Dana Walters: Making Yoga Accessible To All

Dana Walters

Photo of Dana Walters courtesy of Stacy Abbott

This is an interview with Dana Walters, co-founder of Project Yoga Richmond. Dana told me that she took her first group class in 1994, but yoga didn’t immediately “grab” her the way it can newcomers; it took several years. She started Project Yoga Richmond, a non-profit organization, in 2010.

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?

What drove the inception of Project Yoga Richmond was a confluence of events: with an inheritance from my grandparents, I acquired a building suitable for a studio space. A beloved yoga teacher had passed away just a year before, and I, along with several of her students who are also yoga teachers, wished to carry her vision forward to serve our local community. Our weekly studio classes, donation-based and open to all, support our offsite outreach yoga classes for under-served groups. The demand for service through yoga continues to increase. We receive a dozen or so requests each quarter for ongoing or seasonal classes for individuals in need. While we have expanded our studio offerings and offer workshops and continuing teacher education, our emphasis has shifted more and more to service, thanks to the support of our students and donors. We currently have over 50 active teachers and volunteers working together.

Is there a standout moment from your work in your local community?

There are so many inspiring examples of transformation from the past five years: for instance, a woman who shared with me that yoga has brought her daughters and her closer because they can all afford to practice together at our studio. There is a student in long-term unemployment who leaves notes of appreciation for us and our supporters, because of whom she can continue to attend despite her financial circumstances. We know a woman in recovery from addiction who finds a spiritual home at our studio, and a volunteer who said he finally learned how to breathe. Another story is from a fixed-income senior in our outreach classes who is finally able to reach the back of her head to dye her own hair! We have children with autism learning to “Om” together. Finally, we have teachers and students from all over the community, with different backgrounds, joining together to give back the practice that has brought them so much.

What did you know about Richmond before you began Project Yoga? What were some of the assumptions you had about the community, and how have those assumptions changed?

I grew up here, so I know we have a great city with so many exciting cultural shifts that have happened over the past few years: a thriving street arts movement and world-class fine arts museum, a fantastic music scene, great trails surrounding the James River right in our city, and more and more of a shift toward diversity, re-writing the cultural samskaras (deeply ingrained patterns) of racism and slavery. (Richmond was the capital of the Confederate south, after all.)

What has really moved me is the interest in yoga and the sustained support of our students. Since our inception in late 2010, we’ve come to roll out 1200-1600 yoga mats each month to individuals of all abilities across our community: young people with autism, seniors in marginalized areas, incarcerated young women, adults with developmental delays, kids in city schools, people in addiction recovery.

What are two ways that teaching in a studio might differ from teaching to communities in need, and what are the reasons for these differences?

Skill and humility are paramount in teaching in outreach programs. A teacher must be prepared, have all the tools in his or her tool bag, so to speak: know how to modify poses creatively, teach many types of practices other than asana (postures) useful to people in need, emphasize that yoga is so much more than the images that are often presented in the media. A teacher engaging in service must also, with humility, be willing to change his or her plan based on the needs of the community. This humility is required to teach any class, even more so when serving those with a variety of physical and mental barriers or challenges.

What has been the greatest challenge in your work with PYR, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Balancing growth with sustained support is always a challenge. We constantly ask ourselves how large a reach we want to have. At times, the possibilities seem limitless. Maintaining fiscal strength is very important. Bringing in board members, staff, and volunteers with fresh vision, great ideas, and an inclination toward mindful teaching, diversity, and co-creating responsible yoga culture has been a growing focus recently.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to engage in service work, or start a non-profit organization?

Have the willingness and humility to learn as much as you can — to remain a student, always. Bring new resources into your community: reach out to individuals with skills you don’t currently have, and listen to what they have to say. They can help you find innovative ways to stay true to your core vision and mission as you grow. Continue your self-care practices. Keep gratitude at the forefront of your mind and heart!

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

I hope the conversations the Yoga Service Council has started regarding mindful community and responsible, compassionate culture continue to evolve. I hope those in the U.S. who are teaching and practicing yoga will stay curious about what it means to work from the heart of yoga rather than at the surface of it! “All yoga” could be “service yoga.” We must create safe, inclusive spaces in our studios and classes. We would also do well to keep learning about our students, the communities we serve, and their needs. We should continue to care for ourselves as we serve others. We can create supportive professional groups we can call on when in need. We can use social media responsibly. There are some beautiful images out there. We can ask ourselves: do these images encourage the deeper exploration of yoga as a transformative inner practice? This is a challenge those of us practicing an ancient art while living in the modern technological world must try to explore.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Over time, through teaching and learning, my practice has become more mindful, intentional, slower, and healthier in general. Movements and postures that feel healing and supportive, fluid and easeful, are crucial for me to include. A good definition of yoga for me is “those practices and attitudes that ground us in our inherent wholeness.”

Regarding service, I’m most inspired by action! I remember the famous quote from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Everyone, no matter what circumstance or background, has a skill or service to offer, even if it’s just presence and attention. Yoga empowers us to attain clarity on what it is we can accomplish in this world, what’s beyond our control, and where our energy is best spent. This frees us up to serve in the ways we feel most useful.


Are you interested in supporting outreach to underserved populations? Make a commitment to serve by joining the Give Back Yoga membership program today


Caitlin Lanier: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga for Survivors of Sexual Assault

caitlin lanierThis is an interview with Caitlin Lanier, who has pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho area — including one at a domestic violence shelter, and two at local universities for survivors of sexual assault (Boise State and 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.

Rob: How has the awareness gained practicing yoga guided you to seek deeper healing?

Caitlin: During my freshman year of college, I was sexually assaulted. Those assaults led to issues with anorexia, cutting, and trying to numb my uncomfortable feelings. And those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.

Eventually, I found my way to yoga, and the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) started to take hold. I vowed to try to stop hurting my body, to stop seeing my body as the enemy, and to take small steps toward health. I started trying to eat healthily and take care of myself in the best way possible, and then I started trail running. I started to be able to sit with uncomfortable emotions, like sadness and despair. I learned that it’s normal to feel those things, and I explored various yoga forms and learned breathing techniques to help care for myself.

Later on, while working a high-stress job as a technical writer, I kept coming back to the nourishing effects of yoga. When that job was eliminated, I decided to complete a yoga teacher training and then a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training. As a grad student, I’ve started a yoga program at Boise State University called “Healing Breath Trauma-Sensitive Yoga” for survivors of sexual assault. Since I personally know the transformative effects of yoga, and how it helped me befriend my body, I’m eager to share and help others.

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

Following my experience with trauma in 2004, I joined a support group for fellow survivors of sexual assault, and went to a counselor. This counselor forced me to tell him exact details of what had happened during my experiences of sexual assault. I noticed that instead of feeling better, I felt worse — it was re-traumatizing.

The reason I started with this work was because of my experience with trauma, and feeling a lack of options for healing, given my experience with the counselor. I understand the trauma experience and aim to hold safe, healthy spaces for individuals to start or continue the healing process.

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 started working with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, I believed that trauma survivors are extremely vulnerable and I was scared to death of unintentionally triggering someone. What I’ve found is that, yes, some survivors are extremely vulnerable and can be triggered easily, but they are also extremely resilient, and their very act of stepping into a yoga class is very brave.

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?

Two distinctions are in language, and respect for participants’ physical space.

I utilize invitational language, such as “I invite you, if you’d like, etc.” My use of language is intentional, as I want to convey the idea that the participants are in control of their bodies, and it is their choice to move however and whenever they want. I also use interoceptive language, such as “notice, investigate,” etc., intended for participants to experience what’s happening in their bodies in the present moment.

I do not offer physical assists. My intention when teaching is to simply offer options, not to command poses and correct supposed imperfections. I view all yoga poses in the class as optional; perfection is not the goal, but rather each pose is an opportunity to explore the body.

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

One piece of teaching yoga that I find to be especially challenging is the one-size-fits-all model that is the West’s interpretation of group yoga classes. Yoga was originally taught one-on-one with a student reporting to the teacher various ailments that he/she was experiencing, and the teacher/guru working with that individual to design a yoga practice that would specifically benefit him/her. So, add that into work with trauma survivors, and it’s all really tricky. Two especially helpful things are built into the trauma-sensitive protocol: from the beginning I let students know that they are free and welcome to do any pose they want at any time, and also that they are in control and the experts of their own bodies.

I have many friends and family who have given me support, whether monetarily to pay for yoga mats, or through verbal encouragement; and I hope anyone teaching this population can find the same. By the same token, my students are supported by their friends/family, who volunteer to babysit their kids or make them dinner so that they can take the class and continue their healing process.

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

Get the appropriate training (i.e., Dave Emerson’s 40-hour trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training at Kripalu), partner with licensed mental health practitioners, put yourself in the shoes of your participants, be mindful and open to feedback, and trust yourself.

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

My hope is that more studios will offer free classes to make yoga accessible to the whole community. I also hope that NIMH will fund more research studies on yoga for trauma treatment, as well as other disorders (i.e., depression and anxiety). We are increasingly aware that yoga and mindfulness work an as ancillary treatment for these disorders, but my hope is we can gain more understanding as to how and precisely which of these yoga exercises works most effectively. I hope for more randomized control trials with large sample sizes to empirically show what works best, and what doesn’t.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I used to think of service as a one-way road — one person giving, and another person receiving. Now I see it as a round-about where I’m giving my yoga teaching and also learning from my students.

My definition and practice of yoga has changed, too. I used to be into a physically active practice and strove to do everything the teacher instructed. Now I see yoga as a scientific wellness system for mind, body, and spirit, and I listen to my body and heed its messages. If I’m feeling worn down, I’ll aim for a practice with slow movements and more restorative postures. Additionally, when I attend classes, I often “disobey” the teacher and do what pose feels best to me.


Are you interested in adding mindfulness techniques to your teaching toolkit? Explore the ways our yoga therapy and yoga service trainings can prepare you to support people in overcoming trauma.

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

Paige Reeves: How We Bridge Linguistic and Socio-Economic Borders

paige reevesThis is an interview with Paige Reeves, who launched YogaVida in October 2013 as a non-profit initiative to bring the mental and physical benefits of yoga to the Latino immigrant community in Phoenix, Arizona. She teaches a free weekly general class in Spanish at a partnering non-profit health care clinic (Phoenix Allies for Community Health), and is also sharing relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and moderate asana techniques with a Spanish-speaking HIV-positive support group. YogaVida is starting to grow; recently, several enthusiastic teachers have responded to calls for Spanish-speaking teachers.

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?

When family reasons brought me back to the US after almost two decades in Spain and Peru, I noticed that while yoga is incredibly popular and available in Phoenix, and Phoenix is home to a huge Latino population, the two have barely met. I saw an opportunity to bridge that gap and, at the same time, to support immigrants — a group whose particular obstacles have always concerned me, especially against the backdrop of Arizona’s hard line on immigration. I saw a chance to meet people in a new city and to keep my Spanish-speaking, South American-living side alive.

What continues to motive me is interacting with the students, building relationships, being a part of their lives, and hearing their responses to the changes they have felt along the way. I like that they truly want to be there. We enrich one another.

Is there a standout moment from your work with YogaVida and the Latino community in Phoenix?

That moment would be the openness and willingness of the HIV-positive support group during our first class. I was a complete stranger to them, an outsider to their close-knit community, yet they sat patiently and attentively while I talked (a bit nervously at first — I still get nervous speaking in front of groups!) about mind/body medicine, and stress reduction. Then they were brave enough to take off their shoes and lie down on the carpeted conference room floor, some with visible trepidation, close their eyes (most of them anyway), and follow the instructions of someone they didn’t know at all, to do something they’d never seen before. I relaxed, they relaxed. The class started to be peppered with jokes and good-natured grunts. By the end of our two hours together, there was a palpable feeling of trust and mutual appreciation, of connection.

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?

I had recently moved to Phoenix, so honestly, I didn’t know much about this particular population. I’m getting to know the community with each interaction. But in any case I did feel that I wouldn’t be able to truly know how the project would be until it actually came into being. I had a general idea of the “how” and the “what” I wanted to offer, but I needed to allow the actual experiences and the actual people to shape YogaVida.

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 YogaVida classes, we don’t follow what I think of as standard studio protocol or etiquette. For example, students might interrupt with a question in the middle of class; we might get off-topic if there is something interesting to talk about. We laugh quite a lot, and the whole thing is a lot less formal. Sometimes, one mom needs to bring her 2-year-old because she can’t find childcare. We simply set the little girl up on a folded mat and have her play along, copying our movements. Yes, it distracts from the class in the strictest sense, but we make it work, and everyone gets to do their yoga.

Secondly, I focus less on refinements, not to water it down or because the students can’t do them, but in order to make our classes fun, light-hearted, and accessible. If the pose a student is making is more or less as intended, and everything is safe, I know the pose is being effective.

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

To be perfectly honest, sometimes I struggle to keep up my motivation to do the project, to go out and build up a student base, find new spaces to hold classes, seek material donations. In other words, sometimes it is easy to fall back into my own comfortable little life. The “fix”, though, is pretty easy: I simply keep doing it. Each time I do a class and see my students, my motivation and enthusiasm are renewed.

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

As with almost anything in life: suspend your expectations, opinions, and assumptions. Be mindful and open to who, and how, your students actually are. Be informed. Keep it fun and accessible. But more than anything, just go out and do it — the rest will fall into place.

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

What about a future where there is less of a distinction between “yoga” and “service yoga?” Every single one of us already knows how good it feels to help out a friend, a family member, or a stranger. As yoga continues to infiltrate well-being efforts across the board (schools, offices, prisons, hospitals, neighborhoods of all types and incomes, etc.) and as we keep gaining awareness of how truly interconnected every living being on this planet is, I can envision more and more people becoming inspired to pay forward the emotional and physical changes yoga has sparked in their own lives.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

So far, I haven’t experienced a shift in my definition of yoga or of service. Perhaps that is because my definitions are pretty simple: I believe that yoga meets you where you are, and gives you what you need. I believe that service is a mutually-enriching exchange that can be big or small, subtle or groundbreaking. My practice has changed only in that I have been given one more opportunity to feel the healing power of coupling my own self-study with loving, giving interactions with others.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on July 31, 2015


If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to share yoga and mindfulness with those in need of healing: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation. Learn more.

Beth Daugherty: How We Serve Cancer Patients

Beth Daugherty

Beth Daugherty

This is an interview with Beth Daugherty, Executive Director of the Christina Phipps Foundation. This foundation was founded in 2010 in memory of Christina Phipps, a Jacksonville yoga instructor who found great physical and emotional comfort from her yoga community. After her first round of chemotherapy and a clean report, Christina wanted to give back to her community. She developed a unique form of gentle yoga specifically for cancer patients. She offered these yoga classes for free to people living with cancer. She received much acclaim from the community and a large following. Shortly before her death in 2010, she was still leading as many as 12 yoga classes a week.

Today, the foundation continues to carry out the work begun by Christina — recruiting qualified yoga teachers, organizing trainings for them, coaching these teachers through the certification process, and assisting in locating appropriate volunteer placement so that each yoga teacher can serve the cancer community.

Rob: How did you become a yoga teacher, and what motivated you to work with cancer patients?

Beth: I have a confession to make: I began taking yoga classes in the early 1980s hoping to get easy PE credits in college. Throughout college, the Peace Corps, and graduate school in my 20s, I continued learning yoga. I was never the thin, flexible yogi you see in the ads, but it definitely cleared my head. Later, in my 30s, still plugging away at learning yoga and meditation, I was shocked to be asked to serve as President of the Board of the local yoga society. It seemed a job for a yoga teacher or certainly someone more advanced than I, but I happily accepted, jumped into it and enjoyed the challenge.

This volunteerism inspired me to enroll in a full-time residential seva program. Karma yoga, seva, volunteerism, and yoga service are used interchangeably, but I think it is important to recognize the difference between them. Karma Yoga (outlined in the Bhagavad-Gita) is focused action with detachment from the result. Seva, also called selfless service, refers to action for a higher purpose other than just meeting your own needs. Volunteerism is more “secular,” recognizing that selfish motives, like padding your ego or resume, can be part of the package. Yoga service programs may include one or all of these.

I went from a management job with a beautiful office to cleaning toilets in a yoga center in another state. I moved from a lovely, private city apartment to a bunk bed in a drafty dorm room with 50 other women. We cleaned full-time, and then had the opportunity to do all the yoga we could fit in our schedule, learning from gifted teachers. I completed this seva program and was invited to do similar residential seva programs in two other yoga centers. This was a rare immersion experience in seva and karma yoga.

Lessons I learned about karma yoga in the 1990s became part of my life and yoga practice. I never really thought I would be a yoga teacher but nearly three decades after my first yoga class I completed teacher training, and with great trepidation opened Lifespan Yoga®. I did not plan on doing volunteer work, and promoting karma yoga (now that I had commercial rent to pay), but that all changed, too.

I was in business less than a year in 2010 when a friend asked me to attend a free Christina Phipps Foundation training to learn how to teach yoga to cancer patients. After the training the foundation asked each person to teach free yoga classes to patients. I immediately said no because I did not know very much about cancer. Then a board member from the foundation called and told me all about Christina and the classes she taught until her death from breast cancer. I was impressed, but declined again. A few days later, the wife of a board member called me at home to again invite me to the training. Three times is a charm; I told her I would be happy to attend the training and commit to teaching cancer patients.

Christina Phipps

Christina Phipps

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?

My first training session with the Mayo Clinic doctors was a sweeping medical overview. The presentations blew my mind; the information presented about cancer diagnosis, new treatments, and recovery was all new to me. Everyone there was volunteering their time: surgeons, oncologists, physical therapists, social workers, cancer survivors, and a little band of yoga teachers ready to translate all this information into gentle yoga classes in a safe and healing way. I went back to my tiny yoga studio, made a flyer for the free cancer class and posted it in a coffee shop.

I thought cancer patients coming to my yoga class would be very weak and may not be able to get up and down from the floor, so I immediately signed up for Chair Yoga certification. What really happened was quite different. A woman I knew from church walked in first and I had no idea she was in treatment — she looked fabulous and fit. She brought great energy, and helped grow the class to become part-cancer support group and part-yoga.

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?

Cancer classes with Foundation (CPF) students have a social and support group element, whereas studio classes can often be anonymous. My teaching style is pretty much the same whether I am in the studio or medical facility, but yoga studios have a range of props that are especially helpful. Most hospitals do not have this advantage, so there is some creativity needed in teaching without props. Also, in our CPF classes we do not touch or adjust students. This is quite a change for yoga teachers who were trained in styles with a lot of adjustments. We train teachers to use their speech to guide and adjust.

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

I hope the future of service yoga is based on the ideal of “selfless service,” and karma yoga. All of the roles we embody are opportunities for service or selfishness. This is the challenge of our age, and yogis have a history, structure, and practice to address this.

I hope yogis who want to practice (or lead) service yoga will learn about karma yoga and seva. Find a mentor who has a personal karma yoga practice. Coaching and mentoring by yogis with seva experience can reduce attrition. Nothing happens overnight, and a good mentor will help when it gets hard. Just like any yoga program, some people quit and the opportunity is lost; some do just the bare minimum and move on; then the rare gems continue on year after year, and reap the benefits. Strong, ethical leadership for service programs is always needed. If you are a leader, get karma yogis together to share experiences and advance learning. This elevates the practice.

Christina Phipps Foundation Training

Yoga instructors working with the Christina Phipps Foundation

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


If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to share yoga and mindfulness with those in need of healing: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation. Learn more.



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


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.

Dena Samuels: Culturally-Inclusive and Trauma-Sensitive Yoga

This is an interview with Dena Samuels, who I met through the social justice work she has been doing as an educator and activist for about 15 years. Her new book on the topic is called The Culturally Inclusive Educator: Preparing for a Multicultural World (Columbia University’s Teachers College Press). It was written for any educator teaching any subject (including yoga) who wishes to serve diverse clients. It asks readers/educators to delve deeply to understand their hidden biases, and to transform and heal themselves, each other, and the planet through self-reflection and mindfulness. Dena is Assistant Professor of Women’s & Ethnic Studies and Director of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity & Inclusion at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. She is also a yoga teacher serving in a donation-based studio and in an addiction recovery center. Dena believes, “we have so much to learn and reflect on to make all our spaces places where every single person feels like they belong.”  — Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director

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

Dena: Because I am a trauma survivor, yoga and meditation have been, and still are, a huge part of my path to healing. I am continually motivated by the notion that yoga is a moving meditation, and a means of surrender. Coming back to the mat makes my life work physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and brings me a feeling of inner peace and contentment that stays with me both on and off the mat. Although I continue to heal from the many forms of childhood abuse I suffered (physical, emotional, and sexual), knowing that I can hold space for others to heal and transform is what continues to motivate me as a facilitator of their self-acceptance, learning, and growth.

Is there a standout moment from your work with recovering addicts?

There are so many; one that I continue to experience is the humility that comes over me whenever I am working with a client who is going through detox. That person’s willingness to engage in their yoga practice even though their bodies are fragile and literally shaky from withdrawal, has been incredibly inspiring. Like the lotus flower rooted in muck, yet growing toward the sunlight, I’m continually reminded that this is what true survival and reaching for one’s best life looks like.

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?

Not having had an alcohol or drug addiction myself, I did not know a lot about that specific recovery process. However, I do know what healing one’s life looks and feels like, so I have used my own process to shape the classes I teach. I think I assumed all the clients would be much more physically challenged by practicing yoga than they are. I have been surprised by their strength and stamina.

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?

The key difference is that in a studio, I wouldn’t practice with my clients; also I give hands-on adjustments. In the addiction center teaching trauma-sensitive yoga, I do not get off my mat because I want the clients to know where I am at all times. Also, many clients are new to yoga, so when I practice asana with them they can use not only my verbal cues, but also visual ones. Physical adjustments with trauma survivors is not permitted at the center, so I use more verbal cues to provide feedback as clients adjust their own alignment or sink deeper into a posture.

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

The greatest challenge for me is finding a balance between encouraging clients to explore their boundaries in a posture and at the same time, wanting them to feel secure in their bodies. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive ideas but still require some forethought. For example, if I wanted to use “cultivating gratitude” as a theme for class, I have to consider that that may not be available to some clients at this point in their journey. The tool that I rely on is remembering my own healing journey, which allows me to use language and concepts that are more likely to resonate with anyone who is in the process of deep, heartfelt discovery.

I know there were times in my healing when gratitude was not even remotely possible to contemplate; in fact, it brought up shame that I was unable to feel gratitude! So I might suggest clients consider whether there is any part of their lives that is positive at this moment that they can focus on. I might give them some suggestions, like the fact that they have chosen to be here to start a new journey, one that is different from the past. Or I might suggest they focus on a part of their body about which they feel positive: a big toe, the way their knee bends, or their smile. This has allowed me to connect to clients’ experience better, which in effect means I am connecting more profoundly to them.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach yoga to people in recovery from addictions?

If the teacher has not had their own experience of recovery or healing, I would strongly recommend reading books on the topic to try to understand what clients might be experiencing. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper is short and to the point, and although it’s not perfect, it offers some good suggestions.

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

I believe all yoga is service yoga, but it shouldn’t stop there. We have so much to learn and reflect on to make all our teaching spaces welcoming to every single person. We need to consider how to change our yoga spaces to welcome new and diverse members of our greater communities. The current Western paradigm is that yoga is for thin, educated white women. This needs to change. We need more yoga spaces that offer adaptive yoga for people of varying body sizes, shapes, and abilities.

I would love to see more donation-based studios. My home studio, Cambio Donation Yoga, is an example of the fact that this is a sustainable way to offer yoga. Donation yoga also means that the studio is much more diverse.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My practice has been an affirmation of the deep impact that yoga can have on our bodies, minds, and spirits, and I’ve known I wasn’t the only one gaining these kinds of benefits from yoga. This form of service reminds me that we can all benefit from yoga, no matter who we are, what our experiences are in life, how our body is shaped, etc. And that yoga is always available — whether we are new to the practice, have taken time off and are coming back to it, or are committed to a regular practice — we can always gain some benefit from the movement as meditation in motion.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on December 29, 2014


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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


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.

Katrina Kopeck: Serving Veterans Through Yoga

This is an interview with Katrina Kopeck, a vinyasa yoga instructor since 2011. I first met Katrina at a 15-hour Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans teacher training in Boulder, Colorado early this year. Soon thereafter, she began teaching at the Boulder Vet Center, offering a mindful yoga practice open to veterans and therapists. — Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director

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?

Katrina: I grew up with a great respect for the military. My dad was an officer in the Coast Guard and is a founding member of the Warrior’s Watch, and my brother served in OEF/OIF as a flight medic in the Air Force. My maternal grandfather served as a gunman in World War II for the British Canadian Navy and my paternal grandfather served as a lieutenant in the signal corps in the US Army.

I was never in the military myself. I’ve had lots of jobs in various careers but chose to pursue yoga as my passion and career. Teaching yoga to the men and women who have dedicated themselves to service is a way to connect my two worlds and give back to a population that deserves a lot more respect and attention. I’m continually motivated by stories of what these people went through and how civilians treated them after their return.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

Simple moments hit me the hardest: a couple of weeks ago a vet told me that he noticed it’s easier for him to tie his shoes. It’s something most people take for granted, but it makes his day just a little bit easier. That’s huge.

There’s another vet I work with who has a very hard time staying still physically and mentally throughout class. But he continues to practice, and he’s changing, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. I started watching his toes in savasana (corpse pose) and his record is 30 seconds of stillness. He gets better every time.

During a yoga nidra (deep relaxation with inner awareness) practice, an OIF vet woke up suddenly and looked at me. After the practice, he shared that he had experienced a particular memory that he had only thought about one other time since Iraq, and that last time he had gotten extremely angry and physically aggressive. In this moment though, his relationship with the memory had changed into one of an observation instead of a reaction. Pretty cool!

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

I walked into the VA the first time with the assumption that I was going to have to be very assertive to start a yoga program in a center that had never offered yoga before. I figured I would have to talk to a lot of people up the ranks and have a lot of information to back up my desire to teach yoga for vets.

Because of these assumptions, I probably entered the VA a little on the aggressive side. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I brought my certificates, yoga resume, and a lot of verbal information about why our vets need yoga and no, I really don’t want any money from the VA.

With great timing, a veteran publication had printed an article about yoga for vets that same week. The lead therapist at the center brought the article to our second meeting and said he thought it would be a great idea.

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 veterans’ yoga class, I don’t offer any assists or leave my mat. This was very challenging to start as I love offering touch in my vinyasa classes, but it wasn’t appropriate in the VA setting. Partially because of this, I was able to gain the trust of the people in my classes.

I also encourage “community time” at the beginning of these classes. I set aside the first 10-15 minutes of class time to let everyone chat and connect. Sometimes they’re pretty quiet, but most weeks they’re chatty, telling stories about boot camp, war, bears, something someone saw about yoga, whatever comes up. I think this time to connect everyone on an intimate, comfortable (and sometimes crass) level before getting into breath and movement, is important in this kind of class. Just listening without judgment goes a long way in creating relationships built on trust.

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

The greatest challenge in my teaching experience has been adapting a class to balance younger vets and veterans who have been out of the military and living in Boulder for a long time. I ask for a lot of feedback to develop a class that serves them the best, and this population really wanted more: more core work, more Sanskrit words, more challenging poses, more energy movement. We’re finding a way to walk the line of accessibility and tradition with a mix of people who have studied yoga, as well as those who are brand new.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at a vet center?

1.) Know how you are going to present yourself and your information. Go in confidently, professionally, and with all the compassion you have. Leave judgment at the door.

2.) Get right to the point. Ask to speak to someone about volunteer opportunities, then have an “elevator speech” ready to introduce why you want to teach to vets in this location. For example, “Hi, I’m Katrina. I am a certified yoga instructor and interested in working with veterans. Is this something you would consider offering?”

3.) Bring materials for the staff to keep and look over. Offer your certifications and credentials, resume, printed articles and media, and any books that might shed light on yoga therapy for vets.

4.) Know your “why.” The first question everyone — therapists, friends, vets — asked me was, “Why do you want to work with vets?” Knowing your answer and having a concise way to explain it will help gain the trust of the vets and staff.

5.) Don’t take no for an answer. If you find resistance, ask them “Why?” Since yoga therapy is still so new, chances are the staff just isn’t that familiar with yoga or the effects of yoga therapy for veterans. Offer your materials, media, and your verbal skills to assure them that this is a positive, helpful therapy option.

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

I want to see yoga as an integral part of the military: in training, in combat and in treatment. It’s such an important tool to offer anyone who has or might experience serious trauma. I want to see trained, talented yoga instructors creating a community in which yoga is accessible to everyone.

How has this work changed your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My definition of yoga is constantly changing. In this context, yoga is a way of inclusive, supportive living using the tools to mindfully handle stresses and traumas in a healthy manner, on a daily basis.

My own practice has become more healing and intuitive through pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation as a result. It can be very difficult to take your own advice as an instructor, but learning and living the breath and meditation practices is key to finding balance and healing, especially while working in a yoga therapy setting.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on November 12, 2014


Are you a yoga teacher who wants to work with veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy’s new 100-hour certification program will lead you through a deeper understanding of how to support this population. Learn more at the Mindful Yoga Therapy website.

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.


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.


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.