A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart With Kath Meadows

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is proud to announce the release of “A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart,” produced in partnership with Prison Yoga Project. This 70-page guide offers clear and simple instructions to help women with a history of trauma or addiction to engage in self-healing through a personal yoga practice.  This book is available for purchase through GBYF’s online store, and will be offered free of charge to any incarcerated woman who requests a copy through Give Back Yoga.

Author Kath Meadows has taught yoga to incarcerated women at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and Patuxent Institution in Jessup for nearly five years. Here, we ask Kath about the inspiration behind “A Woman’s Practice,” and about the need for an accessible yoga guide for all women – whether free, or behind bars.

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GBYF: What inspired you to write A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart?
Kath Meadows: Several years ago, I met (Prison Yoga Project founder) James Fox, and I read his book, A Path for Healing and Recovery. I was so moved, especially by seeing the images of men in prison who were practicing yoga. It was taking things beyond the paradigm of Yoga Journal, where we tend to see beautiful women in trendy yoga clothes doing asana.

But one thing that struck me was, there were no women pictured in the book. And I can understand why – the images were taken at San Quentin State Prison, a men’s facility.

But since the 1970s, there has been an 800% increase in the women’s prison population. And the Department of Corrections has been slow to catch on: it is a sad reality that the correctional paradigm is still largely based on men. For instance, clothing provided for incarcerated women is often available in men’s-only sizing. In my classes, I might see tiny women wearing small men’s T-shirts, and they’re just swimming in them.

Most of the support programming provided by the DoC is also based on material designed for men, and it tends to be very confrontational, aimed at breaking through barriers of denial. But that’s not what I saw in my classes. The common issues are low self-esteem and a history of multiple types of abuse and trauma, sometimes including trauma they have visited on others. The sense of guilt is profound. For these women, self-care and self-healing are hugely important.

What is your vision for how A Woman’s Practice will be used?
My hope is that this book will make yoga more accessible to women who are incarcerated, who are in rehab or live in low-income communities…or just by any woman who feels that a $20 class in a yoga studio with bamboo floors is not for her.

I hope this will be an invitation to all women, that this practice is available to them and that every woman has the capacity to engage in her own self-healing.

How did you select the images for A Woman’s Practice?
This book manuscript was actually written two years ago. The major delay was that I was really set on including images of the women that I teach. Being “seen” is a big part of it – in prison, it’s easy to feel that you have no power at all, that you’re valueless. But the women that I teach were the inspiration for this book, and the force behind it. They had the power to be a very big part of the creative process. That’s why A Woman’s Practice has pictures of inmates practicing yoga and doing meditation and breathing practices.

I also wanted to show real women, in real women’s bodies, in such a way that any woman from any background would see this practice as something that they can do. All too often, women who do not fit the Yoga Journal-type imagery feel that they can’t do yoga.

I have to say, I was photographed for a section where we needed images, and it was challenging. I have grey hair and I’m 51. I’m not 20-something. I was self-conscious about sharing these photos, and I had to really work hard to let it be OK. But it just reinforced why it was so important to include images of real women.

I’m so deeply grateful to the women who were willing to participate in these photo shoots, in a world where there is such pressure to look like an “ideal” woman. And yet, 98% of us don’t look like that.

Can you talk about some of the challenges facing your students?
The majority of the women in my classes have children, and were the primary caregiver for those children before they were sent to prison. When we incarcerate women, the children are victims, to such an enormous degree. Many of these children don’t have access to their moms – you need a reliable car to get to upstate prisons, since there is no public transportation. But this issue is not on the radar.

Often, I see mothers and daughters together in my classes. In one particularly difficult class, I saw a grandmother, a mother and a daughter. It just makes you think, “We’ve got to do something different.”

We incarcerate women and say, “You can’t do anything.” Then we release them into the community with a felony record, so they’re no longer eligible for student loans or Section 8 housing. So many low-income families live in Section 8 housing, and often those who are released from prison can’t return to live with their families because it violates the rules.We render our returning citizens almost incapacitated with the restrictions placed on them.

Many people aren’t aware of this, and many aren’t sympathetic to the challenges.There has been a very different sense of the needs of returning veterans. As a country, we may not be doing enough to support them, but there is an awareness of the need and support for the cause. Prisoners are less visible, and there’s less sympathy and support for their needs.

How can a yoga practice help women behind bars?
Sometimes I look at everything facing my students, and I think, “What is a yoga class going to do for them?” But it is something strong and good and true. Any time we get in touch with the value of our lives, it’s a worthwhile practice.

My classes are about women supporting themselves and others in a healthy way, and about telling women, “You are OK. You are worthy.” There is such a sense of pain and distress when we’re being judged unworthy.

Of course, if you have committed terrible, violent, cruel acts, the practice of yoga doesn’t erase that. But it does allow you to get closer to the best part of yourself, and that’s always worthwhile. It’s not about denying what you’ve done. It’s about accepting the reality of where you are, and connecting to the best part of yourself.

Kath Meadows

My goal is to offer women a sense of groundedness, of perceptiveness, and to offer them a voice – give them the tools they need to tell themselves, “I’m OK, and I can do this.”

What is the key message you want to pass on through A Woman’s Practice?
The most important message I want people to take away from this book – and something I say in every one of my classes – is that we are all born worthy. We may lose faith in ourselves, but we never lose that inner worthiness. It’s our birthright.

And no matter what your situation is in life, you’re never nothing. You always have grace that you can bring to the world around you.

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Help women behind bars to begin their journey of self-healing by purchasing a copy of A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart. For each book sold, Give Back Yoga can fund three free copies of this practice guide for women in prison.