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“Untangle” podcast interview with Y12SR founder Nikki Myers

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 the Yoga of 12-Step Recovery program (Y12SR) founder and director Nikki Myers.

Y12SR was founded in the belief that yoga and the 12-step program share many points of intersection, and together, can support recovery in people who have been impacted by addiction and chronic trauma. Nikki’s journey has driven her to discover the significance of mind, body and community in overcoming addiction.

Here’s her story.

 

“Using alcohol and drugs works for a minute… it works. It’s simply not sustainable over time.”

“The 12 step program says that “Stinkin Thinkin” is the root of our problems. The yogis are saying the same thing, that there’s this basis to the root of suffering. The idea that I’m addicted to the way I process my reality.”

“At some point you will not regret your past. Nor will you want to shut the door on it. We teach the journey of reintegration. There is no part of myself that is bad, awful or wrong.”

 

 

 


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Share the powerful framework of Y12SR with communities in need. Donate to help bring Y12SR meetings to urban treatment centers, or find a Y12SR training near you and get involved in sharing the transformational tools of yoga and mindfulness for addiction recovery and relapse prevention.

Yoga and Trauma

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

Originally published on Gaia.com

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.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

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.”

YOGA FOR RECOVERY

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.

SEXUAL ASSAULT

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.

COMBAT-RELATED PTS

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.

YOGA FOR PRISONERS

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.

YOGA & EATING DISORDERS

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.

HEALTH CARE COSTS

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.

 


FURTHER READING

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

Yoga For Everyone: How Gaiam Is Kickstarting Yoga Classes For The Underserved

Your yoga mat is a safe place. A place to learn how to let go of tension and trauma, and connect with resilience, strength and inner peace. Now, thanks to our corporate sponsor Gaiam, the 11 yoga supply grant recipients pictured here can experience that for themselves.

In partnering with Give Back Yoga to underwrite our supply grant program, Gaiam has donated more than 1500 mats this year to help certified teachers across the country launch new classes for underserved populations — from veterans and first responders, to at-risk youth and those in recovery from addiction or eating disorders. This supply grant program serves as a kickstarter for yoga service projects of all kinds, making a big impact to our mission of sharing the therapeutic benefits of yoga with those who are most vulnerable.

Through this partnership, we’re also able to supply mats and props to students who graduate from one of our teacher trainings, helping them to establish Give Back Yoga programs like Eat Breathe Thrive, Mindful Yoga Therapy, Yoga for 12-Step Recovery and more in their own communities.

We’re honored to help Gaiam stand behind their philosophy of “Yoga for everyone,” by working together to share the gift of yoga with the world. It all begins on the mat…won’t you join us?

Learn more about our supply grant program.

 

Mike Huggins: Healing Through Empowerment in Prisons & Rehab Facilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should prison administrators know about the Prison Yoga Project?

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

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

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

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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Can you join us in Giving Back from your mat? By donating the cost of one yoga class ($15) per month, you can give the gift of yoga to those who need it most – like veterans, first responders, prisoners, at-risk youth and more. Please join the Give Back Yoga family today by sharing a monthly donation!

Kathryn Thomas: Yoga and Prison Rehabilitation Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Help Give Back Yoga to put yoga and mindfulness guides in the hands of 1,000 prisoners this year by purchasing Prison Yoga Project’s powerful books, A Path for Healing and Recovery and A Woman’s Practice: Healing from the Heart. For every purchase, we can fund the printing of three additional books that will be made available at no cost to men and women behind bars. You can also make a direct donation to help fund this work – just choose “Prison Yoga Project” from the drop down menu when selecting a project to support.

Anneke Sips: Bridging Yoga and Mental Health Care

Photo courtesy of: Delight Yoga Amsterdam

After finding her own practice, Anneke Sips, a yoga teacher and social psychiatric nurse (RN) from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, began to dream of bridging her two passions, yoga and psychiatry. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Anneke about her work to make this dream come true, and her experiences with teaching yoga to special populations, specifically to those with chronic psychiatric illnesses.

“Everyone is different and yoga has so many great tools that can assist every person in any challenge or at any stage of life… I feel like unraveling my practice into the unknown, off the mat; it’s a place where stillness appears, and growth and transformation are possible.” – Anneke Sips, yoga teacher and social psychiatric nurse (RN)

To read more about Anneke’s work with special populations and her thoughts on the future of yoga service, read her full interview on The Huffington Post Blog.

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Awaken…transform…give back. Inspire your service and learn how to make yoga accessible to those who might not otherwise experience this transformational practice by connecting with Give Back Yoga Foundation by email.

Ravi Singh: How We Serve Runaway Youth

Photo Credit: Michael Gill

Driven by a desire to inspire people and raise consciousness, Ravi Singh has spent the past four decades offering his services to populations in need. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware learns more about what motivates Ravi to continue his work, as well as the tangible results that he has seen from doing so.

“Most people don’t realize that they have a say in the matter of what becomes of them. When I work with people who exist in the most intolerable circumstances, it becomes obvious that the “lowest” rung also contains the potential for the highest. The only way to truly understand life as we know it is to start with the understanding that everything does contain its opposite.”       – Ravi Singh

To read more about Ravi’s work with populations in need and his thoughts on the future of yoga service, read his full interview on The Huffington Post Blog.

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Together, we can create change. Check out our video to learn how yoga is changing the lives of those in need of transformation, and how you can help.

Trista Gipple: Yoga Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

This is an interview with one of my yoga teachers, Trista Sukhraj Kaur Gipple, who lives in Boulder, CO, with her husband and two teenage daughters.  Trista is a successful psychotherapist specializing in addictive behavior and teaches both Hatha and Kundalini yoga. Recently I joined Jack Taylor, a local school administrator and athletic director, in a 40-day meditation pilot program led by Trista called “Journey To A Better Night’s Sleep,” which started this conversation.

– Rob Schware, Executive DirectorGive Back Yoga Foundation

Rob: What originally motivated you to start this program, “Journey To A Better Night’s Sleep?”

Trista: For three years I’ve taught a similar 40-day meditation program for addictions (Journey To The Self). In addition to struggling with addictions, students attending this program often reported sleeping poorly, or not at all, thus it was clear that addictions and lack of sleep went hand in hand.  People consistently reported poor coping skills like use of stimulants (coffee, energy drinks) and/or depressants (alcohol, drugs, and sleeping pills) in order to get a good night’s sleep. Through these self-reports, it became clear that the “presenting problem” was not poor sleep, but was really a lifestyle issue.

Over the years I’ve had candid conversations with many desperate students wanting help with their sleeping problems.  Using the same basic format as my Journey To The Self program I started working with my co-facilitator Robert Thompson on a 40-day meditation program that would help us focus on sleep hygiene and support a better night’s sleep for these students.

Rob: What are some of the benefits you have seen?

Trista: Without a doubt, the benefits reported were in direct relationship to the level of compliance of the 40-day meditation program. Students that more rigorously followed the suggested format, like Jack Taylor, had the most positive results. Some of the most important factors contributing to improving sleep included a 15-minute meditation before bed, turning off all electronics 30 minutes before bed, elimination of drugs/alcohol/stimulants, eating a healthy diet, and practicing Kundalini Yoga kriyas (actions) specific to improving sleep.

Here are some of the benefits reported by students of the pilot program:
• complete elimination and reduction of prescription and natural sleep aids
• waking up less often and falling asleep more quickly
• having more energy during the day — “feeling like myself again”
• feeling healthy by eating a diet that focuses on whole foods
• finding pleasure in life that is not related to drugs/alcohol
• having a sense of rhythm back in life
• more relaxed

Rob: What are some of the obstacles to improving sleep? 

Trista: One of the fundamental principles of yoga is self-responsibility — no one can change us but us, and we change for two reasons.  The first is that we learn something, which motivates us to change.  The second is that we have suffered enough and we’re ready to change — we cry “uncle.”  In my experience, the second reason is the way most of us change.  This is a sensitive place, so supporting my students is done through a combination of education, support, love, and humor.  Students begin to understand that they are not sleeping through the night because of unhealthy lifestyle habits that interrupt their sleep patterns. They realize that their dependence on old coping methods is what must change.   Developing good sleep hygiene is not done overnight, and often involves many “relapses” along the way, which is all part of the process.   These “relapses” are all the more reason why teachers need to support, love and provide a sense of humor about how challenging it is for us to change old patterns.  People who are still not willing to change at least begin to accept some self-responsibility for the problems in their lives, such as poor sleep, and even this small step is very empowering for them.

Rob: What are three distinct things those struggling with sleeplessness can do right away to improve sleep hygiene? 

Trista: 1.) Ask yourself this before you do anything: “Will this negatively or positively affect my sleep?” Start connecting the dots between what you are doing during the day and how it affects your sleep at night. This is a huge first step.

2.) Create a nighttime routine. Turn off all computers, TV, phones etc. at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Take a bath, do some yin yoga, meditate/pray, listen to relaxing music or mantras that will help you relax. Make sure your bed is absolutely comfortable for you. A good night’s sleep is the best medicine!

3.) Start to reduce/avoid stimulates and depressants.

Rob: Jack, I’m interested to know what responsibility you took for your poor sleep patterns.

Jack: For many years I struggled with a getting a good night’s sleep. I tried drinking alcohol to go to sleep, with little success. Six years ago I began taking Ambien. It worked wonderfully. I was able to get a good night’s sleep every night by taking a 10 mg pill.

A year ago, I began practicing yoga to add some variety to my regular routine and got hooked. This past year I’ve completed a 200-hour Hatha Yoga teacher training, a 100-hour extension, 100-hour Yoga Sculpt teacher training, and most recently a 40-day program, Journey To A Better Night’s Sleep.

I chose to give up alcohol, caffeine, Ambien, and made a concerted effort to eliminate gluten from my diet. The teacher taught us a kriya, or meditation, to perform every day for at least 15 minutes. I decided to make this work period — no morning coffee for me, no after-work beers or cocktails, and no Ambien before bedtime. To my surprise, I immediately began sleeping well, and had vivid dreams, which I had not had since taking Ambien.

At first my wife was a little skeptical of the whole program. As she saw my excitement grow about sleeping without any aids she began to support me in what I was doing, and encouraged me to continue the program.

To me, the most significant realization was that a good night’s sleep begins when I wake up in the morning. Now, before I get out of bed I do a couple supine twists taking one leg across my body and then the other. I massage my body, I rub my eyes in a circular motion and put my palms in front of my eyes as if I was reading my palms to increase the blood flow to my optic nerve. I don’t drink my morning cup of coffee, or any other caffeine throughout the day. I practice yoga 3-4 days a week, have an occasional drink, and have totally eliminated Ambien from my daily routine. I sleep great!

For more information about “Journey To A Better Night’s Sleep,” visit www.peace-flow-yoga.com.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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Do you want to bring the transformational power of yoga and meditation to underserved populations? Join Give Back Yoga at a Mindful Yoga Therapy Training for Yoga Teachers near you, or at the Sedona Yoga Festival in February for a two-day Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans pre-conference training that teaches clinically-proven techniques to help students recover from trauma and emotional stress.