Swaraj Yoga teaches self-rule to those in recovery

The image you might conjure of a “stereotypical” yoga devotee – thin, probably affluent, likely to be white and even more likely female, any age but with a decided youthfulness – is in direct opposition with the clientele that Laura Alma McCarthy works with at Swaraj Yoga.

“Swaraj” is a Sanskrit term that means “self-rule.” “I stole that from Ghandi!” jokes McCarthy. “It’s all about empowering people to find freedom, basically. He freed the Indian people and I’m working with addicts. I used this term because I thought it was a damn good one.”

Ninety-eight percent of the people McCarthy works with through Swaraj Yoga are in recovery. Others struggle with mental illness but with drug abuse at the base. Her program is designed for men, and she works with those in the jail system, shelters, and recovery programs.

McCarthy says that she got into this by total accident. She is an artist by trade as well as a yoga practitioner, and had started teaching at a yoga studio for some extra cash. “I found [yoga] made a big change in my overall functioning,” she says. “But I had no desire to be a yoga teacher at all. I didn’t want to teach yoga in a studio. I wanted to be in my art studio.”

She started volunteering at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte where she developed a yoga meditation program as part of their overall recovery program. “Recovery and the practice of yoga parallel one another, from what I observed as an outsider,” McCarthy says. “It’s pretty much an intellectual process and this is the physical component. People with addiction are very disembodied; they’re disconnected from their own system.” As yoga is ultimately about mind and body harmony, it serves the recovery process well to help reconnect those with addiction to their own bodies in a positive way.

At the same time, she was struggling with a little disillusionment as a commercial artist. “The commercial world can be a challenge,” she says. “What frustrated me the most was that the audience wasn’t that large. I was talking to a certain populace and it didn’t waiver much. Art has a major capacity to be a motivator for social change, so this project for me has been a stepping outside the studio of paint and canvas and opening the studio to the community where the canvas is people.”

After a few years of volunteering, her studio slowly began to creep outside the front door and into the community, and her volunteer work turned into an actual job. Not only does she serve as a recreational therapist for those in recovery, but she also works very closely with the organizers of recovery programs – social workers, therapists, directors of treatment centers. The work she does now is very much collaborative. “This is the most exciting art project I’ve done in a long time and it’s constantly remaking itself,” she says. “You’re reaching everybody and the [end] product is its impact in the community. And what greater thing can art do than actually impact the community and the people in it?”

McCarthy insists she is not a social worker, but rather an artist taking a social focus in her art. “I see myself as an artist, and artists have that ability to be objective. We see the world in a slightly different way, and can take that knowledge into the community to people who don’t step outside of their roles, which is what artists are trained to do.” Being an “outsider” put her in a unique position to identify an alternative method of treatment for those in recovery. It also emboldened her start knocking on the doors of shelters and jails and asking if she could start a yoga program.

Over 80 percent of homeless people are men who suffer from substance abuse issues and mental illness. Substance abuse is a part of the cycle of homelessness and incarceration. When McCarthy started knocking on doors with her idea for a yoga program, she stuck to institutions and programs that didn’t have access to alternative forms of health and healing. Now Swaraj Yoga is an established nonprofit available in eight different treatment centers, and McCarthy is working on expanding her reach to work in other clinical treatment areas and create a basic training model for other teachers. Integrated as part of the recovery curriculum, the response to McCarthy’s program is generally positive.

“There’s always skepticism,” she says. “There is a general misconception that yoga is for women. You never know how people are going to show up, especially in that setting. I always understand that it takes people a little while. The guys that come in are the roughest and the toughest, but nine times out of 10 they open up to it a few weeks later and it’s amazing. You can’t not feel something when you start to relax and your mind starts to calm; you just feel more present. Your nervous system responds and your brain responds. It works in spite of you.”

For McCarthy, using yoga to help other people change their lives has also helped her to find purpose in hers outside of being an artist. “It was definitely a scary thing for me to step away from painting because that’s what I was doing going to do. To step away for something that doesn’t have a connection to the art world… well, hell, sometimes you don’t know why you start something or why you do something, then it comes back around.”

She gave up her studio for a few years but found she had an “identity crisis” and was floundering. Now she has a studio again and still paints, but, she says, “The process has [completely changed]. It’s given me time to come back to the studio in a totally different way. Now I have this outlet for reaching out to people.”