What got you into yoga, and what does the practice mean to you?
I came to yoga by chance, taking it up in Fall of 2015 as a complement to my “free” exercise regimen at the time: running. I hoped to stretch and relieve stress, but I was admittedly skeptical of yoga. After attending a class at a local studio, I experienced a shift—emotionally, mentally, and physically—and my skepticism vanished. I practiced regularly and earned my RYT 200 certification in 2017. I decided to turn to yoga full-time in 2019 when an opportunity to work with Prison Yoga Project arose.
The practice itself is therapeutic for me. It means finding my center (or working towards finding my center), especially when everything else around me seems off its axis. Yoga is always helpful, but the benefits of the practice are often most pronounced when I am struggling to find equilibrium.
Tell us a little bit about the work you do. How do you bring the therapeutic benefits of yoga to people with limited access to this practice?
I am currently the Program Director for Prison Yoga Project-Alabama (PYP-AL). As Program Director, I oversee implementation and help secure funding for yoga programs at correctional facilities in our state. I also facilitate trauma-informed yoga classes for incarcerated women and correctional staff at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama.
While COVID paused programs for several months in 2020, with the support of the Central Alabama Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Track 2 Grant, The Elmore County Community Foundation’s Social Services Grant, and the Give Back Yoga Foundation, we were able to provide virtual programs at Tutwiler during the height of the pandemic, when it was arguably most needed for residents and staff. Our virtual classes began in October of 2020, and while most of our programs are back to an in-person format as of September of 2021, we still use the virtual format for staff sessions and when unexpected issues arise that prevent travel for our facilitators.
What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
Prior to joining PYP, my experience as a public-school teacher and yoga practitioner sparked a desire to bring yoga to students struggling with stress, anxiety, and fluctuating emotions. A book I was teaching at the time, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, led me to the work I do now in Alabama’s prisons.
What continues to motivate me is those I serve. While I am there in service, I feel like our shared experience gives something unexpected back to me: I leave the sessions feeling fulfilled in a way that is difficult to capture in words. There is an experience of mutual healing and gratitude that keeps me motivated. And it makes me want to ensure that we expand our reach.
Are there any small victories you’ve experienced recently that you’d like to share with us?
Winning the grants from the Central Alabama Community Foundation and the Elmore County Community Foundation in September and December of 2020, and more recently, returning to in-person programs at Tutwiler.
What’s your advice for yoga teachers and yoga therapists who are interested in working with the populations you work with? How did you get started?
There are ample opportunities for teaching yoga outside of the studio framework. We just need to keep pursuing those fronts and legitimizing yoga as a therapeutic modality for all. My advice is this: if your heartstrings are tugging you in a new direction, start exploring the opportunities in that direction more actively. Three years ago, my work life looked much different than it does now. I wanted to pursue Yoga Therapy, but it felt like a pipe dream. Having spent nineteen years in secondary and post-secondary education, I was struggling with teacher burnout. I was ready for a change, and some major life events and the gift of financial security helped give me courage to eventually take a chance on a new trajectory.
My decision to leave my teaching position resulted in opportunities with Prison Yoga Project and beyond. I’m currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Yoga Therapy at Maryland University of Integrative Health, something that felt unattainable three years ago. I run my own small yoga business, still teach an occasional studio class, and work with high school athletes, men in addiction recovery, adolescents with special needs, and private clients. But it did take patience, persistence, and a solid Yoga Nidra practice to get here!
While still working in my previous career, I started exploring opportunities to teach yoga at Julia Tutwiler and I reached out to Prison Yoga Project about possible trainings. At the time, I thought it might be something I could do on the side. Over the course of a few months, things started to fall into place. So, start making contacts and looking for teaching opportunities and trainings that align with your vision for yourself as a yoga teacher, and get you closer to teaching the populations you want to serve.