Elyse Venturella is a licensed social worker in Philadelphia. She is a trauma therapist for adults and children, focusing on survivors of sexual abuse and prostitution. Elyse also volunteered as a social work consultant from August 2013 to January 2014 with Abide in Uganda. During her time at Abide she contributed to social work documentation, family assessment, home studies, and providing training in mental health, specifically trauma. Back in the States, Elyse recently completed her 200-hour power vinyasa yoga teacher certification at Anjali Power Yoga. As she works towards a career in trauma-focused yoga, Elyse and fellow Philly yoga teachers are starting the Kali Yoga Project, which offers weekly on- site yoga classes designed to promote community, emotional regulation, and safety. The Kali Yoga Project creates community that empowers and supports individuals with substance abuse, mental health, and/or related traumas. Learn more: kali_yoga (Instagram),http://www.facebook.com/kaliyogaphilly or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Elyse earned her masters in clinical social work at Temple University.
Q: Can you tell me more about Abide Family Center http://abidefamilycenter.org? How did your work with Abide lead toward Kali Yoga?
EV: Abide Family Center is located in Jinja, Uganda. I resided there from August 2013 to January 2014. I served as a social work consultant for the launching year of the center. The center’s mission is to keep children in families not orphanages. The center provided income generating programs, classes, family counseling, emergency housing, and much more. While I was there, Stitched Together was launched as one of the income generating programs. It all began when I asked a tailor if she would make me a yoga mat bag. The items (yoga mat bags, children’s clothing, lunch bags, etc.) are handmade by Ugandans who are apart of the family center. I sell the yoga mat bags in the States and the proceeds go directly back to the Center. Abide inspired me because the social workers and founders truly understood the value in family and community strength.
I returned to the States to begin yoga teacher training at Anjali Power Yoga. Prior to Uganda, I completed trauma yoga trainings with Yoga Gangster and Street Yoga. I began sharing yoga at Womanspace, where I was a therapist for women with concerns related homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health. Yoga followed me to Uganda where I shared it at Abide, Ekisa (an orphanages for children with physical and mental disabilities) and a local cafe.
“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself” (Alan Alda) is a very inspiration quote connecting to my teacher training experience and reason Kali Yoga Project is launching. The Kali Yoga Project is a group of Philadelphia yoga teachers and I who are reaching out to various organizations that serves communities with substance abuse concerns. Other concerns may include mental health, sex work, abuse, and violence. We are very much in the beginning stages of this project. Our intention is to bring weekly yoga classes to the organizations. The long-term goal is to have a space for yoga classes, computers for job searching, practicing interviewing skills, etc. Yoga will act as the springboard to empower individuals to apply for work, housing, and other additional services to increase their effective support network. Right now, Kali Yoga Project is accepting meetings with organizations that would like weekly yoga on-site…so one step at a time!
Q: You mentioned the Alan Alda quote earlier (“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself”). What have you discovered about yourself through your journey?
EV: When I left the States to travel to Uganda, I went to get clarity and to gain some perspective about who I was, as well as support Abide Family Center. The one thing I gained by going away and not knowing anyone and being in such a different culture is that if you stand in your power, if you stand in who you are, it radiates into other people. I found strength even in unfamiliar places, if I stood there and said “Here I am, I have not idea where I am, and that’s ok.” I learned that I’m willing to keep learning to make a mistake, and that’s ok. People ask with Kali Yoga, “What will happen in 5 years?” I don’t know. I have a vision (to have a studio) but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Being ok with not knowing has been a huge lesson. But I also learned that if I try, then I’ll know.
Q: Can you tell me about a time when you were traveling when you realized that you were here on your own with no one else to rely on?
EV: One time, I realized that dealing with corruption especially where it relates to adoption. I was in a government meeting with biological parents and potentially adoptive parents. I saw the bio parents pressured to give up their kids for adoption. I saw that if someone had money, they would get what they wanted. There was nothing that I could do to change the situation and the children went to the adoptive family. That was one of the hardest things about living in Uganda.
Q: Besides your work in Uganda, you also work in Philadelphia. Can you tell me about your work and how yoga impacts your work?
EV: In Philly, I’ve been a trauma therapist since I was in grad school. I got my masters in social work in 2012 at Temple University. I had an internship in drug and alcohol rehab. All the women I was assigned to had a background in prostitution. This sparked my interest. After graduation, I got a position at Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, where I currently work.
Yoga first impacted me as self-care. Hearing trauma day in and day out can be taxing, and the yoga studio became my sanctuary. When I did two trainings (Yoga Gangster and Street Yoga), I realized that if this works for me, why can’t it work the same way for my clients? I started to share yoga with clients at a treatment facility. The first part of our sessions was yoga and the second part was an open discussion about wellness. The women LOVED it! The women accepted yoga (mostly) and as long as they were breathing, they were doing yoga. So Kali Yoga will be working with these therapy centers to bring yoga.
Q: Tell me about Kali Yoga.
EV: I went into TT so that I could become a yoga teacher with my clients, who are victims of abuse. I’ll balance my job as a trauma therapist and work with Kali Yoga. We reach out to organizations and coordinate yoga teachers to their sites.
Q: Prostitution – What should people know from your point of view?
EV: It’s one of those things that has become such a reality for me. Other people have a hard time believing that this is happening in Philly in 2014. My clients are part of Dawn’s Court – they have a significant amount of prostitution on their record. None of these women wanted to be prostitutes. They fell into it because of drug and alcohol or they needed money. A lot of my clients started prostituting as young teenagers. A lot of them do it because it’s easy money – they can quit drugs or alcohol, but they are so numb to prostitution. They don’t view things that have happened to them as abuse, but simply part of the job. There are so many layers that keep women connected to prostitution including culture, friends, and family. But I have never had a client say, “I woke up one day and wanted to prostitute.” It becomes so comfortable and what they know.
The other problem in Philly is that the cops arrest the women, but not the men who are buying them. One thing I’d like to see happening is that the police crack down on the men who purchase the women.
Q: What is the goal of your work with prostitutes? What is a measure of success in your work?
EV: In terms of success, the clients that I would deem very successful are the ones who create a sense of community in their lives – a church, family, work, school, they have AA or NA group. The ones who create a new supportive community are the ones who succeed. This is one reason that I want to start Kali Yoga, because yoga is my community, my safe place, and I have a sense of belonging there. I want that for these women – so they feel confident in a community. When women engage in prostitution and drug and alcohol, they are alienated, they don’t have a community any more. The ones that create that community are the ones succeed.