Diana Lee provides trauma-sensitive yoga to people in recovery in Maine. Lee is the co-founder and director of Sea Change, a Portland-based nonprofit that trains and supports practitioners who teach yoga to marginalized and underserved groups, including those struggling with trauma, PTSD, addiction and incarceration.
Lee and her business partner, Melea Nalli, started Sea Change after taking a training together in November 2015 in Portland with Yoga Behind Bars, a Seattle-based nonprofit that brings yoga and meditation to prisons, jails and detention centers. The two women saw a need for trauma-sensitive yoga in greater Portland and launched Sea Change as an incorporated nonprofit in August 2016.
“I looked around and realized there was a lot of yoga happening with yoga teachers who were doing this kind of work in recovery and behind bars, but no one was paying them and there was no organization to support them,” Lee says of the need to create Sea Change.
Now, Sea Change supports and trains about 12 practitioners and works with Maine organizations such as Esther House and Ginger’s House (sober living houses for women), Mercy’s McAuley House, Grace Street Services, Mainstay, Long Creek Correctional Facility, Portland Recovery Community Center, and the list continues to grow.
Trauma-sensitive yoga is considered a somatic therapy that helps to improve focus, breathing and relaxation. While everyone has suffered some degree of trauma, the population Sea Change works with have “been really affected by trauma and, more importantly, they don’t have access to yoga or mindfulness practices unless we come to them,” Lee says. Trauma-sensitive yoga is adapted to “move at a slow pace, use invitational language, and make sure people aren’t being triggered or checking out. It’s hard to hold space for people as they are being incredibly vulnerable and open, probably for the first time in a long, long time. You have to be incredibly humble and meet people where they are.”
The work is challenging, but also deeply rewarding. “The healing energy that we create heals me just as much as it does them. I always leave a place I’ve taught feeling really good; it’s not draining, it’s rejuvenating,” Lee says. Another reward is helping others and creating a positive impact that extends out into the world. “It feels good to give back in a way that I know I’m providing a tool that’s sustaining and that people can use going forward.”
There is transformation happening at Sea Change, and it extends far beyond the physical spaces and bodies taking part in the work.
As a 30-year practicing yogi, Lee says she has personally experienced yoga’s transformative and healing power. Yoga helped heal her daughter, who struggled with a debilitating eating disorder in high school. “I watched her on her mat, and as she started to get better and her brain began to function again, she started to have an embodied experience for the first time in a long time. I literally watched yoga heal her.”
Lee and her daughter became certified yoga instructors in the spring of 2015, and Lee was inspired to find a way to support other yoga teachers and offer yoga to people in recovery in Maine.
And Sea Change’s students say they feel the positive impact of the practice. “They say that it (yoga) helps with their focus and their breathing and helps them to relax,” Lee says. “It’s the first time many of these people are mindfully in their bodies.” Some students have been so inspired that they are getting certified to teach yoga to their peers. As a result, Sea Change has developed a peer-to-peer training program to help yoga teachers in recovery teach others in recovery.
Sea Change is also gathering data to apply for grants to support their growth and expand their work.
Since August 2016, $17,556 has been raised through grants and individual donations, with the goal of reaching $150,000 by the end of 2018. By 2018, Lee and Nalli also hope to have trained at least 10 new teachers in trauma-sensitive yoga, and added 10-20 new programs serving people in recovery in Maine. Grants and fundraising efforts are important, as many of the organizations Sea Change works with are in desperate need of resources and funding, particularly as funding from the state has been cut in recent years.
“It’s wonderful to see that the organization has legs and is growing fast on its own. I feel like I’m chasing it down the street,” Lee says of Sea Change’s rapid growth. “I don’t know if it’s just that the time is right but we’ve had a lot of success. The research is exploding about somatic therapy and we have an opioid crisis in Maine and people are really desperate for help.”
While growth is great, one challenge is growing “slowly and thoughtfully and not jumping at every opportunity because the need is endless,” Lee says. Another challenge is the work itself. “When people have suffered a lot of trauma, they’re so disembodied that just feeling their feet on the ground can be challenging,” Lee explains.
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, biking and exploring Maine’s midcoast by water.