You Ought to Know: Betty Amatangelo
In the softly-lit studio of Art of Yoga, people are filing in with their mats. It's dark out by now and it's a chilly night, but inside the lamps and plants and wood floors create a cozy, safe atmosphere. This isn't just any yoga class - this is Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, or Y12SR.
In the softly-lit studio of Art of Yoga, people are filing in with their mats. It's dark out by now and it's a chilly night, but inside the lamps and plants and wood floors create a cozy, safe atmosphere.
This isn't just any yoga class – this is Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, or Y12SR. Betty Amatangelo is the instructor, and it's here that I meet her for the first time. She notices my unfamiliar face and approaches me with open arms. I'm a hugger, but she's that much more so. I like her already.
There are about a dozen students in this studio, sitting or lying stretched out on mats or pillows. They're here for more than controlled breathing during warrior pose – they're here for healing. This is specifically for those who would attend any 12-step meeting, but Y12SR infuses that with the meditative movements of yoga.
At a 12-step meeting, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, attendants can share common struggles and perhaps shed isolating anxieties. In a yoga class, attendants seek inner balance through meditation. What parallels these two methods is that solace can be found in both. Y12SR melds the benefits of yoga and the benefits of 12-step discussions.
"Deep conflict and pain are held in your tissues, and yoga creates this psychophysical occurrence that allows you to heal," Betty explains to me later. "Some people pick up (an addictive substance) because they haven't dealt with the deeper issues. When you lengthen and nourish muscles and tissues with asana -- postures -- a deeper level of healing may occur."
Back in the cozy studio holding Y12SR, everyone introduces themselves as an alcoholic, addict, or just provides their first name. Everyone is greeted warmly in return. One by one, they all answer to tonight's topic, which is what in life has humbled them. For the amount of exposure – welcoming a strange reporter into their trusting nest, recognizing an addiction in the same breath as a first name, and now reaching into the reserves of dark memories to produce a raw example – everyone in the room speaks clearly and with purpose. Each person takes time to find the right words, or as close as they can come, when it is their turn to speak. There is nothing held back.
Humans can be really good at justifying their actions. People can very easily avoid responsibility by attaching some sort of rationale to the choices they make. It's easier to justify than to stop and reflect on the consequences of one's decisions.
What I witnessed in that studio was a collective realness, the looking-in-the-face of cause and effect. Every story was relatable, and every story was so honest. How brave these people were – completely relaxed and supportive of each other – to self-reflect out loud.
Between each shared reflection, everyone takes a deep breath in and a slow, controlled breath out. Y12SR concluded with following Betty's lead from one gentle posture to the next. We dispersed for the night, all sharing an expression of contentment, all standing a little taller.
The second time I meet Betty is in the student union of Mercyhurst University, where she works and, of course, teaches yoga. Her class is just winding down in the relaxation pose, and when she opens her eyes, she waves me over from across the cathedral-ceilinged room. I wait while all of her pupils take turns getting the famous Betty Hug before we retire to a table in the corner for the interview. I see, even by this second encounter, that Betty is comfortable within herself and fluid in thought, which leads to her being an open book – a journalist's dream. I don't even have to ask her the introductory question.
"I've been practicing yoga for eight years and teaching for three," she says, posted up on a bench seat. Dogwoods and pines rustle through the window behind her. "When I first got sober, I said to God or Whatever Puts Breeze in the Trees, 'I want to find a path to a spiritual understanding. Will you show me the way?' Shortly after, I got involved in a youth ministry at a local parish and read this book."
She plops down a thick book titled, Meditations From the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga by Rolf Gates.
"This book made me want to get formal training from him. So after talking with my husband about it, I flew out to California and lived on a mountaintop for three and a half weeks."
Then after finding out about Y12SR, Betty went to Big Sur for the first annual conference and met Nikki Myers, co-founder of the approach. Betty was intrigued by Myers and impressed by her knowledge in the addiction and relapse prevention realm. Betty explained Myers' idea by quoting her:"'I think addicts can have a deeper level of healing through yoga. Your issues live in your tissues.'" Months after the conference, Betty completed a certification in Y12SR at CITYOGA Health and Wellness Institute in Indianapolis, Ind., led by Myers.
"Through stillness," Betty almost says to herself before looking back at me. "A lot of addicted people are overactive. Becoming still is a very new thing for many of them."
It became her goal to start a 12-step yoga program in Erie. So she did just that. Erie's Y12SR class is the 10th to crop up in the nation. To put its freshness into perspective, Chicago clocked in at 11.
"I don't believe you have to be an addict or alcoholic to teach Y12SR, but I think to help people heal, you have to be wounded in a similar way, especially with addiction," she says.
Betty has been sober for 18 years. "There are many yoga options in Erie and many opportunities to be a part of a 12-step group, and I think that it's beautiful these two are merging." She's leaning back on her elbow now, casually wiggling a foot that's propped up on her other knee. "Y12SR isn't just a 12-step meeting/yoga class; it's an adjunct to the rehabilitation of mind, body, and spirit. It is renewal through the process of becoming healthy while living a 12-step recovery program. Additionally and gratefully, it is rooted in beautiful, experience-based story-telling." We lament the dying art of storytelling for a few minutes before she continues.
At this point in our conversation, I'm wondering if we'll inhale and exhale between each revelation, as we did back at the studio, but Betty is on a roll and my pen is red-hot.
"Yoga gives me the humbling opportunity to transmit hope, as it was transmitted to me." With Y12SR this is combined with the honesty of a support system. "It's the sharing of common suffering; then the sharing of common healing, the common solution," says Betty. "How good it feels to be in the light, to be out of the darkness."
Yoga of 12-Step Recovery is held at the Art of Yoga every Wednesday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. All are welcome. It is a donations-based class that benefits various local non-profits that serve those in recovery.