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Help Prison Yoga Project Earn a Matching Grant

Light the Match

GIVE TODAY, AND YOUR DONATION WILL BE DOUBLED

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.

HELP US EARN A MATCHING GRANT FROM KALLIOPEIA FOUNDATION 

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.

 

 


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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Liza Stacey: The Blending of Yoga & Psychology Within Prison Walls

This blog post comes from Liza Stacey, a psychologist and yoga teacher currently working in a mental health/psych ward in a men’s maximum security facility in Melbourne Victoria, Australia. She works there three days a week.  Along with individual counseling and running programs on understanding and managing emotions, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and distress tolerance, she teaches yoga and meditation classes twice a week.

The classes introduce a new sequence of physical asanas each week, including poses for balancing mood, assisting sleep and helping with anxiety; as well as more invigorating asanas for assisting with depressive symptoms such as low energy and mood. After some physical yoga, different types of meditation techniques are taught, such as different breathing (pranayama) techniques, breath counting meditation, guided visual meditation and yoga nidra.

Says Liza: “The men have really benefited from these classes and those with diagnosed mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, have reported it has helped them manage their psychotic symptoms.”

 

The Blending of Yoga And Psychology Within Prison Walls

by Liza Stacey 

Yoga has a direct link to the needs of people in the prison system; however, it still faces some blockers to the adoption in these environments. Through my experiences and training, I have seen the positive benefits of yoga in these environments.

I have been working in the area of mental health/ psychology for over ten years (including as a Registered Psychologist for over 5 years), have been a yoga practitioner since I was 18 years old and have now completed my training as a yoga teacher. I have been working within the prison system for nearly four years now. Most of that time has been within a forensic mental health unit within a maximum security men’s prison in Victoria.

When I first started practicing yoga, I experienced firsthand the amazing therapeutic benefits it had on my own stress levels, and started using yoga and meditation techniques to manage and cope whenever I had stressful times in my life.

Traditionally, psychological therapies have been based around trying to change your thinking to change your behaviour and mood (e.g., Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).  From around the year 2000, other therapies have started to make their way into mainstream use, such as Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectic Behaviour Therapy/ Distress Tolerance. These therapies all use the basis of mindfulness meditation and breath awareness/ awareness of the present moment to assist in the change of mood and mental states. This is at the core of what yoga teaches, as well.   Over the past few years I have seen more and more the openness of clients and also fellow colleagues to want to learn more about these therapies.

To me, the blend of yoga and psychology makes sense in so many ways. Bringing this blend into the prison environment made even more sense.  There is more to Yoga than just the physical practice: it is also the practice of breath awareness, the practice of quietening and stilling the mind, the practice of sitting in discomfort to get comfort, and the practice of impulse control. To practice yoga is to practice mindfulness. It is about understanding and compassion to ourselves and others. Yoga is also about developing awareness of self. It teaches you to step back and observe your thoughts and feelings and witness these as an observer, rather than being entangled in the thoughts. Developing self-awareness is the key to change, and yoga helps with this.  To practice all aspects of yoga, we practice strategies which will assist to reduce anxiety, depression, worry, excessive rumination and anger, and increase our focus on the positive – all strategies that psychology teaches, as well.

Think about what prison is: punishment and loss of freedom, leading to feelings of mental and emotional distress, distrust and agitation. This is coupled with men who have committed crimes and often have had a past of unhappiness, trauma and violence in the lives. What better place is there to be teaching yoga and the practices/ philosophies of yoga and meditation?

Most men in prison experience trauma. Often, trauma has occurred in their lives prior to coming to prison (such as the trauma of the loss of attachment from their parents during crucial developmental years, or physical or sexual abuse, or even the trauma that years of substance abuse and crime can also bring). Plus, there is the trauma often experienced within the prison walls (the loss of family and relationships, the daily stress of survival, physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and the threat of this). It makes sense that a practice such as yoga/meditation can assist in helping these men deal and cope with the trauma.

There is more and more evidence mounting each year about the benefits of yoga practice to heal trauma. People who have gone through a traumatic period in their lives can be disconnected to their bodies, and so even the physical feel of a yoga mat underneath their hands and feet when doing downward dog can be hugely therapeutic for them. Most people who have lived through trauma experience high levels of anxiety, and so teaching breathing techniques and meditation can help to reduce anxiety significantly. Most people who have lived through trauma find it difficult to sleep at night — in fact, this is one of the most stated issues within the prison system. So practicing yoga nidra (deep relaxation exercise) and relaxation strategies/ relaxing yoga postures to do before sleep can help those who find sleep difficult. Teaching grounding exercises which men can practice in their cells at night if they cannot sleep can assist those who frequently wake with distressing nightmares.

American prisons such as San Quentin State Prison in California have understood the value of adding yoga to their mainstream prison programs, and more evidence is coming out about the benefits of these programs for the prison population. The Yoga Education in Prisons Trust is an organisation assisting prisoners in New Zealand to learn yoga and meditation and so more and more people are getting exposed to the benefits of yoga within the prison environment.  Each year, there are more and more studies in psychology and psychiatric journals about how yoga reduces distress in prison populations (e.g., a UK study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013 found participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population). Australian prisons appear to have not yet incorporated yoga and meditation techniques into the wider prison population.

There are a couple of challenges to yoga in prison being more widespread. The first is the perception of yoga, and having yoga being run in prisons – for staff, prisoners and the wider community.

Yoga may still be seen by men as being “for women only.” Yoga may also be seen by men as not being accessible to them, as they cannot “get their body into twisted pretzel shapes.” Men may also see meditation as being something that is “weak” and not for them.

Yoga may be seen by prison staff and possibly the wider community as being a “relaxation exercise,” and not something that people who are serving time for crime should have access to. They may see it as a reward, rather than as part of treatment and therapy.

To counteract this perception, more education should be done about the benefits of the programs and what they teach. Yoga should be sold more as a means of treatment for stress, anger, distress tolerance, anxiety, depression and trauma. Yoga should be seen as more than just the physical practice, but as a teaching of breath awareness, relaxation, mindfulness and meditation.

The empirical evidence of mindfulness is now understood and well known, and has been incorporated into many programs. However, this can be further incorporated by increasing the practice and teaching of yoga within the prison and within the programs.

I have seen and heard firsthand stories of men in prison who are suffering from psychiatric illness and PTSD reporting that since they have started practicing meditation, breath awareness and yoga nidra, their auditory and visual hallucinations have significantly reduced, and their nightmares have reduced and/or they are able to manage them much better.

I am hoping to begin measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of yoga within the prison population at the psychosocial medical ward of the prison where I work as a psychologist. The program I will be teaching, measuring and evaluating will incorporate the physical practices of yoga, as well as the teachings of mindfulness and distress tolerance — which in fact are the philosophies of yoga, blended into the teachings of modern day psychology and anxiety and depression management.

References:

Bilderbeck, A.C;  Farias, M, Brazil.I, Jakobowitz. S., and Wikholm. C.. Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47 (2013) 1438-1445.

Yoga Education in Prisons Trust

Van der Kolk, Stone, West, Rhodes, Emerson, Suvak, Spinazzola. Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. 2014:75, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

Van der Kolk.B. The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014. The Penguin Group.

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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 the Prison Yoga Project book Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery for yourself or on behalf of a prisoner.

Yogi Tunes: Giving Back Yoga, By Giving Away Music

Yogi Tunes is sending out a call to the yoga community to join our mission of bringing yoga to the underserved, by doing what they do best.  Sharing music.

Now, yogis and music lovers can sign up for the Give Back Yoga Foundation’s monthly newsletter through the Yogi Tunes site and receive a free music download as a thank-you for joining the mission. We’re grateful for this opportunity to reach many new friends with our message of yoga service, healing and grassroots social change – and we hope you’ll be one of them! Visit Yogi Tunes to sign up for our newsletters and get a free album download.

Yogi Tunes is also re-igniting their “Music With a Cause” program to help Give Back Yoga share the transformative practice of yoga with those in prison. To join Yogi Tunes in giving men and women behind bars a chance to build a better life, check out Anahata Yoga Dub by Desert Dwellers, an album of heart-warming grooves and spacious ambient tracks that’s a perfect accompaniment for your own practice. Just enter giveback at checkout to save 10% on the album and donate 50% of the proceeds towards our work of bringing free Prison Yoga Project books with incarcerated men and women. Shop now and put a free practice guide in the hands of a prisoner.

Why Yogi Tunes gives back:

“For us, music is a gift meant to be given.  A soundtrack of the soul that flows as freely as a river, winding through our hearts and blessing our lives at every turn.  As artists we learn to receive this gift by listening deeply to what is within us and what is all around us – the current of life in it’s infinite wisdom and grace.  Each of us here at YogiTunes has experienced the deeply healing powers of music, given to us as freely as taking a deep inhale.  So it’s with joy in our hearts that we find ways to be of service to others in offering the gift back, just like the exhale.

Our Music with a Cause program seeks out organizations like Give Back Yoga who are doing amazingly positive work in the world through the power of yoga.  We love nothing more than to help amplify that by providing a soundtrack that people can get behind, knowing that their contributions go towards creating real change in a world that needs to awaken and transform.”

– Alex King-Harris (aka Rara Avis), Founder/CEO Yogi Tunes

Free music, for a cause: share this offer with your friends via email and social media to help us bring yoga to those in need of healing.

 

Sabrina Seronello: How We Serve Incarcerated Veterans

After the active duty portion of her commitment to the Air Force was up in March 2006, Sabrina Seronello was introduced to the practice that would help positively change her life, and the lives of others. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on The Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Sabrina about the significance of her own practice, as well as her work with the Prison Yoga Project at San Quentin State Prison, where she teaches yoga to incarcerated veterans.

“In reality I have been helped more than I am helping them. I can’t begin to explain the amount of healing that I have experienced since I started going inside San Quentin. I always leave there thinking, wow, that’s what it’s all about–offering yoga to people who truly need it.” — Sabrina Seronello

To learn more about Sabrina’s work at San Quentin and her thoughts on the incorporation of yoga and mindfulness practices in prisons, read her full interview on The Huffington Post.

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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.