Bringing Yoga to Prison

Anneke says she fell into teaching yoga in prisons by default. “After teaching yoga for 20 years,” she says, “I guess I was looking for my niche. I had no prior experience [with the prison system], nor was I looking into it. I learned from going in.”

Lucas, who is a sex-trafficking survivor, continues to find her own healing and recovery through what she calls “service-yoga” and is driven to share her work with others, regardless of whether they are perpetrator or victim.

“My whole life has been about healing and I found that yoga is the best modality for this. I come from a background of abuse and I feel I have something to offer inside because, for many, I know how they feel,” she says.

Studies show benefits for prisoners’ mental health: reduced stress and improved patience, mindfulness and reflection—qualities difficult to cultivate in prison. While the appeal for male prisoners tends to be the physical benefits of yoga, for women at Rikers it’s different. There is no gym for women prisoners although other populations have access to one. They tend to eat poorly and, without exercise, often experience body shame. For instructors, in addition to keeping language neutral and noncompetitive, it also must be nurturing.

“We focus on acceptance of the body,” Lucas says. “That it’s okay to feel pain when holding a position, feel anger … All of this for a woman with a history of abuse, my own experience proves this, are the first steps towards owning her personal power. Much of prenatal yoga is about the baby and honoring the body.”

In partnership with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) who supply materials such as bolsters, blocks, and mats, PYP-NY has 15 instructors, including Lucas teaching 12 classes for adults and youths in four facilities. PYP-NY even works with youth in solitary confinement.

For prenatal yoga instructors Weiss-Lewit and Jennifer Langbehn, their classes are a tale of how two worlds collide. Both come from relatively upper-crust lives with no personal connection to incarceration, a reality that affects the lives of millions of Americans. Yet, motivated by their experiences of motherhood, they are committed to serving the most traumatized of prisoners.

Jenny, one of the prenatal instructors, teaches classes to Upper-Manhattan moms-to-be with “lots of support and great medical care.”

Moms that practice yoga have a chance to ‘tune in’ and develop a new relationship with their emotions and bond with their babies,” says Langbehn. “Yoga teaches them stress and conflict management techniques and can bring amazing self-awareness and insight.” A few years ago she began to wonder if there was way to connect with moms without resources and reached out to Anneke.

At Rikers, “Any time I get a woman on the mat,” Jenny says, “most of them for the first time ever, it is a moving experience. It takes bravery, trust, and uncommon openness to try something as foreign to them as yoga. With a stranger. In plain view of other inmates. Sometimes risking ridicule and fearing embarrassment. It shows courage.

When I create relationships with them, and you get to know them, I'm ever more moved. Every one of them has suffered trauma, sometimes unbearable, abuses and desperate situations. And they step forward to do yoga with me. One person at a time, I learn their names, I share a joke or a story, I share my time and it distills everything down to a very human experience.”

Outside prison Weiss-Lewit is a mom/wife/yoga instructor living in a comfortable New Jersey town. When she lived near Taconic Prison she recalls, “No one talked about the prison although it was right there, five minutes away.”

She finds it empowering when word of her prison work makes its way through the cul-de-sacs of suburbia and sparks a conversation that gets people outside interested in those inside. Weiss-Lewit explains her work to her children and hopes they will grow up destigmatized to incarceration. “I want them to move above good guys/bad guys, cops and robbers.”

As a class winds down, it’s hard to know what each woman will take with them. For women close to release, PYP-NY instructors are limited to a handout with classes offered in New York City. Ms. Lucas is determined to manifest the possibilities. She is currently exploring ways to sustain PYP-NY through fundraising and wants to address one of the major challenges for formerly incarcerated people: employment.

“We really push for this to be available to the prisoners and we do it on a volunteer basis,” says Anneke, “so it has no real financial investment for the prisons. But I would like to see that change and be able to pay our instructors and expand. Even certify prisoners inside so they can teach but also leave as a certified yoga instructor. It’s just about the love we bring in.” 

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Dana Ullman is a freelance photographer and writer based in New York City.

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