Healing the Disenfranchised Through Yoga

This is an interview with Katy Jones, who teaches several types of yoga and is an attorney in Oklahoma City. She recently started a nonprofit, Root to Rise Inc., which aims to improve the lives of trauma victims through yoga, meditation, and mindful awareness practices. Inspired by the work James Fox was doing at San Quentin State Prison through the Prison Yoga Project, she enrolled in his training program in LA. Then she started work at a women's correctional facility in Oklahoma City in August of 2012. She went on to attend the Veteran's Yoga Project training in Denver at the beginning of this year, and as soon as she returned home she began teaching classes at the National Guard Training Center, and at a homeless veteran's shelter.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

It's rare that an opportunity comes along that resonates so deeply that you know in your bones it's something you have to do. I was already teaching yoga at a great studio and working plenty of jobs when I discovered the Prison Yoga Project. I know how screwed the American prison system is (with my home state being one of the worst), and firmly believe everyone needs a fair shake; yet my main motivation was that these classes could have a real impact on improving society, in the sense that what helps one of us, helps us all.

How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

The motivation remains the same, but actually seeing the obvious physical and emotional differences in the students proves that this works. When you see a person who used to enter a room slouched and looking at the floor now walk in with a proud chest and a smile, and they tell you how they can sleep easier and are more comfortable talking to their kids and family, it inspires you to take this practice as far as it can go for as many people as it can serve.

Is there a standout moment from your work with homeless veterans?

There was a man in the first class I taught at the homeless veteran's shelter who could not fully open his right hand and his right knee would barely bend. I was ready to modify my classes as needed for physical limitations, but I had to come up with a whole new game plan on the spot. I ditched the script in my head and steadily checked in with him throughout the hour. I was lucky that he was receptive to all suggestions, and we worked out several closed fist variations with him, and his leg is getting stronger each week. He's attended every one of my classes, and last week, he brought me printouts from the Internet about yoga poses he wants to try. Good health is easy to take for granted when you have it, and that first class with him made me realize sometimes all we'll be able to do is sit and breathe, and that will be enough. His not-gonna-quit attitude is consistent with many veterans. They have the best eagle poses you'll see -- if it requires focus, the veterans will dominate it.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching?

I only knew what I had read from the media and studied in class; I've never served hard time or been a member of the armed forces. I had a prior relationship with a man who suffered from post-traumatic stress symptoms, and while I saw how difficult it was for him to live a "normal" life, I also didn't know how to help him. The reason I can assist these disenfranchised members of society is because I never come from a place of judgment, and I'm confident in my ability to teach anyone. I'm approachable and don't take myself too seriously; people who've been through the kind of hardships veterans and inmates have can see right through a counterfeit. As a teacher, you have to practice what you're preaching.

What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

I've known enough folks who've been to jail that my assumptions about the prisoners I work with were mostly true -- they got caught when the rest of us didn't. I've yet to work with violent offenders, but I don't see myself going into that setting with any assumptions when it happens, either. It won't do me much good. As far as the veterans are concerned, I thought they might be more skeptical of what I was selling. On the contrary, they've been open to all kinds of breathing exercises, poses that look fairly intimidating, and a short, tatted-up, smart aleck with a mouth like a sailor instructing them beyond their comfort zone. I guess we understand each other.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

The studio classes seem to have more of a focus on getting a workout in, while the volunteer classes have a slower pace and longer time spent on each posture. There's not music, mirrors, or fancy clothes in my veteran and inmate classes. There's also very little comparison to each other. They seem to be heavily focused inward. I also notice I am constantly cueing in studio classes, giving as much instruction as possible. I definitely chill that out in the volunteer classes, and let the students just be with their body more. It tends to be more difficult for them to handle distractions and multiple stimuli than those on the outside.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Finding the time to take my organization as far as I want it to go has easily been the greatest challenge. I thought I'd be met with more resistance when I first put feelers out for facilities I could bring yoga, meditation, and mindful awareness into, and surprisingly the opposite occurred. It's near daily that someone contacts me about starting a class for another group of trauma survivors. I wish I could advance this practice full-time, but law school debt doesn't like that idea as much as I do. I'm still working on tools for better time management. It's a constant struggle.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

Listen. Don't talk about yourself, and don't bring any juju, chanting, or foreign languages into your class. It's not about you. Be real, be kind, and be ready to be changed forever.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

It truly needs to be a regular practice for as many of us as possible. I'm not talking about a certain kind of yoga or visiting a studio or paying someone to tell you what to do. I'm talking about breathing with purpose as you move, and clearing your mind. The practice in its simplest form would benefit all. It's my great, idealistic hope that yoga becomes more prevalent for the underserved populations that need it most. I'd love to see rooms full of mats topped with kids of all different colors -- yoga in schools, mental health facilities, correctional facilities, big corporations, military bases -- the possibilities don't stop if we have the leaders to make it happen.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Public interest work has always been my thing, and really just because I've always found those jobs to be the coolest. I don't feel so much like I'm serving my students -- I feel like I'm right there with them, getting just as much out of it as they are. Teaching these unique groups has changed my practice in that I'm way less judgmental of myself and pay more attention to how I'm feeling. I can also relax and calm myself down in stressful situations much quicker.

What other organizations do you admire?

I admire anybody with the brass ones to go after the thing that lights their fire, and fight until they make it a reality. My good friend Karli McMurray started One Love Worldwide, and she's bringing clean water to African communities that wouldn't have that opportunity without her. Other folks who are doing awesome things are the Half the Sky Movement, The Messages Project, the ACLU, and so many more that I couldn't even scrape the surface in this space. Those who see a need, then do everything in their power to fill it -- those are the admirable ones.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Stay connected with Give Back Yoga Foundation as we share the gift of yoga with the world, one person at a time, by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and by subscribing to our newsletter. You can help us put yoga and mindfulness guides in the hands of 10,000 prisoners this year by purchasing Prison Yoga Project's book, "A Path for Healing and Recovery," for yourself or on behalf of a prisoner.

Do you want to bring the transformational power of yoga and meditation to underserved populations? Join Give Back Yoga at the Sedona Yoga Festival in February for a two-day Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans pre-conference training that provides yoga teachers with clinically-proven techniques to help students recover from trauma and emotional stress.