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Bob Tenbarge: Serving the Vanderburgh County Correctional Center, Indiana

This is an interview with Bob Tenbarge, a home improvement contractor who, after an unsuccessful back surgery in 2007, began his yoga practice. Immediately after the first class, he experienced the benefits, and, as he told me, “I was hooked.” Five years into his practice, he started his first yoga teacher training, simultaneously teaching at several local studios. In 2015 he began a more in-depth training “Transforming Health with Yoga,” with Kay Corpus, M.D., one of the requirements for which was teaching a six-week seva (“service”) project to benefit the community.

Rob: What originally motivated you to teach yoga at the Vanderburgh County Correctional Center (VCCC)?

My goal has always been to introduce yoga to more men! Most of the time I’m the only male in the classes I attend. My niece is employed at the VCCC and informed me they had been discussing yoga and mindfulness programs for work-release inmates. After a meeting with the program director, it was less than a week before I was teaching on a weekly basis. What began as my six-week seva project is going strong nine months later. The inmates won’t let me stop, and I don’t know if I could. I teach at two yoga studios as well, but the class at VCCC is my favorite. The men tell me how they feel, how the yoga helps, and how much they appreciate me showing up for them. I can seriously say I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me.

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

People who practice mindfulness have greater control of their impulses, which leads to making better choices. That to me is the most beneficial aspect for a prisoner. Mindfulness slows us down and gives us the time to observe our emotions before we act on them. It also helps us to act without judgement. We can use meditation or grounding techniques to keep our focus on the present moment; this prevents us from disassociating ourselves—going back to the past or looking to the future—from what is happening here and now.

The yoga-practicing men at the VCCC have noticed that after starting their practice, they feel better about themselves, sleep better, have better communication and interaction with others, and have less anxiety. They have shared their breathing and meditation practices with their loved ones on the outside to help them deal with their responses to a family member’s incarceration.

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

As a taxpayer I am already paying for our prison system in federal, state, and local taxes. The cost to keep a prisoner behind bars varies widely from state to state. According to a 2012 study from the Vera Institute of Justice the cost to the taxpayer was $39 billion in 2012. Most taxpayer money goes toward building more prisons, employee salaries and benefits, retiree health care contributions, and legal claims. Very little money is left for the prisoner. I strongly believe that we should be spending money on rehabilitative practices that include yoga and mindfulness, as well as continuing education.

The benefits of a yoga program would come to fruition when prisoners are released with the tools to succeed and continue to use the mindfulness and yoga upon release. It will take time, but rehabilitative programs will lower the prison population, which in the end will save taxpayer money.

What is the greatest obstacle to yoga classes becoming a regular feature of prisons?

I would say it is both the availability of yoga teachers and the attitudes of many wardens.

Every state, city, and county is looking for ways to cut costs from programs to balance their budgets. Funding for yoga programs is starting to grow in some states, but most teachers are still volunteers. The volunteer teacher in most cases meets the superintendent or program director at the corrections center to explain the benefits and results of a prison yoga program either from research or personal experience. If it’s agreed, it is typically a 6 to 12-week trial run.

The volunteer teacher may teach alone or with a partner. If the class is an hour long, it could take two hours with checking in and out of the facility. It could be a three- or four-hour time commitment, depending on how much travel is involved.

Ideally, the prisoners would have the option to be educated on how to teach other prisoners, so the yoga practice would be a regular feature they can depend on. I strongly believe they would respect a teacher they could relate to, and see on a daily basis.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart With Kath Meadows

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is proud to announce the release of “A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart,” produced in partnership with Prison Yoga Project. This 70-page guide offers clear and simple instructions to help women with a history of trauma or addiction to engage in self-healing through a personal yoga practice.  This book is available for purchase through GBYF’s online store, and will be offered free of charge to any incarcerated woman who requests a copy through Give Back Yoga.

Author Kath Meadows has taught yoga to incarcerated women at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and Patuxent Institution in Jessup for nearly five years. Here, we ask Kath about the inspiration behind “A Woman’s Practice,” and about the need for an accessible yoga guide for all women – whether free, or behind bars.

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GBYF: What inspired you to write A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart?
Kath Meadows: Several years ago, I met (Prison Yoga Project founder) James Fox, and I read his book, A Path for Healing and Recovery. I was so moved, especially by seeing the images of men in prison who were practicing yoga. It was taking things beyond the paradigm of Yoga Journal, where we tend to see beautiful women in trendy yoga clothes doing asana.

But one thing that struck me was, there were no women pictured in the book. And I can understand why – the images were taken at San Quentin State Prison, a men’s facility.

But since the 1970s, there has been an 800% increase in the women’s prison population. And the Department of Corrections has been slow to catch on: it is a sad reality that the correctional paradigm is still largely based on men. For instance, clothing provided for incarcerated women is often available in men’s-only sizing. In my classes, I might see tiny women wearing small men’s T-shirts, and they’re just swimming in them.

Most of the support programming provided by the DoC is also based on material designed for men, and it tends to be very confrontational, aimed at breaking through barriers of denial. But that’s not what I saw in my classes. The common issues are low self-esteem and a history of multiple types of abuse and trauma, sometimes including trauma they have visited on others. The sense of guilt is profound. For these women, self-care and self-healing are hugely important.

What is your vision for how A Woman’s Practice will be used?
My hope is that this book will make yoga more accessible to women who are incarcerated, who are in rehab or live in low-income communities…or just by any woman who feels that a $20 class in a yoga studio with bamboo floors is not for her.

I hope this will be an invitation to all women, that this practice is available to them and that every woman has the capacity to engage in her own self-healing.

How did you select the images for A Woman’s Practice?
This book manuscript was actually written two years ago. The major delay was that I was really set on including images of the women that I teach. Being “seen” is a big part of it – in prison, it’s easy to feel that you have no power at all, that you’re valueless. But the women that I teach were the inspiration for this book, and the force behind it. They had the power to be a very big part of the creative process. That’s why A Woman’s Practice has pictures of inmates practicing yoga and doing meditation and breathing practices.

I also wanted to show real women, in real women’s bodies, in such a way that any woman from any background would see this practice as something that they can do. All too often, women who do not fit the Yoga Journal-type imagery feel that they can’t do yoga.

I have to say, I was photographed for a section where we needed images, and it was challenging. I have grey hair and I’m 51. I’m not 20-something. I was self-conscious about sharing these photos, and I had to really work hard to let it be OK. But it just reinforced why it was so important to include images of real women.

I’m so deeply grateful to the women who were willing to participate in these photo shoots, in a world where there is such pressure to look like an “ideal” woman. And yet, 98% of us don’t look like that.

Can you talk about some of the challenges facing your students?
The majority of the women in my classes have children, and were the primary caregiver for those children before they were sent to prison. When we incarcerate women, the children are victims, to such an enormous degree. Many of these children don’t have access to their moms – you need a reliable car to get to upstate prisons, since there is no public transportation. But this issue is not on the radar.

Often, I see mothers and daughters together in my classes. In one particularly difficult class, I saw a grandmother, a mother and a daughter. It just makes you think, “We’ve got to do something different.”

We incarcerate women and say, “You can’t do anything.” Then we release them into the community with a felony record, so they’re no longer eligible for student loans or Section 8 housing. So many low-income families live in Section 8 housing, and often those who are released from prison can’t return to live with their families because it violates the rules.We render our returning citizens almost incapacitated with the restrictions placed on them.

Many people aren’t aware of this, and many aren’t sympathetic to the challenges.There has been a very different sense of the needs of returning veterans. As a country, we may not be doing enough to support them, but there is an awareness of the need and support for the cause. Prisoners are less visible, and there’s less sympathy and support for their needs.

How can a yoga practice help women behind bars?
Sometimes I look at everything facing my students, and I think, “What is a yoga class going to do for them?” But it is something strong and good and true. Any time we get in touch with the value of our lives, it’s a worthwhile practice.

My classes are about women supporting themselves and others in a healthy way, and about telling women, “You are OK. You are worthy.” There is such a sense of pain and distress when we’re being judged unworthy.

Of course, if you have committed terrible, violent, cruel acts, the practice of yoga doesn’t erase that. But it does allow you to get closer to the best part of yourself, and that’s always worthwhile. It’s not about denying what you’ve done. It’s about accepting the reality of where you are, and connecting to the best part of yourself.

Kath Meadows

My goal is to offer women a sense of groundedness, of perceptiveness, and to offer them a voice – give them the tools they need to tell themselves, “I’m OK, and I can do this.”

What is the key message you want to pass on through A Woman’s Practice?
The most important message I want people to take away from this book – and something I say in every one of my classes – is that we are all born worthy. We may lose faith in ourselves, but we never lose that inner worthiness. It’s our birthright.

And no matter what your situation is in life, you’re never nothing. You always have grace that you can bring to the world around you.

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Help women behind bars to begin their journey of self-healing by purchasing a copy of A Woman’s Practice: Healing From the Heart. For each book sold, Give Back Yoga can fund three free copies of this practice guide for women in prison.

 

Thrive and Shine! June 11th Talent Show & Hoopy Hour to Benefit GBYF

Join Give Back Yoga on Wednesday, June 11th for delicious, organic, farm-to-table food and inspiring community at Boulder’s Shine Restaurant and Gathering Place! 10% of the evening’s food purchases and all donations collected through the night will benefit Give Back Yoga’s mission of bringing yoga and mindfulness to underserved communities like first responders, veterans, at-risk teens, prisoners and those with disordered body image.

All donations from the talent show will support Eat, Breathe, Thrive®, Give Back Yoga’s cutting edge, transformative program that integrates yoga, mindfulness and community support to prevent eating disorders, and to help individuals recover from disordered eating and negative body image.

Event Schedule

Location: Shine Restaurant, 2027 13th St. Boulder, CO

Date & Time: June 11, 5:00 – 10:00 p.m.

5-7 p.m.: Hoopy Hour with Kristina Sutcliff of O Dance – $6.00

8-10 p.m.: Thrive and Shine Community Give Back Talent Show – $8+ donation at the door

Happy Hour specials begin at 5 pm; dinner served all evening

 Talent Lineup

Jim Beckwith, Live! Music for Yoga

Chuck White

Colleen Vistara with Jeremy Kurn

“One Big Yes”

Christine Moore, ShimmYogini

Kristina Sutcliffe of O Dance and hoop dancer Kristina Brothis

Dana Gonzalez

Scott and Shanti Medina

Pam Mayer of Pam Hoops

The Schiff Dance Collective Training Company

Jinju of Soul Flow Arts

Help Others To Thrive

Support this community event by spreading the word! Share this post, or join our Facebook event and invite others to stop by.  Can’t make it? Help us to give back yoga by making a direct donation to support Eat Breathe Thrive or the Give Back Yoga project of your choice. Every dollar makes a difference.

We are grateful to our sponsors:

CALMING KIDS: Creating a non-violent world by training adults to reach children through yoga.

Brenda Taylor Photography: Headshots, portraits and special events.

Foodie Fuel: High-protein, gluten-free snacks.

Christine Moore, Shimmyogini.

As well as…

            

 

 

        

Natalie Cielle: Yoga Behind Bars

“A light in every cell.”

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

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

– Natalie Cielle, Executive Director of Yoga Behind Bars

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

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

Spotlight: How Yoga is Changing the Lives of Prisoners Worldwide

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Jones: Healing the Disenfranchised Through Yoga

Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Root to Rise founder Katy Jones for The Huffington Post Blog to discover why this Oklahoma City attorney is so passionate about sharing yoga and mindfulness with prisoners and veterans.

“Actually seeing the obvious physical and emotional differences in the students proves that this works. When you see a person who used to enter a room slouched and looking at the floor now walk in with a proud chest and a smile, and they tell you how they can sleep easier and are more comfortable talking to their kids and family, it inspires you to take this practice as far as it can go for as many people as it can serve.”

– Katy Jones, founder of Root to Rise Inc., a non-profit that improves the lives of trauma survivors through yoga and mindfulness

Click here to read Katy’s inspiring stories of working with homeless veterans, and her tips for teachers who are interested in sharing yoga with underserved populations.

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

Heather Ruggero: Saying Yes To Serving In Correctional Facilities

Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Community Yoga instructor Heather Ruggero for The Huffington Post Blog about what it’s like to teach incarcerated men and women, and how saying “yes” to serving others has changed her own life and practice.

“Every time I teach at Travis County Correctional Complex, I feel more alive and more awake. When you have the privilege of witnessing people working hard to transform their lives, it’s difficult to take things for granted…I originally thought (yoga’s service component) was about contributing to pay back for all that I have received, but am increasingly realizing that what I receive for the small amount I give is so much greater. I have begun to realize that service was a missing ingredient in my own spiritual development and yoga practice.”

– Community Yoga Austin instructor Heather Ruggero, on her work with prisoners at TCCC

Click here to read more of Heather’s tips for working with incarcerated students, and a standout moment from her work with Community Yoga.

GBYF Project Spotlight: Africa Yoga Project

Here at Give Back Yoga, watching grant recipients’ projects blossom and grow is deeply inspiring. So we were thrilled to see a stunning photo essay by photographer Robert Sturman on MindBodyGreen.com that showcases the work being done by one of our early grantees, Africa Yoga Project.

Several years ago, we donated a gift of yoga clothing for use by AYP participants, including women and juvenile prisoners in the Nairobi area. At Lengata Women’s Prison (pictured), AYP nourishes the bodies and spirits of incarcerated women through yoga, art therapy and a meal. The children of prisoners are also served by AYP right on the premises.

Africa Yoga Project touches the lives of thousands of Kenyans in diverse communities. To meet more of them through Robert’s inspiring images, click here.