Portland yoga classes bring balance to recovering addicts

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PORTLAND — The road to recovery may not always be paved with sweat, but for yoga instructor Kelly Benson, it works.

“A spiritual practice is the foundation of recovery,” Benson said last month. “Once your mind/body system is more in balance, it opens up the space to really tap into the soul.”

Sundays at 6 p.m., Benson leads a “Recovery Community Class” at Maine Hatha Yoga, 49 Dartmouth St. The “hot” yoga sessions last for 90 minutes in a studio where temperatures reach 100 degrees.

Benson, 31, is a recovering heroin addict, completely drug and medication free for two years, after a history of abuse and over-medication extending to her early teens.

“I was using heroin for four years, although my addictive behavior stems back to high school,” Benson said. “Anything from cocaine, to psychedelics, to prescription drugs in the earlier years.”

Her class is open to all, including those in recovery for any addiction, she said.

One of the participants is 43-year-old, Brian, who preferred use of only his first name because of the pain and damage his opioid addiction caused his family. He was effusive about the classes and seeing people recover.

“There is a lot of work to do to stay sober, you are faced with a lot,” he said. “(The class) has helped me grow and get healthy. I came in really beaten up, my body was a mess, my head was a mess.”

Both Brian and Benson developed opioid addictions after surgeries. Once prescriptions and other ways to get pills ran out, heroin use began.

“(There is a) common story there. I started with Percocet, then to Oxycontin, then to heroin,” Benson said.

Brian’s slide was rapid.

“In two years, it was all gone,” he said. “It was a boomerang, it all but cut me to pieces and I lost everything.”

They described the depths of their addictions starkly.

“It’s really no way to live, its a miserable existence. At that point I would have rathered to be dead,” Benson said.

“In the end, all I wanted was to die,” Brian said.

Both used methadone and suboxone as alternative medicines when they sought to get off heroin and opioids.

The question of which may be more effective, medically and economically, is at the heart of a state Department of Health and Human Services proposal to shift addicts enrolled in MaineCare to suboxone-only treatments.

The department estimates shifting 80 percent of the addicts receiving methadone to suboxone could save the state $1.6 million and the federal government $4.26 million in the next two years while providing better primary care for addicts.

Benson and Brian said their recoveries are based on eliminating any alternative medicines.

“Whatever happened, I was ready to also stop using suboxone,” said Brian, who has now been sober for four years.

Benson said she tried both and then used kratom, extracted from leaves of an herb grown in Southeast Asia.

“It really helped me transition and coming off it was so much easier than the others,” she said.

While in treatment, Benson was attracted to yoga.

“What first attracted me to it was the spirituality aspect, something I had a difficult time with when first introduced to the 12 steps,” she said. “To notice the stillness and peace at the center of yourself is a really beautiful feeling.”

Brian said he embraced the 12 steps and a stronger faith in God, and loves the calming effect of yoga.

“I connected to the spirit,” he said. “I am a Type-A. It allows me to slow down.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Recovering heroin addict Kelly Benson leads a yoga class Sunday at Portland Hatha Yoga on Dartmouth Street. “To notice the stillness and peace at the center of yourself is a really beautiful feeling,” Benson said.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.