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Yoga Behind Bars is Reimagining the Criminal Justice System

By Wendy K. Leigh

Peace is an inside job – just ask any of the inmates serving time in prisons and jails across Washington State who participate in the ancient art of yoga. Instructors from Yoga Behind Bars routinely cross the threshold from freedom to bondage and back out again, feeling the heaviness of prison gates slamming shut behind them. But increasing evidence shows that their incarcerated students stranded on the other side are holding on to some pretty effective tools for coping with their shattered lives.

The team from Yoga Behind Bars aims to ensure that everyone, regardless of the stark spaces they occupy during incarceration, can find the peace they need to heal, grow and prepare for returning to their families and communities. They do this by teaching the practice of yoga at no charge, to prisoners as well as to prison staff, who are themselves under tremendous amounts of stress and pressure in their daily jobs. A teacher training system for long-term inmates also provides professional and personal development for those with little chance for release.

Youth practicing at Rehmann Hall Detention Center, Tacoma WA. All photos courtesy of Yoga Behind Bars.

Youth practicing at Rehmann Hall Detention Center, Tacoma WA. All photos courtesy of Yoga Behind Bars.

Fostering an environment of calm and connection benefits everyone, according to YBB, and helps change the culture behind bars into one that is safer and more productive.

“Do we just throw people away when they go to prison or jail … do we just give up on them?” asks Rosa Vissers, Executive Director of Yoga Behind Bars. “When they return to our communities, we want them to thrive and be leaders for change. Our programs give students the tools and self-esteem to do that.”

Vissers explains that a large majority of people currently living behind bars are coping with high levels of trauma, and that the behaviors leading people to prison are the result of these deeply held traumas. Through yoga, the YBB teachers aim to help the individual release this unresolved trauma by addressing the root cause rather than the symptoms. Rather than “otherizing” inmates because they’ve committed crimes, YBB seeks to be inclusive and to focus on solutions for their lives moving forward.

“Our message to our students is always that they are worthy. It is powerful to see a student discover and affirm their innate goodness and strength.”

Off the Mat

YBB teacher training program for inmates at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Aberdeen, WA.

YBB teacher training program for inmates at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Aberdeen, WA.

YBB teachers often hear stories from their students about how things they learn “on the mat” translate into real life. Many inmates are parents who claim that yoga has helped them become more present with their children. Vissers constantly reminds her students that yoga isn’t about the shapes they make on the mat but about how it allows them to “show up” for themselves and for others in their lives.

“It’s a way to practice gentleness and patience, but also tenacity and perseverance,” she notes.

Science seems to back up claims that certain types of yoga, including methods taught by YBB, can have a direct and powerful effect on the central nervous system. This can, in theory, help people rewire their brains and have more control over their response to stress. The Cleveland Clinic states that “yoga health” are two words that are closely related – and for good reason.

“Yoga has been shown to stabilize the response of the nervous system to stress, removing the constant muscular tension produced by the repeated alerts from the central nervous system, and calming the involuntary symptoms of threat – racing heart, sweating, anxiety – roused by the sympathetic nervous system,” according to “The Brain, the Nervous System, and Yoga,” published by the Cleveland Clinic.

Reimagining the System

Few people doubt that prison is one of the most stressful and troublesome environments imaginable. That’s another aspect of transformation that Yoga Behind Bars has its sights on: reimagining the entire criminal justice system. With more than 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, it’s no small undertaking.

Women practicing at Washington Center for Women, Gig Harbor WA.

Women practicing at Washington Center for Women, Gig Harbor WA.

Though yoga is the vehicle for initiating change from the inside out, the founders and teachers of YBB are under no illusions that it’s a cure-all for the many complex social problems associated with incarceration. Vissers points out issues such as mental health, homelessness, addiction, immigration, poverty and racism that contribute to people ending up in prison – as well as to them returning to prison after they are released.

“We want to be there for our students currently behind bars, but ultimately we want to transform the system so people don’t end up behind bars to begin with… and also to show that punishment tends to not work. What does work is giving people access to opportunities to develop their potential, tools to cope with stress and difficult emotions, mental health services, employment…the list goes on.”

When asked why they teach yoga to prisoners, the answer from YBB is very simple: Because it’s the right thing to do. And it seems they’ve been doing it right in a big way. Yoga Behind Bars has already reached at least 4,000 incarcerated students and trained 330 volunteer teachers, who bring yoga, meditation and asanas to diverse inmate populations that include youth detention facilities, the mental health unit at the women’s prison, the Veteran’s Pod at Kent Jail, and men in solitary at the Monroe prison.

“Our students may be invisible to many of us, but incarcerated people are part of our communities—they are our neighbors, friends and family members. The United States locks up more people than any other country in the world. We need fewer locks and more keys.