Why Yoga for Women Prisoners?

This is an interview with Kath Meadows, who started practicing yoga in 2000 to take the edge off life as a full-time homeschooling mother. It gave her a place to be that supported, nurtured, strengthened, and challenged her. Kath started teaching in 2009 with a strong desire to give back. Her first classes were taught in a women's prison (the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, MCIW). She now teaches three to four classes a week at MCIW and at the Women's unit at Patuxent Institution, both in Jessup, Maryland.

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My teacher, Kathy Donnelly, director of the Yoga Center of Columbia http://www.columbiayoga.com/
, established yoga programs and taught for several years in both of the prisons where I now teach. Her example inspired me and her connections gave me a way to step into the work fairly easily.

Teachers like Kathy and James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project continue to be a great inspiration to me, but truly the greatest motivation comes from my on-going contact with the vibrant community of incarcerated women. I teach public classes, but nothing fills me with the same deep sense of purpose and integrity that I get when I teach behind bars. The vast majority of women serving time will eventually return to the communities in which we all live. It serves not only them but all of us to provide them with whatever tools we can to help assure their successful reentry into the world.

Is there a standout moment from your work with the women in the prisons?

I had an experience recently that moved me. I arrived late (having been stuck on the highway for more than an hour behind a wreck). Being on time is a simple courtesy that should always be followed. It takes on an additional level of importance when working with people who may have experienced decades of chaos and repeated betrayal. I have a responsibility to be reliable.

Instead of going through the anxiety and list of explanations that I had been writing in my head, I entered the class to find the women already part way through their practice. I was greeted with joy and expressions of relief that I was OK, and I was offered a seat in the circle. There was a moment when the woman who had been leading the class turned to look at me, asking what to do next. I was able to say I'm not ready, but you seem to be - can I take your class? She spoke once again to the full circle and I took the class along side the other women, softening into the breathing practice and releasing tension as I followed her invitation to move. I was touched by her grace and deeply moved by her sense of empowerment.

It's unusual for the prisoners to be allowed to start an activity without the teacher being present. As I left I thanked the officer in charge for letting them go ahead without me. She replied that she thought it would be OK since yoga always seems to calm everyone.

What did you know about women in prison before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them and how have those assumptions changed?

I knew that they were women and that I am a woman. I assumed that, despite differences in our circumstances, we would be more alike than different, and I assumed that it was really more about yoga than about me or them.

What I did not expect was the depth of connection, receptivity, and dedication to the practice I would find in the students. I knew that I would learn about them, but I did not know that I would learn so much from them. Teaching incarcerated women has presented me with many challenges to the way I think, teach, and live in the world. I have learned never to underestimate the capacity for healing and growth, no matter what the source or the circumstances.

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?

In prison-based classes I work at reducing the hierarchical structure common to most studio classes. We set our mats out in a circle. I practice alongside the women. I emphasize their capacity to do this with or without a teacher. I start every class with a discussion - every voice is given equal weight and the women are invited to focus on their own ability to listen to their intuition and to heal themselves.

I teach very gently and slowly, with a strong focus on reducing anxiety and grounding.

I know this is controversial, but I also use touch a great deal in these classes. I believe it is a hugely important part of healing for the women to experience touch that is appropriate - non-violent, non-sexual. I don't really do adjustments but I teach a lot of partner poses so that women have the opportunity to both give and receive healing touch.

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

I don't generally know what the women have done that has led to a prison sentence. It's not really relevant to a yoga class. However, I'm not naïve. I teach in maximum security facilities. I am aware that some of them must have committed acts of great brutality. Some of the women have chosen to tell me their stories. They are not pretty and they are not excused. Their stories had not shaken my core belief in universal worthiness.

A while ago a woman walked into my class whose face I had seen plastered all over the papers in connection to an exceedingly brutal crime. I did not have the chance to even look in her eyes and sense her humanity before I knew her name, the details of her crime - and it sickened me.

As we moved through the class I had to keep finding my breath. I felt rocked back on my heels. Could I really see her as worthy? Was I capable of holding that faith?

I have a regular meditation practice, but I probably meditated more in the following days and weeks than I have ever done before. I have never been so grateful for the familiarity of the practice.

Eventually a very bare, stripped down sense of worthiness emerged for me. It does not always contain the sweet joy that I had previously assumed was necessary, but it was and remains consistent and present. For her, for myself, for my daughters and for the rest of humanity, I hold that sense and that space. She continues to attend classes, offering her support and receiving the support of others throughout the practice. I believe that to be of value.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach women in prisons?

Know yourself and know how to breathe. Be real. Do your own work - whatever that may be. Be open to the lessons that are offered. Be patient with yourself and others - prison time moves slowly for everyone. Be courteous and respectful to prison staff and the administration at all times. Trust yourself and trust your students and above all trust in the efficacy of yoga.

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

Teaching yoga to vulnerable populations requires understanding and sensitivity and often a specialized knowledge of the particular population's needs. I think it is really important to have additional training beyond what is provided by a standard RYT 200 program. I am committed to volunteer work, but it is important to recognize that well-researched, well-presented trainings do not come cheaply. Expecting consistent, population-sensitive yoga to be offered on a volunteer basis is unsustainable. I would like to see increased research supporting the efficacy of yoga, and the inclusion of yoga as a treatment modality in many educational, correctional, and treatment settings.

I like the model offered by Yoga Hope, in which workshop participants eventually learn the skills of leadership so that they can go out and pass on the skills they have learned. I also like the work of the Niroga Institute; here, certified yoga teachers team up with specialists in other fields, such as teaching, nursing, etc. The yoga teachers train professionals who already have a solid background with the population how to incorporate yoga into their work.

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

As is common in this country my understanding and practice of yoga started with the physical poses. Yoga meant getting on the mat and working out, the harder the better. Teaching in prison has helped expand my understanding of the practice. I no longer chase a pose. I no longer check myself out in class to see how I am doing compared to other people. This has been a hard path, filled with anxiety. It was so much easier to compete, than to just be.

What other organizations do you admire?

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email rschware@gmail.com if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!


Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.

Give the gift of yoga to a prisoner. Prison Yoga Project Book: A Path for Healing & Recovery.

A Path for Healing & Recovery provides practices that have been proven effective in helping prisoners to gain insight into unconscious patterns of thinking and compulsive behavior. They have also greatly helped in improving their overall quality of life - mentally, emotionally and physically. Although this program has been developed through years of experience teaching yoga to incarcerated youth and adults, it focuses on the self-reflection and personal discipline necessary for one to lead a more conscious life, whether incarcerated or free. It is a powerful resource for anyone trying to break free of negative behavioral patterns. The book contains guides for physical practice (asana), breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dyhana).

Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute June 7-9, 2013