Yoga and Trauma

By Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Originally published on

Yoga and Trauma

The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called Yoga: How We Serve.

In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:


“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”

Vietnam War Veteran

This veteran went on to say he hopes that Yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.

I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma — whether it occurred 40 years ago, or in the past decade –have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.

The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.

Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 Victims Of Sexual Assault Or Rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.


The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”


The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga Of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.”

Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.


Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.

Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin:

“Those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.”

Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.


People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy program has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS.

“Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.


Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. “The extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety,” he says. This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program.

“It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B.

“I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.


Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combatting eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment.

“The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family – and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,” she says.


What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.

According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.

The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.



The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading:

The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress – the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton

Help Prison Yoga Project Earn a Matching Grant

Light the Match


In the past year, our Prison Yoga Project program has realized a lot of dreams.

From the launch of our first Yoga Alliance-recognized Teacher Certification Training for 16 prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW), to a new 16-week fee-for-service yoga and mindfulness pilot program at CDCR’s Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, CA, we are making strides in sharing the transformational tool of yoga with men and women behind bars.

Now, we hope to realize one more dream: to create a teacher portal on the Prison Yoga Project website.

The portal will function as a place where teachers trained through Prison Yoga Project can make and renew friendships, trade experiences, discover new opportunities, collaborate on projects, organize get-togethers…whatever you can imagine. The portal will be open to all yogis who are interested in karma yoga, offering an opportunity to engage and learn more.

The teacher portal will amplify the powerful potential of our community, so we can better support men and women behind bars. Prisons nationwide are starting to recognize the value of yoga to provide strategies for non-violent problem resolution, a renewed sense of self-worth, and skills for building a better life. Wardens are asking for trained teachers to come into their facilities – and through the portal, we can be much more effective in making this happen.


Kalliopeia Foundation

We are now within reach of this dream becoming a reality. Recognizing that a teacher’s portal is crucial to help Prison Yoga Project meet present and future demand for yoga programming in prisons, the Kalliopeia Foundation has pledged up to $5,000 in matching funds to help launch this project.

Will you light the match, and help us illuminate the life of men and women behind bars by making a donation today? Together, we can make a bigger impact for those we serve.


Give now and multiply your impact.

Karma doesn’t just mean cause and effect. It means creating a future.” -James Fox

Josefin Wikstrom: Yoga And Dance Programs For Incarcerated Women And Refugees In Sweden

JosefinThis is an interview with Josefin Wikstrom, who has been practicing yoga for the past 24 years. She has been dancing since she was a teenager, and teaching yoga the past 10 years in Sweden and internationally. She is studying dance and creative movement therapy with Tripura Kashyap in India, and has been a part of the Swedish Prison Yoga Team since 2010. Currently, she is developing a collaboration between the Swedish Prison Yoga Project and the one established in San Quentin State Prison in CA by James Fox. She has spent part of the each past nine years supporting dance and yoga programs in Mumbai for underprivileged children, youth, and women, where she works with Indian dance therapists and yoga teachers. 

Last year Sweden took in over 160,000 asylum seekers, the most per capita in Europe. Josefin is also working with some of the refugees fleeing increasing conflict and deprivation in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Learn more and contact Josefin through Kaivalya Yoga Project.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My motivation comes from my own experiences. I went through a childhood trauma being sexually abused and threatened by a person I looked up to. My whole world was turned upside down. I was not able to trust others; I had anxiety attacks and generally chaotic behavior. Finding a yoga practice and dance was my way to freedom from these feelings and memories. The yoga healed me from the inside out and the dance from the outside and in. I felt if I could experience relief, this needs to be shared with others.

Now my motivation has changed in the way that I am sharing these moments with both the refugees and the women; experiencing stillness together, I feel a strong connection with them. My inspiration is being a part of this process, and also in being present for them.

Is there a standout moment from your work with these groups?

Every time I see the women dance, encouraging each other not to give up, and see women who normally fight with each other laugh and have fun together, these are big moments. Also moments in meditation where the women are completely still, closing their eyes breathing together, that always brings tears to my eyes, as it is so rare in this chaotic environment.

With the refugees, a stand-out moment is a man opening his eyes after relaxation saying,
“For the first time in my life I am truly in the moment, I have found peace here inside myself, and it was here all the time while I was running away from my self. Now I might be a refugee in the eyes of the government, but for myself I have reached home.” This man is now a great inspiration to the other refugees.

What did you know about these groups before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them, and how have those assumptions changed?

Before entering the prison for the first time I was prepared to enter the storm, I expected it to be a huge challenge. I was expecting the women to be tough, and some were! I already knew about some of the women from headlines in the news. It was a challenge having 20 hyperactive women in front of me in a situation that is anything but positive.

But as we started to move together it all fell away, and the tough masks melted. The practice allowed us to meet on neutral ground.

My assumptions have changed as I hear their life stories and understand even more where they are coming from. The yoga and the dance makes me forget about the past when I am with them.

With the refugees I was approached by them asking if they could join my classes. I was happy for their interest. Before getting to know them I felt that maybe I was in over my head as I am not a therapist, and they all suffer from severe traumatic experiences. The gratefulness in the group is healing on its own; for them just entering a room filled with stillness and connection with other Swedish people, without communicating with words, is a big experience.

In Sweden, 8-12 refugees can sometimes live in one room far out in the countryside. They are isolated from society, but they never have private quiet space. This, combined with their traumatic experiences, is a recipe for anxiety and chaos.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

To keep it real! To teach only what I have felt and experienced myself. I feel that they have made me more humble. Working with them has given me some insight into peoples’ ability to adapt, no matter how hard the situation might be. They teach me so much, and I feel that, thanks to them, I am growing as a human.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with? In what ways does it not?

Yoga includes ethical guides for life called Yamas and Niyamas. I believe that these principles, especially notions of self-respect and how to treat others, are relevant to the women in prison. Also, simple things, like being able to take a few extra breaths before reacting, make a huge difference in their social interaction.

In the Swedish Prison Yoga Project we also educate the guards and prisoners to become yoga instructors, which has created a more friendly atmosphere.

The refugee program especially benefits from the concepts of Prathyahara and Dharana, that is to be able to be at peace and to keep focus. This creates a more peaceful atmosphere in a place where many different ethnic groups are living together. And acceptance of each other is creating better communication.

We have a small group of both Christian and Muslim extremists in the area I live and teach, so in that way the yoga practice can sometimes be controversial.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach women in prisons and refugees?

Be honest with who you are and the knowledge that you have, and if you feel nervous or insecure, just tell them. Keep it simple and real. When teaching these classes both for refugees and the women, I am following trauma-sensitive guidelines. This means giving freedom, using simple instructions, and inviting language.

I am careful not to call anything therapy. I just teach open yoga classes but with this understanding. If you feel that a person in class is disturbing the others or showing signs of panic attacks or other major issues, advise them to seek professional help. Make sure to inform the students that the yoga practice can release strong emotions.

There are great books by David Emmerson, Bessel Van Der Kolk, and also resources on James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project web site regarding trauma-sensitive yoga.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in Sweden in the next decade?

Sweden is the one country in Europe that has welcomed the most refugees per capita; the need for yoga service is greater than ever before. We need to open our yoga studio doors and welcome these people. My hope is that more people will find the interest to study the benefits of a trauma-sensitive approach, and offer classes at least once a week to these groups.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Image: Courtesy of Linda Stenmark

Are you interested in sharing yoga with men and women behind bars? Join the Prison Yoga Project for an upcoming training in your area. 

Michael Lear: Expanding the Practice of Yoga and Mindfulness to Prisons

2016-03-21-1458572450-1684106-MichaelLear-thumbThis is an interview with Michael Lear, whom I met at the Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute last May. I learned that we both had former lives in international development. Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in finance, Michael had some serious health issues, and discovered The Trager Approach, which had a dramatic impact on both his approach to life and to back pain. Eventually Trager led him to biofeedback, floatation tank therapy, yoga, and Vipassana meditation. He has been a certified Trager Practitioner (therapeutic movement education and mindfulness practitioner/bodyworker) for 24 years, a yoga practitioner for 23 years and a yoga teacher for 15 years, with a primary focus of Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore style. In addition, Michael is active with Shanthi Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit which offers trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness classes to many underserved and at-risk populations suffering from trauma, as well as classes at area schools. Michael works primarily in the Northampton County Prison and Juvenile Justice Center in Easton, PA.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

A serendipitous trip to Cambodian rehabilitation centers while backpacking in 1998 stirred in me an intention to give back via relief work. My original idea was to introduce Trager for addressing phantom limb pain of land mine victims, and to treat children with polio. After the 2004 tsunami I let go of my yoga studio, and went to Sri Lanka where I found Navajeevna Rehabilitation Center (an NGO that works to rehabilitate people with disabilities). Through 2008, I visited each year to conduct trainings for its physical therapists in Trager essentials, to enhance their treatment protocols. Eventually I was offered a position with the nonprofit Real Medicine Foundation (RMF), becoming its Director of International Relations until early 2010. With RMF, in addition to being country Director for Sri Lanka and Sudan, I was involved in a number of primary health care projects in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Armenia, and was first on the ground after the Haiti earthquake. The schedule was demanding, and Ashtanga Yoga and Vipassana meditation were vital practices that kept me on point, and helped to diffuse the vicarious trauma you can experience in such circumstances.

The motivation to serve is an extension of gratitude for my teachers and the desire to help others experience similar benefits. In the context of teaching, not a class goes by that I’m not learning/ growing. If I’m saying it aloud to anyone, it is still for me to hear. Students show up in very earnestly (especially those in prison), and with a courage that is admirable. At the end of class I take inventory of what was said and this becomes my ‘to do’ list. Needless to say, the list is always meaningful.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Shanthi Project, or specific population?

At this juncture, for Shanthi Project every class has standout moments. The classes are deeply transformative and rewarding across the board. In terms of having my envelope pushed, being on the ground in Dominican Republic and Haiti just after the earthquake, and working in South Sudan to establish the Juba College of Nursing and Midwifery towards the end of its peace agreement are quite memorable.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

Before I began teaching those who are incarcerated, I knew little about what was unique to them. I had worked with traumatized populations through relief work (refugees, disaster victims, etc.), and in my bodywork practice I had worked with a few survivors of incest and rape. I was to learn that they all share a trauma experience. In the prison classes, I have met only genuinely kind, considerate participants. They show up in earnest, with a sincere desire to find a way to improve their lives.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

In a studio setting, I teach primarily Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, which affords an opportunity for more one-on-one dialogue with each student; and this minimizes assumptions.

In a trauma-informed yoga setting, using language that invites participation, and giving students a choice on how they would like to participate, are essential to facilitating a therapeutic experience. Nothing is assumed — the class is on their terms. The environments are not always conducive to relaxation. Modeling equanimity in often-uncontrollable circumstances becomes the main tool for guiding students towards a relaxed and peaceful state.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge in all teaching experiences, I believe, is for the teacher to motivate the student to learn, and to assure the student that all efforts represent progress; and to make every effort to adapt to the students’ learning styles. Using mindfulness to remain free of trigger references and leveraging Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication protocols have been invaluable tools.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

My advice is that they go forth with enthusiasm to help those whom society so often deems unworthy of such assistance. The safety and success of the students is priority number one, so the flexibility and equanimity of the teacher is of prime importance in the often-complex circumstances within a prison. Anyone who is going to teach would do well to become informed of the psychological underpinnings of PTSD, and to become acquainted with communication approaches such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication method.

Additionally, teachers should have well-established self-care practices (strong personal practices), have a sound support system, and know his or her boundaries.

Trust in your volition to serve — be authentic. If you’re true to your practices and commitment, your presence will speak volumes to the populations you serve. They’ll know you are there to help them the minute you walk into the room.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

I hope that yoga service as a separate and distinct practice becomes our collective social way of being — how we treat one another — under all circumstances. This means treating others with compassion, understanding, respect, love, and dignity. I hope that that future generations are taught from the start how to live well in a human body, cultivate a focused and discerning mind. And a compassionate heart.


Are you interested in sharing trauma-informed practices with at-risk populations? Join an upcoming Prison Yoga Project training to learn how you can effectively share tools for transformation.

Launching a Yoga Teacher Training in Prison: Empowering Women Through Yoga

This past Friday night, 18 women and one life-sized plastic skeleton gathered in a small classroom at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Excitement was high, and the energy was focused. After completing a six-month preparation intensive, 16 prisoners were about to begin an RYT200 yoga teacher training.

Over the next 11 months, these women will join two teachers from the Prison Yoga Project to delve into the study of Anatomy and Physiology, Sanskrit, Yoga History and Philosophy, Postures, Teaching Methodology, and Ethics and Yogic Lifestyle. At the end of their program, they will graduate as yoga teachers and will be eligible to register with Yoga Alliance at the RYT200 level, a qualification that will allow them to teach behind bars and in the free world.

Laughter, anxiety, confusion and understanding wove together as the women explored the structure of fundamental poses, took turns practicing and teaching, meditated, read, and stumbled over the meaning of words in an unfamiliar language. Coming from a broad variety of backgrounds and covering a wide age span, the women drew together to support one another.

At the end of the evening on Sunday, after 16 hours of training, the group sat together for one final guided meditation. Tired and happy, loaded down with homework and practice guidelines for the following month, they returned to the routine of their daily lives, the seeds of learning already emerging.

Will there be struggles along the way? Certainly. The path towards becoming a teacher is never easy, and life in prison is not designed to be smooth. But the bonds of yoga have been established, and they are powerful.

Kath MeadowsKath Meadows,
Training Coordinator
Director of Women Prisoner Initiatives,
Prison Yoga Project

Your support can help us to complete this training, and to seed a scholarship fund that will educate more women behind bars. Learn more and donate today.

Jill Weiss Ippolito: How We Serve Incarcerated Youth

Jill Weiss IppolitoThis is an interview with Jill Weiss Ippolito, who is the founder/director of UpRising Yoga in Los Angeles, a nonprofit program that brings yoga to incarcerated youth and communities that can benefit from yoga. Her organization holds weekly yoga classes for boys and girls incarcerated in Central Juvenile Hall, as well as group homes, mental health facilities, and schools across Los Angeles County. Jill is helping to change policy and culture by bringing UpRising Yoga Life Skills training to probation staff, mental health, and social workers, teachers, and the general public. Like others interviewed for this series, Jill says, “Yoga saved my life from a past of jails and institutions, addiction and medications, depression and hopelessness.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Jill: What originally motivated me was hearing about the conditions of the minors in juvenile hall. Incarceration leaves a deep scar on a young person. I felt that yoga could be a powerful tool to help young people cope with a bad situation, and that it could bring more peace to an environment that is continually stressful; so I asked the LA County Probation Department, “Can I teach yoga?”

These kids continue to motivate me, especially the ones who are truly motivated to do this on their own because “it feels good.” They light up; they want this yoga. They’re sponges, soaking up this gift that can never be taken away from them.

I want to mention something funny around your “motivation” question. It took about three or four months teaching at juvenile hall before I remembered that I was once arrested and brought there myself when I was a teenager. My mother reminded me, and I realized why this work resonates in me so deeply. Would things have been different for me if yoga had been placed in my path earlier in life? The answer to that question doesn’t matter for me now, but it might for one of the kids we share yoga with!

Is there a standout moment from your work with juveniles in LA County Juvenile Hall?

A lot of work goes into these classes, and I have a lot of wonderful people helping me. But for me, the best experience I have had is actually practicing with the kids: for instance, a boy next to me asking, “Miss, how can I do this on the outside?” It makes me happy to see the kids eager to get in postures they like (for some reason, Crow is by far the most popular asana we do). It’s rewarding to watch them help each other, like one boy telling the guy next to him to be quiet, so he can “get this.” During a meditation, one girl said she had the vision of a beautiful pond, a place where, in her mind, she can always go.

What did you know about the population you are working with, before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

As I mentioned, my mother reminded me that I was brought to juvenile hall when I was a teenager. So I guess you could say that my empathy for a young person in that situation went from this more general idea of “Oh, those poor kids” to “I’ve been there, I can relate.” Also, the idea of kids in foster care was hard to imagine. I knew of foster homes, and how many kids run away from them, but the idea of having no one to come pick you up and care for you really started to sink in.

Another big assumption I carried was that the kids would be really tough. I thought they would be hardened and threatening, and I imagined seeing them throw gang signs at each other and fight all the time. I also worried about racial issues: what would happen if the rival gangs were placed next to each other? Would I be breaking up fights all the time? And I thought they would resist the idea of yoga from a white lady: that the boys would think it’s “stupid” and the girls would think it’s useless. But I was pretty much wrong on all counts. They are sweet kids for the hour we get them. They light up and smile, laugh and share. They ask a lot of questions and are starving for attention, to be seen and to be cared about.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

UpRising Yoga classes are one hour, and involve education with trauma-informed healing as the focus. This requires relationship-building and understanding cultural diversity. Another fundamental difference is that I am not teaching adults who are there by choice. I’m teaching kids in lockup.

We try to allow a lot of room for the kids to approach yoga in a way that makes them feel safe. We also look for every opportunity to praise and encourage. For some of them, just coming to the mat and lying down is a victory. The next time we come back they may try a posture or two. The time after that, they may do the whole sequence.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I’ve worked at letting go of what I think a student needs to be doing. Teaching these kids has helped me with that, especially when I see them trying new things in class. My intention is to let each student have his/her own experience.

Compassion is my best tool. Before I start each class, I take a moment to share loving energy to each person there. It’s up to me to stay focused in order to offer something grounding.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach juveniles in detention centers?

Make sure you are available, physically and emotionally. What I mean by physically is having the dedication and commitment to show up and be a consistent reliable person in the juvenile department. You have to build trust. Make sure you have time and patience to devote to a program.

Emotionally, make sure you can take care of yourself in a healthy manner while you offer to be of service. We emphasize “being of service” rather than “helping” anyone. Knowing the difference is vital.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

We have to find a way to offer yoga to kids BEFORE they get in trouble, BEFORE they commit a crime, BEFORE they get arrested.


Are you interested in learning how to do this type of work? Join Prison Yoga Project founder James Fox for a unique weekend training, where you will learn how to bring yoga to underserved or at-risk populations. Visit the PYP training page for more information.

Best Practices For Yoga in Schools: New White Book From the Yoga Service Council Now Available

Rob-Schware president of the Yoga Service Council

We are tremendously excited for the first Yoga Service White Book, “Best Practices for Yoga in Schools,” published by the Yoga Service Council (YSC) and Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. A collaboration of 27 of the nation’s leaders on yoga in schools, the book is now available on Amazon in both print and electronic formats.

The second Yoga Service White Book, forthcoming, will address yoga for veterans; and the third will focus on yoga in the criminal justice system.

Individually and as a whole, the white book series will support progress on our shared goal; helping to mainstream the practices of yoga and mindfulness in school systems, veterans’ facilities, prisons, and other social institutions.

-Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director and  Yoga Service Council President

Best Practices for Yoga in Schools

Best Practices For Yoga In Schools. Cover Page

Best Practices for Yoga in Schools is a guide for yoga teachers, classroom teachers, school administrators, social workers, and anyone else interested in bringing yoga to children safely, and in a just and inclusive way.

By outlining suggestions and considerations across a wide variety of topics, this book will help you effectively and sustainably offer high-quality yoga programming for all children.

Based on the collective wisdom and experience of 23 contributors and four reviewers, this Best Practices Guide will support your capacity to implement meaningful school-based yoga programs, with the potential to transform the educational environment and help students thrive in a wide variety of situations.

Take 20% off the“Yoga in Schools” white book through the end of January.
Get your copy now on CreateSpace using the code J33NHWVC

A lot of very bright and experienced teachers, researchers, and clinicians gathered together and worked long and hard to create this well-documented publication. For anyone who dreams to include the powerfully beneficial practices of yoga—such as movement, conscious breathing, and meditation—into any school curriculum, Best Practices for Yoga in Schools is an incomparable resource.

To be effective and supported by the entire community, yoga must be introduced progressively and safely by well-trained teachers. When offered in this manner, yoga can be a powerful aid in helping students of all ages gain and maintain physical, psychological, and mental fitness, and manage stress. This book details how that can be accomplished.

—Beryl Bender Birch, cofounder of The Give Back Yoga Foundation

Learn more about the Yoga Service Council white book series.


Elizabeth Carling: Why Teach Yoga and Mindfulness in Prison?

elizabethThis is an interview with Elizabeth Carling, who offers a free community-based yoga program with the support of her employer, Patricia McKeen, owner of A New Awakening counseling agency in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Elizabeth started a free class at A New Awakening as a way to offer the mindfulness-based tools of yoga to clients who struggle with the challenges of addiction, mental health imbalances, domestic violence, and reintegration following incarceration.

Rob: What originally motivated you to bring yoga to the New Mexico prison?

Elizabeth:I’ve worked in the field of forensic therapy as an addictions counselor and Doctor of Oriental medicine for the past twelve years, and have witnessed the struggles of returning citizens. Inmates are released from prison with inadequate preparation for the acute stress of finding employment, rebuilding relationships, and cultivating social competency, not to mention the avalanche of triggers to drug and alcohol use. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from my community yoga students that participation in asana practice, pranayama, meditation, and the other limbs of yoga, were invaluable assets in decreasing reactivity to stress, increasing impulse control, and alleviating emotional dissonance. Most of all, I came to see yoga as a vehicle for transformation through reclaiming an intimate, healthy relationship with self. Upon reflection, it seemed like a natural evolution to offer these tools to inmates prior to release from prison in anticipation of the challenges of reintegration, and the potential for recidivism. A little research brought me to James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project (PYP) training, an invaluable aid in how to design a prison yoga program, and how to introduce it to the N.M. Department of Corrections.

I’m interested in knowing why we should be spending money on providing yoga to prisoners?

I firmly believe that prisons that allocate funds for yoga and mindfulness programs are investing in harm reduction both inside the prison walls, and potentially within the families and communities that an inmate will eventually be returning to. I’m frequently asked why we should want to help “those people” who committed crimes and acts of violence, and deserve to be where they are. My answer is simply that “those people” are going to be released one day, and may be our neighbor, or the person next to us on the bus.

We say we want things to change in our society, but if we don’t offer inmates any tools for change we are setting them (and us) up for failure. I would say that recidivism rates are a reflection of that old definition of insanity: “to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.” I also feel that mindfulness programs would aid in reducing medication costs for prisoners, and would save the system money. This is yet to be researched, but is certainly an area worthy of investigation. Last but not least, we have heard from corrections staff that prisoners who participate regularly in the yoga group are more cooperative and exhibit fewer behavioral issues, making staff’s job easier and more effective.

What is the greatest obstacle in mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature of prisons?

The greatest obstacle in mindfulness-based programing becoming commonplace in prison curriculum is the perception that it is non-pragmatic because it does not fit the model of education that administration is familiar with. Certainly a GED, or learning automotive skills, are practical investments; but if we don’t help inmates to address cognitive distortions, limiting patterns of behaviors, complex trauma, and often a history of addiction, then they are not going to function optimally upon release, let alone be contributing, successful members of society.

What is not fully understood by the prison system is that yoga and mindfulness techniques are a form of somatic therapy that aid in improving and restoring the body-mind connection so that a person can contact inner resources to self-regulate and enhance well being. Inmates who are taught how to become sensitive to the self through present-moment awareness will recognize the pain and suffering they cause themselves and others as a result of their own maladaptive behavior. Offering mindfulness education is not frivolous; it gives inmates the opportunity to expand their capacity for compassion, and make conscious choices that result in pro-social change.

What advice would you give anyone who would like to volunteer teaching a weekly class at a prison?

The best advice I can offer is to cultivate a unified approach to all that transpires inside the gates. I’m often reminded of the value of the yogic philosophy of “samatavam,” or “sameness,” and the benefit of sitting in the middle and serving, seeing, and acting from a place of oneness. I also wholeheartedly agree with James Fox’s suggestion to co-teach the class, rather than go it alone. Since day one I have been fully supported by my dear yogi friend and colleague Patricia McKeen, who is invaluable in holding a safe space for teaching to unfold.

We can also affirm the importance of consistency in working with this population. Showing up at the same time, week in and week out, builds trust and positive regard. I’ve also found that the PYP model of sandwiching asanas between a beginning and an ending centering technique to be a necessity in encouraging inmates to be fully present and grounded while practicing in a turbulent environment.

What should prison administrators know about the Prison Yoga Project?

They should know that PYP instructors offering yoga classes are fully aligned with respecting and abiding by the correctional facility’s rules and regulations. We are aware of the effort prison officials and staff put forth to ensure our safety, and are more than willing to cooperate with anything that makes their job easier. PYP instructors are also open to designing classes for special populations such as vets, mental health inmates, or using body-centered skills for conflict resolution.

Administrators should also know that our mission is to offer tools for stress reduction and mental and physical well-being, for staff as well as my inmates. My highest vision for our New Mexico PYP is to have parallel programs of yoga and mindfulness tools for self-care for corrections officers and prison officials. In fact, the highlight of our yoga program was what we refer to as the “Christmas miracle,” when three guards spontaneously joined our class, and practiced yoga alongside of inmates. One of our “regulars” was uncomfortable at first with what he perceived as an invasion of his territory, but in the true spirit of namaste quipped, “maybe the cops need healing too!”

Originally published on the Huffington Post Blog on November 24, 2015.


Are you interested in helping to empower incarcerated women? Learn how you can support a historic yoga teacher training that will take place behind bars by donating to the Prison Yoga Project’s Women Prisoners Scholarship Fund

Perri van Rossem: Bringing Yoga to a Canadian Prison

Studio image courtesy of Stephen Wild

Studio image courtesy of Stephen Wild

This is an interview with Perri van Rossem, who began teaching yoga as a volunteer in 2005 at Collins Bay Medium Security Institution in Kingston, Ontario; she has been teaching there ever since. In addition, she coordinates yoga programs being offered in three other institutions. Says Perri, “I am trying to build a greater profile for this work in our community of yoga teachers. It is not an easy sell, I don’t mind telling you.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to bring yoga into federal prisons in Ontario?

Living in Kingston, Ontario, where we have six federal prisons, we are constantly aware of our incarcerated population. My husband works as a parole officer in The Correctional Services of Canada. As such, he works directly with this population in all security levels at various stages of their rehabilitation. The one common theme that continues to appear in his efforts to help develop rehabilitative plans, is that regardless of education, career training, and behavioral programming, if a person is fundamentally unable to deal with stressful situations, be self-reflective, and connect with their own ability to change, he or she will not change.

The great majority of our federal inmates have suffered abuse at some level, and healing the spirit does not come through vocational training, increased education, or even psychological and psychiatric counseling alone. This healing begins by looking within. When an inmate is released into our communities we want for them to be healthier people, in body, mind, and spirit. To return our inmates into society with tools that allow them to successfully manage the challenges they face reintegrating into society is a gift that all of society benefits from. Knowing that yoga and meditation enable this type of fundamental healing and change, my husband and I have been committed to bringing these practices into our correctional facilities for over 20 years.

What is the importance of mindfulness for developing impulse control? How does this help life inside a prison?

Life inside a prison is not conducive to self-reflection, developing kindness, compassion, patience, or self-awareness. There is constant fear, noise, and chaos. Life in prison, especially in the higher-security institutions, is more about survival than healing or learning. Healing requires a slowing-down, learning requires a calm mind. Tending to our inner world to create these states of calm and quiet inner reflection is a necessary step in learning that, when we react, we make a choice. Recognizing we can choose to act differently implies that we know what we are doing. This level of self-awareness is a challenge for every one of us; couple that with the extremely chaotic conditions of life in prison, and you have a recipe for failure. Teaching techniques to develop self-awareness, and providing tools for learning how to overcome self-limiting impulsive behavior, enable change.

Everyone can benefit from the practices of yoga and meditation; yoga is not an exercise system for the body alone. Practicing yoga and meditation develops the mind. It enhances concentration, mental focus, and awareness, thereby reducing physical, mental, and emotional stress. When we learn that we have the ability to stay calm, and know how to do so in the middle of chaos, impulsive reactivity becomes thoughtful response.

I’m interested in knowing why we should be spending money on providing yoga to prisoners?

When these practices are made available under the guidance of an appropriately trained teacher on a regular basis, a student can learn how and what to practice in the way that is suitable and beneficial for her or him. Not all yoga practices and disciplines are appropriate for all people. A consistent and patient practice of yoga requires the guidance of a teacher who has the knowledge to recommend practices suitable for the individual.

If our incarcerated population is to learn how to live inside and outside of prison in a way that enables growth and development, we need to provide quality and consistent programming that is appropriate to its needs. The cost of bringing these programs into prisons is inexpensive compared to the costs we are all paying now for the incarcerated population. It is critical that we as a society demand that yoga and mindfulness programs be offered as a core component of rehabilitative correctional plans.

Investment in such programs will enable consistent availability and quality of programs delivered by instructors dedicated and committed to do this specialized work, to meet the needs of this population, for the long term.

Has the application and effectiveness of your program been evaluated? Is there an evidence base in particular?

There is ample research, from all over the world, that indicates the positive affect of yoga and meditation on stress reduction and related issues. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) has just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and is a leader in research into the therapeutic benefits of yoga. To this date, there are no known evidence-based Canadian research findings indicating the benefits of yoga and meditation for our incarcerated population, but similar studies have been done in other countries, and can be found through the IAYT.

On a personal note, the anecdotal evidence, which is plentiful, is what inspires me to keep sharing my knowledge, time, and efforts with this group of students. In my years of teaching there have been many conversations with chaplains, parole officers, and inmates themselves attesting to the benefits of yoga and meditation practice. It has often been said that the men are so much more relaxed, less argumentative, less angry, and able to sleep better. One student who attended at least five of the eight-week sessions also developed a daily practice in his cell. He knew that yoga and meditation was helping to change his inner life, which would enable him to change how he integrated back into the community outside of prison.

What is the greatest challenge in mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature of prisons?

The greatest challenge to providing quality learning experiences is consistency in programming. Consistency in teaching, as well as finding teachers with the level of experience and willingness to share with this community, is not an easy thing to pull together. If the programs could be offered as a part of CSC core programming — in other words, available during the day and not considered extra-curricular — it may be easier to recruit teachers who are usually teaching in the evenings and on weekends.

What advice would you give to anyone who would like to volunteer teaching a weekly class at a prison?

My advice is in the form of benefits of this work that I experience, in the hope that others will take up the work: the rewards I experience by serving this population are beyond description. From my perspective this is a safe environment whose participants are among the most grateful, enthusiastic, and eager students I have ever taught. When a student says to me “this is the best part of my week, I look forward to being here so much, it helps me more than anything else that I do,” I am humbled, my heart expands, and I know I am making a difference.

What should prison administrators know about your yoga programs?

Administrators and policy makers need to know that this program teaches the whole person, from within, a new way of being in the world, which extends to how they interact in the world and with themselves. Once they understand this, perhaps yoga and meditation will become an integral part of a holistic rehabilitative correctional intervention. I strongly believe that yoga and meditation can produce reduced recidivism rates, and increased success of reintegration. When the full range and value of the effectiveness of these practices are understood then the relatively inexpensive costs associated with providing them, not merely as an extra-curricular activity, but as a core component of a rehabilitative correctional plan, could be considered as a positive cost that benefits all of society.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on May 1, 2015


Help Give Back Yoga to put yoga and mindfulness guides in the hands of 1,000 prisoners this year by purchasing Prison Yoga Project’s powerful books, A Path for Healing and Recovery and A Woman’s Practice: Healing from the Heart. For every purchase, we can fund the printing of additional books that will be made available at no cost to men and women behind bars.