Melissa Jhunja: Yoga for Healing, Recovery & Living

melissa-jhunjaThis is an interview with Melissa Jhunja who, as a social worker and avid volunteer, has always been drawn to service in a variety of ways. She became particularly interested in human rights and social policy as she went through a master’s program in social work, and wanted to find ways to serve those who often have their rights violated, or lack basic human rights. She heard about the Prison Yoga Project in 2012 and was immediately drawn to the idea of bringing a yoga practice into prisons as a means to heal, and to cope with the reality of life behind bars. She later began teaching veterans through Connected Warriors and later with Exhale to Inhale, which brings yoga to women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you?

Melissa: I was lucky enough to stumble upon my first yoga class about 12 years ago at a gym where I was a member, and I tried it mainly out of curiosity. As my practice continued I began to notice a profound healing effect on my body and mind. I was hooked and continued to reap emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits, largely because I had the resources to do so. I knew there were many others out there who, like me, could benefit from the healing qualities of yoga practice, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t easily find themselves stepping into a yoga studio. It felt like yoga was hidden in plain sight – how could I get others to give it a try?

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Hearing the ways yoga has helped people shift perspective, heal injuries, relieve tension, and calm the mind. I like hearing these first-hand stories from my students, especially those who hesitated the most initially. I like to see them returning again and again to share their experiences with me and with others, and to continue to deepen their practice.

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

They taught me that I am always a student – I learn so much from them! They’ve shown me how strong and resilient one can be in the face of adversity, trauma, hardship, and pain. They teach me to never judge a book by its cover, and that yoga is for everyone.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with?

Yoga is freedom despite physical incarceration for the prison populations who learn to find liberation within. For the women I teach through Exhale to Inhale, yoga is freedom to reconnect with their bodies, breath, and minds in a positive way. They reframe prolonged negative associations, allowing them to continue to move forward in the healing process with a more powerful sense of self and choice. Yoga reconnects the women I serve with mind and body in a positive way, despite the stress life can bring.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

If we can relate to our own minds in a more clear and open, respectful and curious way we can relate to others in the same manner. In this type of practice we begin with ourselves, building up this “muscle” of being more mindful in our own daily lives, such that it gains strength and radiates outwards to other aspects of our experiences.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

If I could pack a “bag” to teach in the shelters, I think the most important element would be an open mind. The key is putting the “teacher” hat away and switching to a facilitator role; empathy and humility are some of the essentials.

The women I work with do not need a perfect asana class. They need the freedom of choice to connect with their bodies, to befriend their breath, and re-friend their mind. That said, they really each need something different, as they are all individuals. I would advise someone about to teach in a shelter to expect nothing, and to stay fully present with each student, in each moment. If you create a safe and empowering space first and foremost, then everything else will follow.

Success in these roles is not about how much they liked the sequencing in a class, but about the tools they take with them. If students recognize and learn how to use their breath and their meditation as tools to promote their own healing, then they’ve started to connect with their own power and strength, which is the ultimate success.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that it becomes an established part of all yoga teachers’ schedules. I hope that it is explicitly discussed as a component in all teacher trainings – the importance of giving back and karma yoga. I hope to see more yoga in unconventional places such as prisons, shelters, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and public schools, where I hope to see it reaching a broader set of students. I hope we can dispel the notion that you need a lot of time or money or a gym membership to establish and benefit from a yoga practice. I think service yoga can serve to expand and break those stereotypes and barriers. Bringing this healing and transformational practice to many more of those who never expected to step on a mat is my hope.

Originally published on The Huffington Post


Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.


Yoga and Trauma

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

Originally published on

Yoga and Trauma

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

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

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


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

Vietnam War Veteran

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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



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

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

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

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

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton

Help Prison Yoga Project Earn a Matching Grant

Light the Match


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

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

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

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

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


Kalliopeia Foundation

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

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


Give now and multiply your impact.

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

“Untangle” podcast interview with Prison Yoga Project founder James Fox

Gaiam’s Untangle meditation podcast features real people with extraordinary stories, and experts who have devoted their lives to teaching and helping others through meditation. In this episode, host Patricia Karpas sat down to talk with Prison Yoga Project founder and director James Fox.

Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga and mindfulness can bring about change in prisoners who have been impacted by chronic trauma for most of their lives. James’s work has taken him inside San Quentin State Prison, where he’s taught some of their most violent offenders. Here’s his story.


“They buzzed me right out onto the yard. I had another 25 feet to go until I went to the classroom. The gate clicks, the buzzer buzzes, the gate clicks open, I walk out into the yard. I’ve got my yoga mat under my arm…”

“I said, this is your opportunity to leave prison for the next hour and a half that we’re together. This is out of bounds from the rest of the prison. You don’t have to deal with prison politics. We’re here to practice together.




Donate to Prison Yoga Project to help fund free practice guides for prisoners. Or find a Prison Yoga Project training near you, and get involved in sharing the transformational tools of yoga and mindfulness with men and women behind bars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor: Alice Trembour

Image: Courtesy of Linda Stenmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jill Weiss Ippolito: How We Serve Incarcerated Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Introducing: Our 108 Studio Partnership Program


Now, there’s a new way to give back from the mat: Give Back Yoga’s 108 Studio Partnership Program. We’re inviting studios across the country to join the Give Back family and raise funds for a service program of your choice, helping certified yoga teachers and yoga therapists to bring this healing mind/body practice to those who are most vulnerable.

How the 108 Studio Partnership Program Works

Over a one-year period, partner studios give back by hosting a monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly fundraiser to help bring yoga to those who might not otherwise experience this transformational practice. This can be as simple as a donation class held on a specific day each month. Or it can be an exciting opportunity for your community to come together for special events such as a 108 Sun Salutations practice or a guest teacher, speaker or artist.

Our 108 partners also host a “Give Back Yoga Month” to jump-start the program and raise awareness for Give Back Yoga’s mission, sharing information during regularly scheduled classes and collecting donations at the front desk.

How Your Studio Can Make a Difference

With your help, Give Back Yoga can support our partner programs in expanding their reach, bringing therapeutic yoga to even more of the people we aim to serve. Through the 108 Partnership Program, studio communities can give wings to programs like:

  • Eat Breathe Thrive: Fostering positive body image and overcoming eating disorders.
  • Mindful Yoga Therapy: Helping veterans to find a calm and steady body/mind.
  • Prison Yoga Project: Teaching skills for non-violent problem resolution and healing.
  • Give Back Yoga: Supporting our operations to cover our largest areas of need.

 How the Program Benefits Studios

Becoming a 108 Studio Partner can help studios to build a close-knit community of the heart by gathering students around a common cause. It’s also a way to help students begin to explore and practice karma yoga, by giving back a gift that has touched each of their lives — the gift of a practice that can transform from the inside out.

The 108 Studio Partnership Program can also help studios to raise their online and local presence, as organizers work with community partners and Give Back Yoga to cross-promote events large and small through online and offline channels. Additionally, Give Back Yoga issues an end-of-year tax receipt to all active 108 Studio Partners, which may help your studio to offset expenses.

What 108 Studio Partners Are Saying About the Program

“It is important to extend the ancient teachings of yoga out beyond the space of yoga studios and into the world where it can reach the many people in need who may never walk through the doors of a yoga center. The time-tested benefits of a regular yoga practice are profound not just on the individual, but on all of society, essentially creating more peace for all.  At a time in human history when there is a tremendous amount of chaos, Give Back Yoga supports growth, healing and harmony for all of society.  I am happy and grateful to have my yoga studio community give back as a whole while benefitting on so many levels from the 108 Studio collaboration with Give Back Yoga Foundation.” — Annie Freedom, founder of Samadhi Center for Yoga, Denver, CO


Become a 108 Studio Partner or learn more: email to request information on getting started.


Connect with our 108 Studio Partners:


True Nature Healing ArtsLotus House of YogaYoga Pod LoDoYoga Studio SatyaYoga Pod BoulderOutlaw Yoga


Main image courtesy of Merrick Chase Photography.