Wash. — It’s not your typical yoga class. There are no
chic leggings, no feel-good decorations. Instead there are
gray lockers, institutional carpet, a noisy fan.
a locked door with a guard behind it.
while the women reaching into Mountain Pose are wearing
state-issued gray sweats, their faces radiate peace. It’s a
class at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy,
Wash., taught by Yoga Behind Bars, a Seattle-based nonprofit.
results? Hope and peace for offenders, safer prisons and
communities and a refocus for yoga itself.
see immediate results," says Felice Davis, the prison’s
associate superintendent. "It reduces violence while
people are here. And after they leave — female inmates often
have long histories of trauma.
helps them deal with trauma post-release, to cope without
acting out violently. It’s a benefit to the entire
Behind Bars executive director, Rosa Vissers, a prison yoga
teacher, calls yoga "an amazing tool for people to feel
at home again in their bodies, not to look outside themselves
for peace of mind.
people a sense of control over their lives is the most
powerful thing anyone can experience."
Candace Ralston agrees.
is a terribly loud, abusive environment," she says after
class ends at the women’s prison. "Yoga helps you find
peace. It saved me."
HOPE AND PEACE INSIDE
inside prisons isn’t new.
informally by a Seattle yoga teacher in 2004, Yoga Behind Bars
began giving classes inside the King County Juvenile Detention
Center in 2007, followed by Purdy, Monroe and Echo Glen
prisons in 2008.
it added classes at Stafford Creek and Mission Creek, and last
year began at Clallam Bay and the Federal Detention Center at
now expanding its South Sound presence with more local
teachers, teacher training for inmates and youth classes at
the Remann Hall juvenile justice center in Tacoma.
operation has won awards, trained more than 250 teachers and
in February saw 10 men at Stafford Creek graduate as yoga
teachers — the first in-prison yoga teacher training in the
Behind Bars is part of a bigger movement around the world,
from the 12-year-old Yoga Prison Project in the United States
to the Yoga in Prisons Trust in New Zealand and the
Satchidananda Prison Project in India, as well as numerous
having an effect. While research on the impact of yoga on
prisoners is sporadic, what there is shows it’s positive.
study of prisoners in North Carolina found that taking four or
more yoga classes dramatically reduced recidivism rates to 8.5
percent, compared to national rates of 43 percent.
prison studies, such as at San Quentin in California or the
Richmond City Jail in Virginia, show yoga also helps reduce
Washington State University Extension study found yoga helps
incarcerated men be better fathers, by showing more
self-awareness and responsiveness to their kids.
decades of studies have shown yoga helps people in general
cope better with stress, trauma and physical problems.
everything from teacher time to mats is donated, the program
benefits state spending, especially since prison recreation
budgets were cut almost completely and staff cut by half in
2009, says Davis, Purdy’s associate superintendent
there vouch for yoga’s effects.
Hauzinger has taught at Purdy with Yoga Behind Bars for six
years and worked in social sciences all her life. She’s
completing a Ph.D dissertation on yoga’s transformative
effects on female prisoners.
gathered feedback from 430 Purdy yoga students, with comments
such as, "My life has been transformed," "Makes
me happy happy happy" and "It is my life."
inmate told Hauzinger that yoga breathing helped her stay
calm, rather than reacting badly, when someone got snippy at
common feedback, Hauzinger says, is gratitude.
say, ‘Thank you for caring about inmates. People like you
caring on the outside means we won’t come back,’ "
she says. "And I sometimes see former students on the
outside, and I feel happy, ask them how they’re doing. What
I do makes a difference."
STRETCHING, PLAYING — WHY YOGA WORKS
a yoga instructor and you’ll get lots of explanations for
how the ancient Indian practice helps inmates.
benefits from stretching and strengthening, as well as from
the mild cardio a yoga class brings. Meditation helps with
everything from self-esteem to reducing stress, by slowing
heart rates and lowering blood pressure.
also can help with weight loss — one of the reasons Ralston
took it up.
sets yoga apart from other prison exercise programs is the
combination of physical poses with breathing, intention and
mindful awareness — and that’s what has ongoing effects,
is a pathway to address trauma," she says. In prison, she
added, "we know most students come from a long history of
trauma and loss, especially with violence.
trauma "is also in your body, the breath is a doorway
in," she said. "It can … influence our attention.
Having mindfulness — how does my body feel? — can give a
sense of ownership over your body, and allows more change to
changes are evident at a recent yoga class at Purdy.
buzzer sounds, seven women file in, checked off by the guard
at the door. They start pushing tables aside, and pulling out
mats and blocks.
teacher Emily Cox comes in, wearing a plain gray shirt and
purple pants. Cross-legged, the women take turns introducing
themselves and noting something for which they’re grateful.
a variety of ages, races, body types — but despite some
smiles, most look tired and serious.
calm voice and occasional jokes, Cox takes the class through
Cat-Cow warm-ups, and explains the vinyasa sequence and why it
helps by building heat.
breathe through the tension, and find peace," she says.
"Your breath is your anchor."
class continues through the usual yoga sequences of vinyasa,
standing poses and seated twists, Cox offers directions and
encouragement — "Yeah, that’s beautiful!" —
and eliciting shy smiles.
through the two-hour class four women leave for work duties or
other appointments. The others focus even more, their gazes
serene. By the final mediation, all three faces are beatific.
helps you through rough emotions, like shame," Ralston
the best program in here," adds Maryann Scales, an older
woman who has been doing yoga twice a week for eight years.
"I’m bipolar, and I think yoga and meditation keeps me
Remann Hall in Tacoma, where Yoga Behind Bars began last fall,
it’s a different vibe — as you might expect from 11
teenage boys on yoga mats.
caves in on Plank Pose, half joking.
I know your arms are stronger than that!" teases chief
detention officer Donald Thomas from the security desk.
front, teacher Nydelis Ortiz encourages the class to play with
balance by reaching one hand up out of Side Plank, then gazing
at the ceiling. It’s harder than it sounds, and a couple of
boys lose their balance, laughing and goofing off for the
it’s time for Lion’s Breath — inhaling, screwing up your
face, then exhaling with a "hah" sound. Everyone
laughs, co-teacher Alyssa Pizarro loudest of all.
feel the stress flying away on the giggles.
gives them an outlet," says Remann Hall detention manager
Shara Sauve. "In class, they’re not seen as criminals
— they’re seen as kids. They get to be silly … blow off
steam, burn off energy."
teenage boys who mostly stay in a small room all day, that’s
a big thing in itself. But there’s more.
class progresses, one wary boy finally breaks out a shy smile
when he holds an arm balance longer than anyone else. Another
boy who’s been acting cocky and defensive drops the act for
a vulnerable grin.
final Savasana Pose, everyone’s completely still, lying on
their backs with eyes shut, breathing deeply.
helps me relax, sleep better," says one tall boy, who’s
in Remann Hall long-term for a serious sentence and who soon
will transfer to an adult facility. "Things are going to
be difficult. This is a safer way to relieve my stress instead
of doing other things."
want to do (yoga) wherever I go," adds another boy with
curly hair. "I’d like to teach other people to do it so
they know to do the right things" in life.
evidence that yoga benefits prisoners, only a fraction of
inmates in Washington’s prisons do it.
Purdy, there are 905 inmates and only 18 names on the yoga
list. Women wait a long time even to get on the list — it
took Ralston nine months — and then, when class happens,
many can’t make it because of medical appointments, visits
or changes in prison work schedules.
average, 16 women attend Yoga Behind Bars classes every week.
At Remann Hall, it’s 24 a week, at Stafford Creek, 20.
problem, staff members say, is space and time. Only one
classroom in the Purdy gym building can house a yoga class
with an outside instructor, and it often is needed for the
many other programs there.
security reasons, yoga can’t be held in the evening when the
gym is busiest; and the two weekly classes sometimes are
canceled when the building is needed.
solution? Train inmates, who have more flexible schedules and
access, to become yoga teachers themselves.
Behind Bars has just seen 10 men at Stafford Creek graduate
from a 100-hour yoga teacher training, the first such program
in the country — and in October, the group will begin one at
preparing them to be part of the Yoga Behind Bars teaching
team," Vissers says.
women will complete six weekends’ worth of practice, study
and theory homework, and eventually be certified by Yoga
means the women’s prison will have yoga teachers who live
on-site, don’t need to go through clearance hurdles and can
teach in other rooms at other times, Davis says — which
potentially means more classes.
the women are released, they’ll have an employable skill and
a new mindset of helping others.
gets out, "I can see myself living in assisted living and
teaching yoga," says Maryann Scales, who has signed up
for the training along with Ralston. "Yoga is a practice
within yourself. If more girls here learn that, and learn to
give back …"
YOGA BACK TO ITS ROOTS
Behind Bars also is expanding its reach to train more teachers
in the outside community. So far there are five South
Sound-based teachers — the rest, including Ortiz and Cox,
travel from Seattle, often starting class late because of
organization has begun training in Tacoma venues such as Good
Karma Yoga to build a more local base of teachers.
teachers like Vissers offer guidance on teaching
trauma-sensitive yoga (trigger words to avoid, recommended
meditations), statistics on prisoner demographics and how to
work within prison rules (correcting verbally rather than
touching, keeping situations safe, choosing appropriate
60-page handbook they also offer guidelines on how to avoid
burnout in what is often an emotionally demanding volunteer
position, and the numerous ways a prison class is different
from a studio.
the unpaid work and travel, many yoga teachers want to teach
in prison — the May training weekend was jam-packed.
love it," says Cox, who majored in gender issues and has
worked in women’s health. "I became a yoga teacher
because of Yoga Behind Bars. We’re all stressed — we all
father was incarcerated, and I grew up homeless or in public
housing," says Nydelis Ortiz, who now works in credit
underwriting and is in graduate school. "I attribute
where I am now to the generosity of people who helped me. I
want to be that person for these kids."
really important for teachers, possibly more than for the
students," Vissers says. "What I hear from people is
that it invigorates their own practice."
Irene Hauzinger, it goes even deeper — back to yoga’s
roots of non-harm, truth and connection.
prison it’s a more raw, more honest practice … There’s a
purity of intention in prison," she says. "You have
so much time to think, to sort yourself out."
Hauzinger doesn’t teach in studios anymore — just prisons.
do more good there," she says. "It’s not just
exercise, it’s a service. It’s a privilege to work