Photo Credit: Juvenile in Justice

When I finished up my 500 hr yoga teacher training in 2010, I taught yoga in a female juvenile detention facility in Salt Lake City for four months. This was a volunteer position with InBody Outreach, and I still think about my experiences there occasionally. Recently, it has been on my mind because of posts I have seen on Instagram about jail yoga, and because of my guilty pleasure, “Orange is the New Black”.

Yoga is a journey inward and it teaches us so much about ourselves and this condition of being human. The physical movement of asana coupled with the breath control of pranayam become the tools we use to access a deeper understanding of self and our relationship to life around us. While I have never been in prison, I am fascinated by it from an academic standpoint. I don’t pretend to know how scared, angry, lonely and bored inmates must be, but I do wonder what would happen if you served a sentence coming in with a background in yoga, or learning yoga in prison.

The physical confines of prison are similar to the chains of attachment that cause suffering in all humans. You can’t escape. You are forced to sit with yourself and experience the present moment. The only way to release the suffering is to let go of your attachment to outcomes and to the things that are beyond your control. With a regular yoga practice and meditation, I wonder if an inmate would be able to transcend the pain of prison. Could they find peace and calm, even in the middle of chaos. I like to believe it is possible. But then again, my belief in the power of yoga is so strong that I believe it can change anything for the better…

The physical practice  keeps your body healthy and strong, and the meditiation and study quiets the monkey mind chatter of the brain.  Sure, the freedoms of the householder are gone, but many times those freedoms are the same  ones which superficially cloud one’s ability to see through to the heart of the matter and truly be present. In prison, with many of those freedoms (choices) taken away, there is more time and space to fill up. Often, that blank time and space can translate into a deafening silence that becomes soul crushing in its lonliness. However, with yoga, that time and space becomes  an opportunity for something more meaningful. So, the question becomes, how?

It makes my heart happy to hear of yoga being taken into prisons, and more programs popping up around the nation to share yoga with inmates. It is through the service of volunteers and those who recognize an under-served special population that we are slowly making strides to help inmates. Yoga does not just help the individual, but it also helps the community. Inmates with a yoga practice are less likely to act violently, and are more likely to positively participate in prison life.

When I taught in the juvenile detention facility, it was an eye opener for me. It was a small one story building with about 8 rooms which the girls shared. The kitchen, bathrooms and main area were all open and close to each other. The girls wore the orange and khaki detention uniforms. They had a TV, books and art supplies. The days were filled with scheduled activities, and the girls typically were serving sentences of 14 weeks. During my time teaching there, girls would leave and new girls would filter in, changing the group dynamics.

I taught once a week, and it was the first time most of the girls had heard of yoga before. Some were interested, others thought it sounded stupid, but all were required to participate. I acted friendly, told jokes, and gave the girls choices in class in an effort to make yoga seem less “scary” or “crazy” and more “fun”. After a few weeks, the girls got a hang of what we were doing and most of them genuinely enjoyed it. Especially when we played with arm balances or inversions. They would cheer each other on, and make fun of each other or themselves.  When you teach yoga to special populations, you are tuned in to compassion above all else, and allow that to help guide the energy and direction of a class. I gave the girls a lot of room to play around and be themselves, but once in a while I had to give someone who got a little rowdy a time out.

I really enjoyed teaching them too, even though sometimes when I left I had a feeling of sadness- these girls were so young and fresh, and yet somehow their innocence had been stolen from them. At 14 or 15, the choices you make are a reflection of those around you, not of your own independant ability to act with reason and responsibility. In one class I had a new girl, 15, and in the middle of class we were doing a little bit of core work and she complained of it being hard and she said she couldn’t/wouldn’t do it. I asked what she disliked about it, and she replied “I’m pregnant, my belly is in the way”. Talk about being floored! As a teacher, I had made a mistake- I forgot to ask about the condition of my new student. It didn’t even cross my mind that this 15 year old girl would be pregnant. This conversation stays with me, for a lot of reasons. What also stays with me is when a girl returned to JV a few weeks after she got out. She was 17 and had messed up again and this was her last chance before going to a real jail. So sad. But also, real life. This story happens all the time, all over the US.

My hope is that with the exponential growth of yoga in the US each year, some of that will continue trickling down to underserved populations and our prison system. One day, I want to volunteer in a women’s facility again, but until that time I will continue to support those who are currently doing this important work.