposes was an opportunity to show clients that peace officers care about their recovery, Bower said.

"APOA members were enthusiastic about the opportunity and decided then and there that this was exactly the sort of thing they wanted to support," she said.

Practicing yoga since 16, Cusack said the exercise is a great way to connect with people. All of her educational endeavors consist of overall health wellness. She studied exercise science at the University of Northern Colorado; attended Rolfing school, which is a combination of massage and chiropractic techniques; and then obtained her yoga certification.

She began teaching yoga in the fall of 2008 and bought Yoga Sol in June 2011. She said she was really excited to share yoga with Serenity House's clients.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to give this gift of yoga to people that are going through a major transition in life," she said. "This can be a great way to step out of that, to just take time to relax and focus on how they're feeling."

Some clients are eager to practice yoga as part of their program. Others are hesitant, as yoga is something they never imagined doing for rehabilitation. But at the end of the sessions, clients seem pleased, Bower said.

"At the close of every session there is an involuntary smile on the face of every participant and a noticeable sense of calm and focus in the room," she said. "A focus that is brought to the next, more traditional, group therapy session."

A goal of the yoga sessions is to give clients the knowledge needed to practice at home. Clients can use breathing techniques and postures to calm themselves in stressful situations, Cusack said.

Many of the postures are doable in a very small space, she said.

Serenity House has a yearlong contract with Yoga Sol. The practice is now a sustainable part of its recovery program, Bower said. Any yoga teachers interested in volunteering are encouraged to call Serenity House's intake office at 714-4521.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at


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