Every other Tuesday evening, I take the complicated journey through security and into Denver Women's Correctional Facility. I walk through the courtyard to their Trauma Center, smile at the dogs that are being trained, and set up for my gentle yoga class. We practice for about an hour, then the offenders return to their cells, and I return home to my condo, husband, and dog. Teaching yoga in prisons can be a controversial topic, and I'd like to give my opinion as a volunteer teacher.
Prison Yoga Project states that 2.25 million people fill prisons in the United States and that 7.3 million Americans are under correctional supervision. About 97% of people in prison will eventually be released, and of those released, 60% will return to prison within 3 years of their release. According to Yoga Behind Bars, only 8% of people who took at least 4 yoga classes returned to prison within 3 years of release. Why the drastic difference? Yoga has been shown to reduce anxiety, anger, and depression, which can be root causes of violence and drug abuse. It teaches students to respect and nourish their bodies, and to breath first and respond rather than react to a triggering situation. It also gives the offenders a break from the stress of prison life and a safe opportunity to just be and to breathe in savasana.
I was more than a bit intimidated the first time I taught at Denver Women's. Before the training and facility tour to prepare me to volunteer in the prison system, I had never stepped foot in a prison. My expectations were set based on what I'd seen on TV plus the assurances from the Yoga Behind Bars trainees that teaching in prisons is incredibly safe. Regardless of my nervousness, I found that most of the offenders were friendly and thankful for me to be there as a volunteer. And as I grew comfortable in this new environment, I learned how rewarding it can be to teach in prisons.
I typically have smaller classes, as the program is still growing. I have learned from feedback from my prison yogis that they prefer to breath through long holds rather than flow. Most do not have previous experience in yoga but pick it up very quickly. We move slow, and I offer lots of modifications. My students prefer that I practice with them so that they see the shapes in addition to listen to my cues.
Teaching behind bars can be challenging but is also a gift, especially to a newer teacher. I get irritated when the security guy doesn't like my shirt and denies my entry. Or when I go through the entire process to find out that I'm competing with a special food day, and no one shows up. However, when I'm able to teach a class, I learn a lot. I get immediate feedback on how a pose feels from my students and how different modifications work for them. I'm strengthening my cues for brand-new practitioners and creating safe sequences for different bodies. We laugh a lot in class, and I can see the students' mood and self-esteem grow more positive in the hour I spend with them. Finally, the students are so grateful to have the opportunity to practice yoga and spend some time in stillness during savasana.
If you are a teacher who is interested in giving back in this way, we are always looking for volunteer teachers in the Colorado prison system. The process includes completing a form and sending it to the coordinator, Rob. The form will take several weeks to process, and then you'll be invited to a couple of training sessions to familiarize you with the prison system and the facility at which you'll be volunteering. Once all that has been completed, you'll go with a current teacher to learn the process. We'll add you to the teaching schedule, and you'll be set!
I'm always looking for more opportunities to give back! Please post here if you know of an organization / group / etc. that could really benefit from yoga.