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.