One year ago this month, when Diana Lee and Melea Nalli first met at a Yoga Behind Bars teacher training, the seed of an idea – what was to become Sea Change Yoga – began to grow.

Both women knew that Portland needed a dedicated yoga program based in trauma-informed yoga, which has been empirically proven to reduce PTSD symptoms. They shared what Nalli describes as “a vision of making it even broader than just prisons”; of an organization that would bring trauma-informed yoga to people in recovery, incarcerated youth, homeless populations, and other marginalized groups.

Nalli had practiced yoga since 2000 and began her career in special education. For Lee, the genesis of Sea Change was even more personal. When her daughter struggled with anorexia two years ago, Lee’s 30 years of yoga practice proved invaluable; she and her daughter took yoga teacher training together as part of the recovery process.

“I watched yoga literally healing my daughter,” she said.

Lee and Nalli knew that some Maine yoga teachers volunteered with at-risk and underserved populations, but their dream included broadening access to yoga – and, importantly, paying the teachers. “It happened almost organically,” explained Lee, adding that “the time was right” for Portland, which has seen a recent rise in people struggling with substance use disorder.

The name came during a brainstorming session. “Someone Googled the words ‘transformative change,’” said Lee, and found the phrase “a sea change.”

The name fits in a variety of ways, referring to a sea change in the way both the community and individuals think of yoga, and alluding to Portland’s connection to the sea. It also references “Ariel’s Song” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and has the homonym “see change.”

Last summer, Lee and Nalli joined forces with Jen Queally, a psychotherapist who had 20 years of yoga teaching experience, including five teaching yoga and meditation to young men in recovery. Today, the three are members of an eight-person board that they describe as “solid and varied,” and also includes Mark Dion, Maine state senator and former Cumberland County sheriff.

Jennie Tavares, the Program Director for Sea Change’s peer-to-peer recovery program, brings a wealth of personal and professional experience. Her seven years’ teaching include three in the recovery community. Tavares credits her own practice with helping her recover from an eating disorder and substance use disorder.

“Yoga really did save my life,” she said. Queally added that Sea Change’s value becomes clear when one realizes that “the body holds trauma, and yoga gets people back in their bodies.” Lee added, “It’s important to understand the scientific evidence behind the fact that yoga heals.”

Today, with Lee serving as acting Executive Director, Sea Change employs seven teachers and offers between 10 and 15 classes each week at various locations, including treatment facilities and recovery centers.

Sea Change has received huge support and enthusiasm from the Portland community. Local yoga studios have donated classes and helped spread the word about the community action project.

“When we’ve asked, the answer has always been ‘yes,’” Lee said. However, everyone at Sea Change shares the goal of growing the organization slowly and thoughtfully.

Sea Change is an intentional safe space. Questions about what might trigger responses in trauma survivors, including some with PTSD, are taken seriously. Teaching focuses on invitational language, empowering students to make their own decisions and providing accessibility to people of all physical abilities.

For example, teachers model poses, rather than physically adjusting students. As Sea Change grows, its fundamental principles and practices will remain – as will the core goal of “bringing access to yoga to diverse populations,” as Lee said.

Sea Change will soon be approved as a tax-exempt charitable organization. Its funding so far depends on local foundational grants and donations from area businesses and individuals. Development Director Lee Sowles emphasizes that their first-year priority is to “focus on recruiting and cultivating a strong, experienced group of teachers.” This will eventually allow Sea Change to expand its number of classes.

Future teacher training sessions are also planned. The inaugural class was a huge success, drawing more than 80 applications for 25 available slots.

As far as their long-term dreams, Nalli speaks for the whole Sea Change team: “We want the healing power of yoga to be accessible to all people.”

For more information, please see seachangeyoga.org, and find Sea Change on Facebook.

– By Liz Woodbury, Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram. 

These monthly profiles are brought to you by Lee Auto Malls. The Lee family is committed to supporting local organizations that work to sustain Maine communities.