Yoga changing lives one pose at a time in Washington’s prisons

In Tacoma, inmates do yoga for more than exercise

The program “Yoga Behind Bars” gives teenage inmates at Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, a chance to work out their anger and frustrations through stretches, poses and meditation.
Up Next
The program “Yoga Behind Bars” gives teenage inmates at Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, a chance to work out their anger and frustrations through stretches, poses and meditation.

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.

Oh, and a locked door with a guard behind it.

But 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, taught by Yoga Behind Bars, a Seattle-based nonprofit.

The results? Hope and peace for offenders, safer prisons and communities and a refocus for yoga itself.

“We 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.

“Yoga helps them deal with trauma post-release, to cope without acting out violently. It’s a benefit to the entire community.”

Yoga 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.

“Giving people a sense of control over their lives is the most powerful thing anyone can experience.”

Inmate Candace Ralston agrees.

“This is a terribly loud, abusive environment,” she says after class ends at the women’s prison. “Yoga helps you find peace. It saved me.”

Bringing hope and peace inside

Yoga inside prisons isn’t new.

Begun 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.

In 2014, it added classes at Stafford Creek and Mission Creek, and last year began at Clallam Bay and the Federal Detention Center at SeaTac.

It’s 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.

The 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 nation.

Yoga 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 state-based groups.

And it’s having an effect. While research on the impact of yoga on prisoners is sporadic, what there is shows it’s positive.

A 2007 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.

Individual prison studies, such as at San Quentin in California or the Richmond City Jail in Virginia, show yoga also helps reduce violence.

A recent Washington State University Extension study found yoga helps incarcerated men be better fathers, by showing more self-awareness and responsiveness to their kids.

And decades of studies have shown yoga helps people in general cope better with stress, trauma and physical problems.

Because 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

Inmates there vouch for yoga’s effects.

Irene 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.

She’s 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.”

One inmate told Hauzinger that yoga breathing helped her stay calm, rather than reacting badly, when someone got snippy at her.

The most common feedback, Hauzinger says, is gratitude.

“They 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.”

Breathing, stretching, playing — why yoga works

Talk to a yoga instructor and you’ll get lots of explanations for how the ancient Indian practice helps inmates.

Anyone 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.

Yoga also can help with weight loss — one of the reasons Ralston took it up.

What 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, Vissers says.

“Yoga 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.

Since 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 happen.”

Such changes are evident at a recent yoga class at Purdy.

As a 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.

Finally, 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.

There’s a variety of ages, races, body types — but despite some smiles, most look tired and serious.

With a 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.

“You breathe through the tension, and find peace,” she says. “Your breath is your anchor.”

As the 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.

Halfway 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.

“Yoga helps you through rough emotions, like shame,” Ralston says quietly.

“It’s 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 balanced.”

At 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.

One boy caves in on Plank Pose, half joking.

“Hey, I know your arms are stronger than that!” teases chief detention officer Donald Thomas from the security desk.

Up 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 others.

And then 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.

You can feel the stress flying away on the giggles.

“It 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.”

For teenage boys who mostly stay in a small room all day, that’s a big thing in itself. But there’s more.

As the 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.

By the final Savasana Pose, everyone’s completely still, lying on their backs with eyes shut, breathing deeply.

“It 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.”

“I 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.

Teachers behind bars

Despite evidence that yoga benefits prisoners, only a fraction of inmates in Washington’s prisons do it.

At 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.

On average, 16 women attend Yoga Behind Bars classes every week. At Remann Hall, it’s 24 a week, at Stafford Creek, 20.

The main 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.

For 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.

The solution? Train inmates, who have more flexible schedules and access, to become yoga teachers themselves.

Yoga 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 Purdy.

“We’re preparing them to be part of the Yoga Behind Bars teaching team,” Vissers says.

Twelve women will complete six weekends’ worth of practice, study and theory homework, and eventually be certified by Yoga Behind Bars.

That 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.

And when the women are released, they’ll have an employable skill and a new mindset of helping others.

When she 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 …”

Getting yoga back to its roots

Yoga 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 traffic.

The organization has begun training in Tacoma venues such as Good Karma Yoga to build a more local base of teachers.

Experienced 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 clothing.)

In a 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.

Despite the unpaid work and travel, many yoga teachers want to teach in prison — the May training weekend was jam-packed.

“I 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 need healing.”

“My 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.”

“It’s really important for teachers, possibly more than for the students,” Vissers says. “What I hear from people is that it invigorates their own practice.”

For Irene Hauzinger, it goes even deeper — back to yoga’s roots of non-harm, truth and connection.

“In 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.”

In fact, Hauzinger doesn’t teach in studios anymore — just prisons.

“I do more good there,” she says. “It’s not just exercise, it’s a service. It’s a privilege to work there.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

For more information on Yoga Behind Bars, visit yogabehindbars.org.