Sluzala, right, who is part of the Sheriff's Women's
Justice Program, holds a yoga pose during a session with
other inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago,
Illinois, on July 26, 2013.
ó Ten yoga mats, foam support blocks and a qualified
instructor awaited the women who filed quietly into the
recreation room, slipped off their shoes and stood in place on
the mats, prepared for the stretching routine to begin.
remarkable element among the trappings of this beginnersí
yoga class was its location: Inside the barbed wire fence of
the Cook County Jail. The women prepared to stretch were
inmates. Instead of yoga pants, they wore Department of
Corrections-issued pink and gray uniforms.
meditation sessions have been a mainstay in the womenís jail
for six years, since a group of volunteers from a local
nonprofit that encourages yoga as an element of rehabilitation
started showing up, mats in tow, and leading classes for all
female inmates, said Alisa Kannett, an administrator for the
nonprofit group Yoga for Recovery.
years correctional facilities across the country have been
implementing yoga workshops and programs, sometimes at the
urging of inmates, and the trend is growing, said Gabriella
Savelli, director of Prison S.M.A.R.T. The group has helped
implement yoga programs at 36 correctional facilities in 21
states, including at a menís boot camp in Cook County and
Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.
participating in yoga may see psychological benefits, such as
reduced stress and improved mood, according to a study
published this summer by scholars at Oxford University.
found that prisoners who embarked on a 10-week yoga course
also showed greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity
and attention. But it doesnít require an academic study to
know that, for some inmates, practicing yoga just feels good.
10 women in one of the jailís residential programs stretched
their arms and breathed deeply at a recent session, their
satisfied sighs and comments during the class made that clear.
That was cool," said Kristy Montgomery, 29, after
completing a tree pose.
many of the women in Montgomeryís division, she has a
history of substance abuse and prostitution, and the weekly
class is "healing," she said.
time, my body feels lighter. My mind feels lighter and feels
the benefits, the exercise and meditation can be a hard sell
to some of the incarcerated men and women with traumatic
backgrounds who have never encountered it before, Savelli
Feltus said he is a perfect example of that state of mind.
When he entered the Illinois River Correctional Center in
Canton in central Illinois years ago, he knew nothing about
yoga. And frankly, he said, he didnít much care about
knowing it, either.
few poses that I had seen, I kinda just glanced it over and
said Ďoh, thatís white people exercise,í" Feltus
shoulders hurt from weightlifting, he said, and after a buddy
persuaded him to attend a session with him, he instantly
became a fan.
yoga was a lady, I wouldíve definitely said ĎI do,í"
Feltus said of his first experience on a yoga mat.
living on the West Side and out of prison on parole, Feltus
runs his own yoga practice, which opened in late June in the
Austin neighborhood. He attributes a big part of his recovery
to the practice, he said.
for some inmates, coming to yoga just means an hour or 90
minutes out of their cells, said Rick Fahnestock. He oversees
the yoga program at the Illinois River Correctional Center, a
medium security prison with about 2,000 male inmates.
said he can expect at least 20 inmates to attend the yoga
sessions offered five days a week along with weightlifting and
pickup basketball games in the prison. Sometimes, as many as
40 men show up, he said.
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three other Illinois Department of Corrections prisons also
currently offer yoga or mediation programs of inmates, said
Tom Shaer, spokesman for the department. At Stateville
Correctional Center yoga had been offered but is on hiatus
because of a lack of space, Shaer said. But because itís so
well-received, itís expected to return.
of ubiquitous tight budgets, neither the state nor the city
spends any money to run yoga programs at correctional
facilities, officials said. For most, offering a yoga class
for inmates depends largely on the availability of volunteers,
like Kannett, who said she oversees about 30 volunteers who
lead yoga for women in the Cook County Jail.
take different approaches than traditional yoga, Kannett said.
Kannett urges instructors at the jail to withhold touching the
inmates to adjust their positions in any way. Many inmates,
such as those with a history of abuse, could be sensitive to
or offended by the touching, she said.
whoíve been through trauma donít like to feel like someoneís
behind them," said Marcelyn Cole, an instructor for more
than five years whoís volunteered for two years with Yoga
recent session at the jail, Cole told participants they didnít
need to close their eyes if it made them uncomfortable to do
so during savasana, often the final pose in a yoga practice
during which participants lie completely relaxed on their
practiced in correctional centers might have more of a focus
on rehabilitation than spiritual awakening, said Elizabeth
Feldman, a doctor who is a medical coordinator for the Cook
County sheriffís office, and oversees medical care for a menís
boot camp at the jail.
no talking about how to improve peopleís karma; thereís
talking about stress management," Feldman said.
said the men in the jailís boot camp enjoy yoga as a break
from the military-style approach of other exercise. For some,
it helps soothe their muscles cramped by vigorous exercise or
from sleeping nightly on a metal slab covered only with a thin
not for all the inmates. Any who have certain disabilities or
behavior disorders that make it difficult for them to sit
still or follow directions, or whoíve committed extremely
violent crimes, are generally not invited to yoga sessions,
just one element being implemented to help rehabilitate
incarcerated people, Feldman said.
not the miracle cure of everything that ails society,"
Feldman said. "Itís one tool that might be