Sara Curry, owner of Bikram Yoga Portsmouth in New Hampshire, is a name many yogis take note of, not only for her successful studio and leadership within her community, but for her creation of Bikram’s Biggest Losers and Sober Yogis, also known as the 30×30 Challenges, that help fight obesity and addiction to those in need. She is also heavily involved as the Vice-President in a non-profit yoga outreach organization, SATYA, that brings food and fuel assistance and yoga outreach to neighbors in need on the Seacoast.
Graduating from Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in 2003, Sara first pursued a career in Plant and Soil Science after completing her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Vermont with a focus on Sustainable Agriculture. Her career plans were derailed by a debilitating back injury. After finding yoga to rehabilitate her injury, Sara’s career path took a 180 degree turn into the field of yoga therapy. Learn more about Sara and her inspiring work through her words below:
When did you first come up with the idea for Sober Yogis and what prompted you to have this thought?
Over the years, we have served many of individuals in recovery with lots of anecdotal success. In the world of Bikram Yoga, we have iconic stories of recovery like those of Big Nosh, Jeanne Heaton and Lucas Miles. I’ve always known we had a lot to offer in support of sobriety, but never felt I had enough expertise to take it on myself.
In late 2014, I connected with three talented therapists (and Bikram Yogis) who were interested in crafting a program that offered the benefits of yoga in cultivating mindfulness, easing Post Acute Withdrawal Symptoms and improving health as well as therapeutic supports from licensed professionals.
How many challenges have you had so far?
We have run the Sober Yogis program three times so far and are already changing our approach to a rolling admissions process so we can “strike while the iron is hot.” Our Sober Yogis group therapy is on-going and new participants are rolled into existing groups until they are full and another group is created.
In this way, we get people hooked into both the yoga and the group, so their web of support is greater. What we know from recent research is that success in sobriety is strongly tied to community connections and support. .
When we first started the program, we knew that incentives worked well in this situation and created the do 30, get 30 program. We quickly realized that one month wasn’t enough and remodeled the program to be an eight-week intensive yoga and therapy program. Participants who complete five classes a week and one group therapy session every week for eight weeks get their next month of yoga for free.
What kind of roadblocks do you hit with the practitioners?
Addiction is a big deal and is a problem with deep roots. There can be many challenges on the road to recovery, from resistance and not being ready, to not having the family, or community supports to get to class, or afford to participate. We have done a lot of work to create avenues for alternative funding so that money doesn’t get in the way, but that will always be a problem any recovery program will face.
Another aspect of the process is that yoga makes you “feel all of the feels”. A big drive toward substance abuse is get away from feelings and experiences that feel too big or too heavy. In class, and in group, we ask participants to feel each feeling in the moment. In the long term, this practice is why yoga is so successful in healing trauma, PTSD and addiction, but for a person in fledgling recovery feeling all of that in the beginning can trigger depression, relapse and even suicidal ideation.
This is why it is so important for any yoga and sobriety program to include therapeutic supports. Yoga teachers are not trained to read the signs, nor to offer support to someone in a mental health crisis. It is our job to proceed only where we have support in the areas where we are weak.
Further, there are certain substances like benzodiazepine or alcohol that are not safe to detox cold turkey in the hot room. The more we arm ourselves with knowledge and surround ourselves with people from whom we can learn, the greater the scope of our ability to serve this population.
What changes have you seen in the participants?
There is a little more detail here (the addiction stuff starts around 8 minutes into the video) to the stats we saw in our first round of Sober Yogis. In a nutshell, people are able to reduce their Post Acute Withdrawal Symptoms dramatically. Sleeplessness, depression, numbness, anxiety, social anxiety, emotional overreaction, etc. These are the symptoms of PAWS that are the number one cause of relapse. Folks get clean and then feel like crap for a year or two after getting sober. That’s not a huge incentive to stay clean. One of my participants, when he learned of the potential length of PAWS, said to me, “I can’t live like this for a year, Sara.” Yoga to the rescue! Yoga can give you immediate relief from many of these symptoms and dramatically reduce the length of time it takes to eliminate them. The great part about a Bikram Yoga studio is that you can get a class anywhere, in any state and many countries, early, late or midday. When a participant is having a particularly bad day, they can come back to the studio and take another class, feel better, and be surrounded by other people on the same path of self awareness and wellness.
Do you have any challenges coming up?
Enrollment is on-going. Participants in past challenges are still practicing and many are still attending groups.
You’ve shared your ideas with other studios, have these studios also implemented the 30×30 Challenges?
The biggest sticking point for studios to participate is that they can’t find a therapist who is both a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counsellor and committed to the yoga, or aren’t willing to take the risk of partnering with a yoga studio. It’s a simple commitment for a dedicated yogi and we will soon be ready to help other studios implement a similar model.
With only three rounds under our belt, we don’t have a teachable model yet, but it’s in the works!
Now let’s take a look at another organization you work with – SATYA. How did SATYA come about and how did you become involved?
SATYA is the brainchild of my friend, Rochelle Jewell. She looked at all of these different yoga studios in our area doing community outreach work and dreamt that together we could make an even bigger impact. She brought together several area studio owners and long time teachers to form this organization to serve the yoga needs of our greater Seacoast community.
What is the mission of SATYA?
The practice of yoga has made a profound difference in each of our lives. It is the goal of SATYA to remove social, physical, and financial barriers that limit access to yoga in certain populations.
SATYA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. Our mission is to support teachers who are inspiredand committed to providing specialized yoga instruction in under-served populations, to provide resources which link qualified instructors to aspiring yogis in a variety of settings with unique considerations, and to honor the many truths of yoga and its power to support the mind, body and spirit in all human beings.
Satya is the Sanskrit word for “truth”. “Sat” means the eternal unchanging truth beyond all knowing. “Ya” is the activating suffix which means “do it”. By this definition, satya is “actively expressing and being in harmony with ultimate truths”. For many years the Seacoast yoga community has come together in truth to first acknowledge and ultimately address need in our local Strafford, Rockingham and York counties. Free yoga classes, fundraisers for local charities and community service have been a part of life for many of our local yogis. SATYA: Seacoast Area Teachers of Yoga in Action was founded as a vehicle to consolidate and grow these programs as well as to promote organized yoga outreach in our community.
How much of your time each week is devoted to this work?
It really depends on the week. Right now, we are in the final days of prepping and promoting our biggest fundraiser of the year, so I’m working on the project every day. It is a labor of love as all of the board members are unpaid, volunteer positions.
Do you have any upcoming events?
On January 31st, we host the Eigth Annual Seacoast Yoga Mala, three-hour yoga classes consisting of group meditation, 108 Sun Salutes and the chanting of 108 oms to raise money for food and fuel assistance in our community and to provide yoga outreach and specialized trainings for high-needs populations like yoga for trauma, PTSD, cancer, eating disorders and more.
In the summers, we host a 13-week outdoor yoga series of free classes to increase awareness of the practice of yoga and provide a service of free weekly classes to our community in thanks for their support year round.
More events are listed here.
What kind of roadblocks do you hit with funding?
Getting it! It’s easier to get funds to feed hungry kids than to offer free yoga classes, but part of our mission is that community outreach classes are on-going. We’d have one teacher doing a class for free for Vets on the Navy base and then they’d burn out after a few months and cancel the class. We want to support teachers in the community so they can do the work about which they are most passionate. Some of that support is through trainings and some of that is financially supporting their teaching.
We have to hustle to get funds and we offer a lot of community events to garner support. Our work in the next few years is to get grant funding for these projects. Now that we have well established community programs, we can offer statistics about the impacts of these on-going programs and that should help improve our odds of receiving funding.
If someone would like to donate to your causes where can they send funds?
They can support our Sober Yogis scholarship program by buying the best, organic-cotton, Turkish towels on the market here!
(photo credit: James Rogers)