Mike Huggins: Healing Through Empowerment in Prisons & Rehab Facilities

Transforming Yoga: Healing Through Empowerment In Prisons And Drug Rehabilitation Facilities

I met Mike Huggins a year ago at the Sedona Yoga Festival, over dinner, and heard some of his story; you will read the rest below. He started practicing yoga 12 years ago to help deal with chronic back pain. Along the way he started feeling better, both physically and mentally. In 2009 he embarked on a journey to discover who he really was, starting with a retreat at a Buddhist monastery. This introspection literally changed his life, as he left the corporate world and started a deep dive into the study of yoga with the goal of sharing its power with those less fortunate than himself. Out of this experience the Transformation Yoga Project was born in Philadelphia. Its mission is to use yoga and mindfulness as a tool for personal change in the lives of people in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, the criminal justice system, and veterans in the VA hospital system. Mike is the founder and executive director of Transformation Yoga Project, and has been on the board of several non-profits.

Rob: What originally motivated you to bring yoga into a federal detention center? 

Mike: Well, that’s a bit of a story. I’ve had the unique ‘opportunity’ to experience firsthand what it’s like to be in prison, and to experience the power of the practice from both sides — as an instructor, and as an inmate. After being caught up in a corporate legal action, I was convicted of a misdemeanor resulting in a nine-month prison sentence. The day I was sentenced, I made a commitment to use this experience to explore and deepen my practice. At first yoga was a tool for survival: to find calmness amid chaos, to surrender to this situation while maintaining a sense of optimism.

In my cell, I practiced simple asana poses such as the warrior series and some Baptiste-influenced core work — nothing crazy or ‘weird.’ Inmates soon approached me to learn about these “crazy martial arts exercises.” They were attracted to the notion of getting a vigorous workout without equipment. Eventually, many of them came to understand that yoga could help strengthen their minds and develop disciplines for self-regulation. Thanks to a few sympathetic correctional officers, regular yoga classes started two weeks into my incarceration. This led to the introduction of guided meditations, which was a life-changing experience. You could literally see the lights go on for some of the inmates as they realized there could possibly be another way to live.

Eventually, I was transferred in shackles in an armed prison bus to a prison camp where my practice continued to grow. I worked as a tutor for inmates who had a 5th grade or lower educational level. There were big, tough guys. Many were previously in gangs and deep into drug dealing. Befriending the ‘tough’ guys gave me street credibility, and provided an opportunity to introduce yoga to a much wider group. The practice quickly expanded from a basic asana practice to a comprehensive program, which included yoga for beginners, yoga for the back, Taoist yoga, Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation meditation), and workshops on non-violent communication.

A dear friend mailed an article about James Fox and Prison Yoga Project, and I reached out to him. James sent a copy of his book, Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery, which I used religiously, especially for the meditation practice. The yoga program was so popular that I started a teacher training program, teaching several basic yoga principles. I was released in the summer of 2012, and I am happy to report that the yoga program continues to thrive there.

Upon my release I immediately reconnected with James Fox and attended a Prison Yoga Project training, where it became clear to me that I needed to try to bring yoga and mindfulness to disadvantaged populations.

The universe works in mystical ways. I had the opportunity to return to the federal detention center to teach yoga — not as an inmate, but as a volunteer. As you can imagine, this has been such a rewarding experience on many levels.

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

Most prisoners suffer from some form of complex trauma. Trauma may result from a lifetime of events including abandonment, domestic violence, sexual, drug and alcohol abuse. The effects are magnified when there are also other acute traumatic events, such as watching or participating in violent acts. Being in prison is itself a traumatic event! Unresolved trauma becomes the root cause of anger. What we resist persists. By opening a pathway for developing a mind/body connection, self-acceptance and self-worth, mindfulness becomes an essential tool for developing awareness of our feelings and emotions. This why mindfulness can provide courage for an inmate to stay out of a fight, to resist the urge to retaliate and to go inward.

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

The criminal justice system fails to deal in any meaningful way with rehabilitation. The Judicial Council of California reports that approximately 65% of inmates will return to prison within the first three years of release. We need to do more to stop this destructive cycle. Inmates can themselves become agents for positive change, both inside the prison and upon their release. Many ex-offenders have turned their lives around through yoga, and by making a positive difference through work in their communities. It’s hard to put a price on this activity, but we know that our communities are better for it.

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

We have many testimonials from inmates who have continued their yoga practice after leaving prison. The prisons are happy with the emotional maturity of inmates who stick with the practice. On a macro level, many clinical studies have been done showing the benefits of mindfulness-based yoga in prisons. There is a long list of published studies listed on the Prison Yoga Project website.

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

Interestingly, the challenge is not with getting buy-in from wardens, as there has been a positive shift in the thinking within the correctional system towards providing mind/body programs. The challenge is working through the bureaucracy of getting access into the prison. It takes perseverance to navigate the many hurdles for clearance. Funding is a challenge since the prisons don’t pay for the classes, yet we need to make sure instructors are properly trained and able to travel to undesirable locations.

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

Our yoga instructors get as much, or more, out of teaching in prisons as the inmates do. It is an incredibly rewarding experience, and a way to ‘pay it forward’ through Seva. It is, however, essential that anyone who goes into the prison system be trained to teach yoga in prisons. You also need to check your ego at the door! We follow the Prison Yoga Project’s proven mindfulness-based asana and meditation practice. There are instances in which otherwise good instructors teach yoga styles incompatible with trauma, with sadly negative results. It is imperative that yoga instructors take a trauma-informed approach to yoga, and get trained!

What should prison administrators know about the Prison Yoga Project?

While there are many excellent yoga teachers, most have not been specifically trained to address the triggers and logistics of dealing with people suffering from complex trauma and/or addiction. All of our instructors are yoga teachers who have received additional training and follow the Prison Yoga Project methodology, which has been proven over many years at San Quentin and numerous rehab centers. We work to make sure our classes are consistent with the participant’s current treatment modality.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on April 3, 2015

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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 book, A Path for Healing and Recovery, for yourself or on behalf of a prisoner.

Sara K. Schneider: How We Serve Incarcerated Women and Those in Transition

This is an interview with Sara K. Schneider, who wrote about law enforcement in her book, “Art of Darkness: Ingenious Performances by Undercover Operatives, Con Men, and Others.” Yet she describes having had since her early 20s a “haunting” to work inside the prison system. Initially finding it hard to “break in,” she started teaching men in a post-release program on the west side of Chicago. A mindfulness teacher who’d been teaching in the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) made introductions for her to teach the female minority residing in the federal prison in Chicago’s central Loop. Sara directed the MCC’s women’s yoga program, where she taught weekly from 2012 to 2014; and has recruited and trained other yoga teachers to teach both women and men inside the prison. In addition to being a yoga instructor, Sara is a playwright, professor, and performance ethnographer writing about body-based spiritual practices including, most recently, yoga in prisons. Sara can be reached at sks@thinkingdr.com.

Rob: What have been some of the surprises of teaching yoga in the prison setting?

When I started working with the women at the MCC, I imagined I’d be introducing yoga to women who had not had any prior experience with it. Not only did these women incarcerated in Chicago’s federal prison seem more comfortable and familiar with seeing yoga as a spiritual as well as a physical practice than sometimes do new students “on the outside,” but a few had already been practicing yoga before their incarceration. Many of the women who self-selected to join the yoga class were using their prison time in other ways to develop themselves spiritually.

Another surprise was how the conventions of the yoga studio seemed to fall away. Some of those who were newer to yoga frequently saw the poses in a sexual light, and would break out into nervous laughter or giddy riffs on the poses that would take the group a while to recover from! I had to learn to go with the flow on that, to allow the laughter as a necessary part of coming to the practice from prison culture. It was important to channel that laughter so that it would be shared rather than aimed at one or another student, as might be common on the residential floor.

How else did you have to adjust your expectations or adapt your teaching in the prison setting?

I’m a vinyasa teacher who loves flowing and (yes) complex sequences. The inmate population is not necessarily invested in yoga choreography, nor is the average inmate in physical shape to be able to get much flow going, in part because prison life keeps the women quite inactive. While at the beginning I held to an idea of getting my new students into shape to be able to handle vinyasa, the MCC population was so transient that this wasn’t a realistic goal.

Over time, my teaching shifted to focus on a couple of things: the first was giving the inmates a few simple breathing, mindfulness, and postural practices they could do on their own, in the spaces available to them, to enhance their ability to handle anxiety, depression, anger, and other troubling emotions they naturally experienced during the week.

The second focus was trying to give the women an experience of positive female community. Sometimes my regular students wouldn’t come down to the chapel space for yoga because of infighting with other women on the floor they knew were planning to come; they just didn’t want to do yoga side by side with them. With only 20 or fewer female inmates in a facility of nearly 700, every woman got to know every other woman very well.

In class, one of their favorite activities was to lay out the yoga mats right up against each other and to “roll.” It was actually a very gentle twist that would take all of us, in a very childlike way, from one side of the open chapel room to the other. We’d start face down, and initiate rolls onto our backs from the trailing hip and rolls onto our bellies from the trailing shoulder. The women loved teaching new students how to roll in this way and laughed and laughed together as they flopped onto their backs or onto their bellies. My sense was that it was rare for these women to enjoy the simple pleasure of their bodies in this communal way in their life on the residential floor. Plus we were doing fun spinal twists!

Finally, I wanted them to have the protected space of a class and to have a Savasana (corpse pose) that offered a brief but complete release. These women are woken up with guards’ flashlights shone in their eyes early each morning, and had so little experience of real rest. They instantly understood Savasana as a space of deep, protected peace, yet it was often real work to ensure that no prison staffer interrupted them, as they did not necessarily buy into the vital importance of such rest.

Are there ways in which your teaching in a prison has impacted your teaching on the outside, or your own practice?

The fact of incarceration, as juxtaposed with the freedom inherent in yoga, was brought home powerfully to me on a summer’s evening when we had class on the roof of the prison, instead of in the chapel, which actually has a glorious view of the Chicago skyline. As we started our sun salutations, and I modeled raising my eyes to my joined hands overhead, in our line of vision was the barbed wire roof that stood between us and the sky of Chicago. I remember my unfettered ability to see the sky every time I do a sun salutation now.

When I teach in studios, I’m aware of our privilege in being able to buy classes, to feel comfortable in a yoga studio, and to end class at our leisure, rather than with a sharp interruption from a guard. I appreciate that many of us are wearing clothing that supports rather than impedes movement. And I am more aware than before of the power of yoga as a practice for those who know they need one.

What would you describe as a peak moment in your teaching of the inmates?

I think probably my favorite moment was when one of the students, a sometimes-bawdy and always-enthusiastic participant, was stretching in wide-legged forward fold (Prasarita Padottanasana A), experimenting with whether it was possible to deepen into a pose simply by “breathing into it.” Like me, she was from the era of bouncing and re-bounding to deepen a stretch, and we were investigating a whole new way of taking the practice inside. As I watched her, it seemed evident to me that this smartly clowning, often externally oriented woman had found a new and internal reference for her pose. She bobbed up as if from a deep-sea dive, and cried, “I breathed into the pose!” We had big smiles all around.

What advice would you share with those hoping to teach in a correctional setting?

Teaching in a prison means that you will be subjected and exposed to some part of the trauma of incarceration that inmates experience daily, such as the withholding of information about what is really going on, the lack of control over your time, and the inability to move without supervision. There are also inexplicable barriers to effective communication across departmental lines, the all-too-close scrutiny of how you are dressed and surveillance of what you can carry into the prison, and a culture in which staff members can seem more bent on passing blame than on serving the public.

Ensure that you have a way to process some of the emotions that come up, ideally with others teaching in a similar setting. Here in Chicago, the Socially Engaged Yoga Network, a loose collective of yoga teachers involved in social justice work, has been having quarterly gatherings to network and to share experiences and lessons learned. The sense of community with others involved in yoga service work has been invaluable!

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on March 25, 2015

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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 three additional books that will be made available at no cost to men and women behind bars. You can also make a direct donation to help fund this work – just choose “Prison Yoga Project” from the drop down menu when selecting a project to support.

Kathryn Thomas: Yoga and Prison Rehabilitation Programs

This is an interview with Kathryn Thomas. Before training as a yoga instructor, Kathryn was a Naval Officer and Naval Aviator flying SH-60 helicopters. She suffered a permanently disabling non-combat related injury in 2011, and was medically retired from active duty in 2013. She moved to Kailua, Hawaii, to join her husband in 2012, and rediscovered yoga as a means of coping with the emotional and physical challenges of her injury. “My practice gave me new direction in life, and aided me in overcoming the loss of my career in the Navy,” says Kathryn.

During the last months of her yoga teacher training in Hawaii, Louisa DiGrazia — one of the founders of The Hawai’i Yoga Prison Project, and one of Kathryn’s teachers from The Yoga School of Kailua — took Kathryn to experience teaching inside correctional facilities on the island. Under her tutelage, Kathryn was involved with the Hawai’i Yoga Prison Project, a 20-year old program dedicated to teaching yoga inside prisons/jails on the island of Oahu. In 2014, she moved to the Jacksonville, Florida, area, and is now President and CEO of Yoga 4 Change. — Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director

Rob: What originally motivated you to bring yoga into correctional facilities around Jacksonville?

Kathryn: My intent was to extend the mission of the Hawaii Yoga Prison Project to my new community. When I first started in Jacksonville, I wanted to serve the correctional facility population exclusively. Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013 show that Florida has the third largest number of inmates in the country (after Texas and California), excluding federal inmates. These statistics also point out that as of 2012, 1 in 35 people in our nation is either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. I believe the programs that have been going into the correctional system for years (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Religious Services, Narcotics Anonymous) have made a difference, but yoga brings a new element that is not currently available to the majority of prisoner populations in the country. It provides another tool to aid prisoners in relieving stress, controlling emotions, learning impulse control, and getting them in tune with their bodies.

Please tell me about your organization’s overall purpose and mission.

After working for so long with prison populations, I realized that yoga can benefit people who otherwise may not have access to the benefits of the practice. For instance, it can help at-risk individuals struggling with many of the same challenges as people in the corrections system. My hope is that practicing yoga can give at-risk individuals a greater chance of avoiding incarceration in the first place, thereby reducing the prisoner population in the state.

This is why the mission of Yoga 4 Change is to promote healthy living, and foster self- confidence in veterans, inmates, at-risk youth, and those suffering from substance abuse. Individuals in all four of these groups need help dealing with trauma and overcoming personal tragedies and challenges, and by making the practice of yoga available to them, we are offering a tool to aid in avoiding the behaviors and actions that often result in incarceration.

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

Meditation calms one’s mind and decreases stress, allowing a person to develop necessary impulse control. I’ve walked into correctional facilities where the men and women are under constant stress; even the smallest issue will send them into a fit of rage. By practicing yoga, the inmates and juveniles learn to calm their thoughts, and focus on themselves. The coping techniques they practice in yoga can be employed once they are released to society, giving them a means of dealing with stress that they may not otherwise have had. These techniques can also aid them while still incarcerated, offering the inmates a means of dealing with stress and adversity that could help avoid violence and its consequences. Instead of being controlled by their emotions, inmates learn to take a breath and come from a place of calm.

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

If part of the mission of the correctional system in America broadly is to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them for reintegration into society, inmates should be provided with a variety of tools to avoid repeating the behaviors that landed them in prison in the first place. Yoga brings a new element to existing outreach programs and can reach individuals who have not responded to other forms of therapy. Funding yoga in correctional facilities can ultimately save real dollars by reducing recidivism rates and decreasing the overall prisoner population.

Yoga has been said to help those with addictions. I want my tax dollars to be paying for shorter jail/prison sentences with inmates, not getting years added to their sentences due to fighting or violence. Ultimately, yoga may not be the solution to all problems within the correctional system, but it has significant potential to make real and lasting positive changes in the lives of prisoners.

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

My students have shown me just how powerful one session of yoga can be. As I said, many times students will come into class completely stressed out — you can feel the tension in the room. When they leave, they are less stressed, grateful to have taken the class, and ready to meet the challenges of the week ahead. They have taught me to be thankful for my life, and to recognize that humans are fallible and that mistakes and challenges — including incarceration — can be overcome. In the words of one of my regular inmates, “Yoga has saved me from the evil criminal inside of me.”

What is the greatest challenge in mindfulness classes becoming a regular feature of the facilities you work in?

The greatest challenge has been getting the word out about what I’m trying to accomplish, and obtaining funding to meet those goals. With the growth in interest and demand among various institutions and organizations in the Jacksonville area, finding and recruiting qualified and motivated teachers is now a primary focus of Yoga 4 Change.

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

When teaching yoga to prison/jail populations, approach all situations with your eyes open. Creating a safe, judgment-free environment for the inmates is a powerful experience, but at the same time you need to be cautious. Take care to treat your students, regardless of institution or venue, as human beings, and not let expectations and prejudgments govern your approach to teaching. Remember also that inmates are under a great deal of stress, so reaching a state of calm, and learning to quiet their minds may require time and practice. As a teacher, I consider it my job to guide them in their yoga practice, treating them as fellow humans instead of criminals.

What should prison administrators know about the work you are doing?

I wish to emphasize that nothing I teach is religious in nature. I’m not teaching in Sanskrit, nor am I having students chant mantras. Instead, my teaching is based on everyday principles: forgiveness, love, respect, gratitude, and happiness. Many of the inmates I teach do not understand some or all of these concepts, and I hope to change that. Above all else, I’m seeking to offer services that will improve the rehabilitation process for incarcerated persons and reduce recidivism rates, thereby directly aiding the administrators of the correctional facility in their primary mission. I believe yoga can be a powerful force for positive change in the lives of many people, whether incarcerated in correctional facilities, suffering from combat-related illnesses, or struggling with addiction. It is ultimately my goal and passion to bring yoga to those who stand to benefit the most from its teachings.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on November 19, 2014

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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 three additional books that will be made available at no cost to men and women behind bars. You can also make a direct donation to help fund this work – just choose “Prison Yoga Project” from the drop down menu when selecting a project to support.

Liza Stacey: The Blending of Yoga & Psychology Within Prison Walls

This blog post comes from Liza Stacey, a psychologist and yoga teacher currently working in a mental health/psych ward in a men’s maximum security facility in Melbourne Victoria, Australia. She works there three days a week.  Along with individual counseling and running programs on understanding and managing emotions, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and distress tolerance, she teaches yoga and meditation classes twice a week.

The classes introduce a new sequence of physical asanas each week, including poses for balancing mood, assisting sleep and helping with anxiety; as well as more invigorating asanas for assisting with depressive symptoms such as low energy and mood. After some physical yoga, different types of meditation techniques are taught, such as different breathing (pranayama) techniques, breath counting meditation, guided visual meditation and yoga nidra.

Says Liza: “The men have really benefited from these classes and those with diagnosed mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, have reported it has helped them manage their psychotic symptoms.”

 

The Blending of Yoga And Psychology Within Prison Walls

by Liza Stacey 

Yoga has a direct link to the needs of people in the prison system; however, it still faces some blockers to the adoption in these environments. Through my experiences and training, I have seen the positive benefits of yoga in these environments.

I have been working in the area of mental health/ psychology for over ten years (including as a Registered Psychologist for over 5 years), have been a yoga practitioner since I was 18 years old and have now completed my training as a yoga teacher. I have been working within the prison system for nearly four years now. Most of that time has been within a forensic mental health unit within a maximum security men’s prison in Victoria.

When I first started practicing yoga, I experienced firsthand the amazing therapeutic benefits it had on my own stress levels, and started using yoga and meditation techniques to manage and cope whenever I had stressful times in my life.

Traditionally, psychological therapies have been based around trying to change your thinking to change your behaviour and mood (e.g., Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).  From around the year 2000, other therapies have started to make their way into mainstream use, such as Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectic Behaviour Therapy/ Distress Tolerance. These therapies all use the basis of mindfulness meditation and breath awareness/ awareness of the present moment to assist in the change of mood and mental states. This is at the core of what yoga teaches, as well.   Over the past few years I have seen more and more the openness of clients and also fellow colleagues to want to learn more about these therapies.

To me, the blend of yoga and psychology makes sense in so many ways. Bringing this blend into the prison environment made even more sense.  There is more to Yoga than just the physical practice: it is also the practice of breath awareness, the practice of quietening and stilling the mind, the practice of sitting in discomfort to get comfort, and the practice of impulse control. To practice yoga is to practice mindfulness. It is about understanding and compassion to ourselves and others. Yoga is also about developing awareness of self. It teaches you to step back and observe your thoughts and feelings and witness these as an observer, rather than being entangled in the thoughts. Developing self-awareness is the key to change, and yoga helps with this.  To practice all aspects of yoga, we practice strategies which will assist to reduce anxiety, depression, worry, excessive rumination and anger, and increase our focus on the positive – all strategies that psychology teaches, as well.

Think about what prison is: punishment and loss of freedom, leading to feelings of mental and emotional distress, distrust and agitation. This is coupled with men who have committed crimes and often have had a past of unhappiness, trauma and violence in the lives. What better place is there to be teaching yoga and the practices/ philosophies of yoga and meditation?

Most men in prison experience trauma. Often, trauma has occurred in their lives prior to coming to prison (such as the trauma of the loss of attachment from their parents during crucial developmental years, or physical or sexual abuse, or even the trauma that years of substance abuse and crime can also bring). Plus, there is the trauma often experienced within the prison walls (the loss of family and relationships, the daily stress of survival, physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and the threat of this). It makes sense that a practice such as yoga/meditation can assist in helping these men deal and cope with the trauma.

There is more and more evidence mounting each year about the benefits of yoga practice to heal trauma. People who have gone through a traumatic period in their lives can be disconnected to their bodies, and so even the physical feel of a yoga mat underneath their hands and feet when doing downward dog can be hugely therapeutic for them. Most people who have lived through trauma experience high levels of anxiety, and so teaching breathing techniques and meditation can help to reduce anxiety significantly. Most people who have lived through trauma find it difficult to sleep at night — in fact, this is one of the most stated issues within the prison system. So practicing yoga nidra (deep relaxation exercise) and relaxation strategies/ relaxing yoga postures to do before sleep can help those who find sleep difficult. Teaching grounding exercises which men can practice in their cells at night if they cannot sleep can assist those who frequently wake with distressing nightmares.

American prisons such as San Quentin State Prison in California have understood the value of adding yoga to their mainstream prison programs, and more evidence is coming out about the benefits of these programs for the prison population. The Yoga Education in Prisons Trust is an organisation assisting prisoners in New Zealand to learn yoga and meditation and so more and more people are getting exposed to the benefits of yoga within the prison environment.  Each year, there are more and more studies in psychology and psychiatric journals about how yoga reduces distress in prison populations (e.g., a UK study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013 found participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population). Australian prisons appear to have not yet incorporated yoga and meditation techniques into the wider prison population.

There are a couple of challenges to yoga in prison being more widespread. The first is the perception of yoga, and having yoga being run in prisons – for staff, prisoners and the wider community.

Yoga may still be seen by men as being “for women only.” Yoga may also be seen by men as not being accessible to them, as they cannot “get their body into twisted pretzel shapes.” Men may also see meditation as being something that is “weak” and not for them.

Yoga may be seen by prison staff and possibly the wider community as being a “relaxation exercise,” and not something that people who are serving time for crime should have access to. They may see it as a reward, rather than as part of treatment and therapy.

To counteract this perception, more education should be done about the benefits of the programs and what they teach. Yoga should be sold more as a means of treatment for stress, anger, distress tolerance, anxiety, depression and trauma. Yoga should be seen as more than just the physical practice, but as a teaching of breath awareness, relaxation, mindfulness and meditation.

The empirical evidence of mindfulness is now understood and well known, and has been incorporated into many programs. However, this can be further incorporated by increasing the practice and teaching of yoga within the prison and within the programs.

I have seen and heard firsthand stories of men in prison who are suffering from psychiatric illness and PTSD reporting that since they have started practicing meditation, breath awareness and yoga nidra, their auditory and visual hallucinations have significantly reduced, and their nightmares have reduced and/or they are able to manage them much better.

I am hoping to begin measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of yoga within the prison population at the psychosocial medical ward of the prison where I work as a psychologist. The program I will be teaching, measuring and evaluating will incorporate the physical practices of yoga, as well as the teachings of mindfulness and distress tolerance — which in fact are the philosophies of yoga, blended into the teachings of modern day psychology and anxiety and depression management.

References:

Bilderbeck, A.C;  Farias, M, Brazil.I, Jakobowitz. S., and Wikholm. C.. Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47 (2013) 1438-1445.

Yoga Education in Prisons Trust

Van der Kolk, Stone, West, Rhodes, Emerson, Suvak, Spinazzola. Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. 2014:75, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

Van der Kolk.B. The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014. The Penguin Group.

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Help Give Back Yoga to put yoga and mindfulness guides in the hands of 1,000 prisoners this year by purchasing the Prison Yoga Project book Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery for yourself or on behalf of a prisoner.

Sabrina Seronello: How We Serve Incarcerated Veterans

After the active duty portion of her commitment to the Air Force was up in March 2006, Sabrina Seronello was introduced to the practice that would help positively change her life, and the lives of others. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Sabrina about the significance of her own practice, as well as her work with the Prison Yoga Project at San Quentin State Prison, where she teaches yoga to incarcerated veterans.

“In reality I have been helped more than I am helping them. I can’t begin to explain the amount of healing that I have experienced since I started going inside San Quentin. I always leave there thinking, wow, that’s what it’s all about–offering yoga to people who truly need it.” — Sabrina Seronello

To learn more about Sabrina’s work at San Quentin and her thoughts on the incorporation of yoga and mindfulness practices in prisons, read her full interview on The Huffington Post.

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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 three additional books that will be made available at no cost to men and women behind bars. You can also make a direct donation to help fund this work – just choose “Prison Yoga Project” from the drop down menu when selecting a project to support.

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.

 

Kelly Boys: Bringing Yoga & Mindfulness to Incarcerated Veterans

This is an interview with Kelly Boys, who’s been practicing yoga for most of her adult life, and is a certified hatha yoga instructor. In 2006, she learned of the practice of yoga nidra, and immediately recognized it as a powerful healing tool. That led her to Dr. Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist, who trains teachers in a special form of yoga nidra called Integrative Restoration (iRest). Kelly began training with him, became a certified iRest instructor, and eventually moved to California to help run the Integrative Restoration Institute and work with Richard to train teachers. Along the way,  she taught yoga nidra at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, as part of its Wounded Warriors program, in a residential PTSD and TBI program through the Cincinnati VA, with cancer survivors, those with substance abuse, and in the prisons, teaching both men and women. Currently, she partners with James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project to bring a combined yoga and yoga nidra program into San Quentin State Prison for incarcerated veterans.

Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director: What is iRest Yoga Nidra, and what originally motivated you to bring it to veterans incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison? 

Kelly Boys: iRest is a meditative practice that is deeply relaxing and restorative, and it provides tools for working with trauma, stress, and chronic pain, among other things. It’s typically taught in savasana, the lying-down pose at the end of the yoga class. It is simultaneously simple and profound, addressing our basic human needs for connection, belonging, and safety; using it, we can gently check in with ourselves. It can be a way for those of us who resist what life brings us to turn and face the truth about ourselves in any given situation.

I wanted to help people who have been wounded by war, by their families, and who have in turn wounded others to stop and face themselves, and to give them another way out instead of this punitive system which doesn’t tend to focus on restoration and healing. Having been on the receiving end of domestic violence, it is particularly poignant for me to bring the spirit of forgiveness and healing, along with the ‘sword of truth’ into that setting. This is the sword that cuts through all illusions that we hold about ourselves, and about the world around us. iRest provides such a neat way to get control of our lives by paradoxically letting go of control, and allowing this sword of truth to slice away everything that does not serve us.

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

Mindfulness is a foundational element for impulse control; it allows anyone, anytime, to stop in any given moment and take stock of their own situation, to harness the power of attention and intention in order to see clearly. This moment gives a space for choice and response rather than reaction and violence. One of the vets in our program told us that this class has changed his life by providing him a way to deal with the chaos of life behind bars, leading to a feeling of confidence about going before the boards (which is when they decide if/when he will be released). Otherwise, he would have been reactive and victimized; now he feels calm, and has an inner resource to return to no matter what the board decides about his release. Another vet from the Korean War who is 77 years old said that this class has helped him deal with his lifelong racism toward Asian people, and that his tough, violent shell is getting cracked open.

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

This is an investment that must be made; the transformative effect of yoga and meditation on the prison population is inspiring lasting change. We are beginning to see programs where we connect with the guys on the outside as well, and they are becoming change agents in their own communities. Most of these men will reoffend if we do not offer them another way.  Investing in these programs means to invest in the health and safety of our communities.The classes are waitlisted right now because there aren’t enough funds to run programs for everyone seeking to learn yoga and meditation in prison.

Let me be clear, though – this is selfish for me! I receive the most benefit from going into San Quentin. It is humbling and fulfilling beyond what I can say to sit with this group of men and get real, speak the truth, guide meditation, and hear the gems of wisdom coming from that circle of folks. Astounding, really. James and I often just shake our heads at how neat it is to teach there together. A complete blessing.

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

As I said, the greatest challenge is funding. I currently donate my time to teach at San Quentin. The CEO at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, where I work training teachers in a science-based emotional intelligence and mindfulness course, has allowed me to rearrange my schedule so that I volunteer time every Thursday. If we had funding, we definitely have the teachers who want to teach, and we also have a way to train those teachers. That is the number-one need; otherwise, it won’t be sustainable.

What advice would you give to anyone who would like to volunteer teaching a weekly class to incarcerated veterans? 

Do it! Take a course preparing you to work in the prison environment as a way to make sure you are ready for the challenges of that particular venue. Jacques Verduin at Insight-Out and James Fox at Prison Yoga Project both offer trainings for teaching in prison. I would also say, to the extent that you are willing to welcome ALL of yourself, your hopes and joys along with your fear, hate, and the violence you do to yourself, is the extent to which you will be able to teach from a place of equanimity, heart, and truth. This path is a radical one; it asks everything of us. Yoga asks us to take a second look at the idea that we are separate, above, better than, different from, and to let in the thought that just perhaps, underneath all the surface differences, we share the same essence. This is quite inspiring when you really think about it.

What organizations do you admire?

I love what James is doing at the Prison Yoga Project. He tirelessly travels all over the world training teachers to teach yoga on the ‘inside.’ The Integrative Restoration Institute is doing amazing things bringing iRest out into many underserved populations. Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, where I work, is bringing this same work into Google, LinkedIn, Genentech, and many more places. Any organization that practices what it preaches, I admire.

For instance, where I work we meditate at the beginning of our meetings, we practice mindful eating, we do the hard job of telling the truth even when it is more convenient to gloss over it, for the sake of finding out what is really real, what wants to emerge in any given moment. There is a trust that happens when a whole organization of people do this. Whether it’s Google or behind prison walls, people are people with the same needs and desires. They are just dressed up differently! Instead of the new Google Glasses, I’d love to give the gift of x-ray vision to anyone that can’t fathom those two worlds being similar. It’s a trip to be able to have a foot in both worlds! I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Would you like to support the transformational work of the Prison Yoga Project? Make a direct donation to support their outreach work, or purchase a copy of James Fox’s book, Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing and Recovery, from our online store.

 

Become a Sustaining Member: Join Our Monthly Donation Program

If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to support our mission of sharing yoga and meditation with those in need: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation.

How does it work? Simply visit our Membership page and choose a monthly amount you’d like to contribute, and a program you’d like to support. Through the checkout process, you’ll set up a recurring payment profile that automatically bills your card each month. You’ll receive a notification by email when each debit is made. All donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law, and you’ll also receive a thank-you package by mail. Check out our membership benefits. 

What it is: a simple way to give back.

For just $15 a month – the cost of one yoga class – you can share yoga resources with someone in need, making a direct difference in their lives. Through the collective power of many small contributions, we can grow a grassroots movement of social change and healing. We hope that you’ll be a part of it!

What it isn’t: a contract.

You’ll be able to manage your recurring donation profile through the Give Back Yoga website. If your situation changes, you can put your monthly contribution on hold or change the amount of your donation, so that you’re always giving back in a way that’s right for you. Need help? Drop us a line at info@givebackyoga.org.

Find out how you can give from the heart.

Are you passionate about bringing yoga to a specific population? We invite you to route your donation directly to that work. You can help us to bring yoga to veterans, first responders, individuals with eating disorders, prisoners or those recovering from addiction.

Or make a general donation, and we’ll put your contribution to work where it’s needed most. To learn more about our program goals and how we use general and specific contributions, visit our Program pages.

Will you join Give Back Yoga Foundation as a Sustaining Member? Together, we can share the transformational benefits of yoga and mindfulness with the world…one person at a time.

Natalie Cielle: Yoga Behind Bars

“A light in every cell.”

That’s the vision of Yoga Behind Bars, a non-profit devoted to bringing yoga to prisoners. In this interview for The Huffington Post Blog, Yoga Behind Bars Executive Director Natalie Cielle tells Rob Schware what motivates her work, and how yoga has the potential to change the world:

“After my first class, it was my feeling of care for the students–people who are invisible to most of us–that kept me deeply committed to showing up every week. When we share powerful mind-body tools with prisoners, we free everyone from the cycle of crime. When we don’t, the cycle continues…if 10% of every dollar spent on yoga were shared with the members of our community who don’t have access to the practice, it would transform our world from the inside out, quickly.”

– Natalie Cielle, Executive Director of Yoga Behind Bars

Click here to read Natalie’s thoughts on why there’s a need for advocacy as well as yoga service, and what helps her to meet the challenge of bringing yoga into prisons.

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Inspired to give the gift of yoga to a prisoner? Support Prison Yoga Project or Yoga Behind Bars with a direct donation – every dollar counts! Or help us to fund yoga programs for prisoners by purchasing Prison Yoga Project’s book, “Yoga, A Path for Healing & Recovery.” Developed through years of experience in sharing yoga with incarcerated youth and adults, this training guide is a powerful resource for anyone trying to break free of negative behavioral patterns and develop the self-reflection and personal discipline to lead a more conscious life.

Spotlight: How Yoga is Changing the Lives of Prisoners Worldwide

“If it wasn’t for prison I wouldn’t have got involved in yoga, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. I would probably be dead…at one point I actually became grateful for being in prison because I could feel this massive evolution, this change that was happening within me through yoga. So I almost became like a grateful convict, happy to be where I was, paying the time for my crime and rehabilitating myself.”

– Nick, a former prisoner who served time in Argentina’s Villa Devoto, speaking to BBC News 

From Argentina to England, America to Kenya, a growing number of prisons are offering yoga and meditation as a way to help incarcerated men and women deal with intense stress and create a more peaceful atmosphere. Click here to read the BBC News spotlight “How Yoga is Helping Prisoners Stay Calm.”

Give Back Yoga Foundation is proud to be a part of this worldwide movement by supporting Prison Yoga Project, a transformational organization founded by James Fox to help prisoners to heal their lives through yoga and mindfulness. For incarcerated men and women, yoga offers a path for embracing self-compassion while taking responsibility for past crimes. It also helps prisoners to change trauma-induced, unconscious behavioral patterns like impulse control issues, mood disorders, violence, addiction and PTSD – usually, the behavior that landed them in jail in the first place.

To learn how you can help prisoners to find peace, compassion and a fresh start, visit our Prison Yoga Project page.

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Want to help Give Back Yoga to put yoga and mindfulness guides in the hands of 10,000 prisoners this year? Purchase Prison Yoga Project’s powerful book, A Path for Healing and Recoveryfor yourself or on behalf of a prisoner.