Hill yoga studio mixes stretching with 'anti-stigma'

by Len Lear
Posted 8/6/21

I sometimes wonder if Philadelphia's City Council passed a law when I was not paying attention which mandated that every block in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill must have at least one author or one yoga teacher, and any block that does not have one will lose federal funding.

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Hill yoga studio mixes stretching with 'anti-stigma'

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I sometimes wonder if Philadelphia's City Council passed a law when I was not paying attention which mandated that every block in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill must have at least one author or one yoga teacher, and any block that does not have one will lose federal funding. I may be exaggerating a little, but I have met so many local authors and yoga teachers over the years that it does seem that way sometimes.

When it comes to yoga studios, however, Unity Yoga, which opened last year at 8012 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, where Rebel Yoga used to be, is as different from the others as lightning is from a lightning bug. Owners Robert Ashford, 34, and his wife, Arielle, 37, residents of Roxborough, say openly that they are recovering addicts whose mission, in addition to “providing a sweaty workout,” is to remove the stigma from people who are trying to recover from drug and/or alcohol addiction.

“We are activists for access to substance use and mental health treatment,' says the pair in a mission statement. “We are in active inquiry around inclusion and change, and we intentionally work toward decolonizing the yoga industry. We believe that through yoga and meditation we can come together as a community and be a part of the change.”

The Ashfords do not ask if a new customer is a recovering addict, but they make it clear that everyone is welcome and that no one will be judged for ill-advised choices they may have made in the past. They offer “recovery yoga classes” that lean on a “trauma-informed approach.”

The Ashfords also have hired more than 100 people in the past two years who have been in recovery, re-entry or both. “There is somewhat less stigma when it comes to employers hiring people in recovery then there was years ago but not much less,” said Robert, who was convicted of a felony DUI charge in Texas in 2013, in a Zoom interview. “Part of our mission is to de-stigmatize and normalize people in recovery. The first reaction of an employer should be to create spaces for such people, not fire them or weaponize it against them.”

Robert, a native of Dallas, Texas, and Arielle, a native of Utah, both have master's degrees in social work, Robert from the University of Pennsylvania and Arielle from the University of Utah. They both previously worked in the mental health treatment field, Arielle for 12 years and Robert for eight. They met in 2015 at a White House summit on addictions.

In August of 2019 the Ashfords opened their first Unity Yoga studio in Manayunk, and the couple emphasized their goal of inclusiveness from day one, reaching out to those who were not your typical yoga clients – middle-class white females. “I always thought yoga was not for me because I don't fit the stereotypical mold,” Robert said. “I am male; I'm covered in tattoos, and I thought I would be embarrassed.” But he got over it after Arielle introduced him to a studio that had a much more diverse clientele.

In June the Ashfords initiated another new concept when they opened Unity Taqueria, a Tex-Mex taco restaurant that seats 46 (plus outdoor dining) at 5420 Ridge Ave. in Roxborough. “The response so far has been phenomenal,” said Robert. “They have embraced us with open arms. We could not ask for more. It speaks volumes for the people of Roxborough.”

In September the Ashfords hope to open Unity Java, a coffee shop at 5312 Ridge Ave., in time for National Recovery Month in September. “But you know how city government works in Philadelphia,” said Robert, “so I cannot guarantee that we will be able to open in September.”

Robert is also the CEO and co-founder (with Brent Canode and Chris Hart) in 2019 of Recovery Link, a software company that provides community organizations with technology recovery services around the country.

For more information, visit unityyoga.guru or call 267-748-2450. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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