Bringing Yoga to Prison

Women are a fast-growing portion of the incarcerated population. In New York, a new yoga program focused on prenatal care is fostering courage, control, and mental health among inmates.
Susana Vera/Reuters

Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit and eight other women made a makeshift circle in the middle of the cell.

“It’s just you, your baby, and your breath,” Kim said.

One woman got up and left for the yard. Two others drifted off soon after.

“Let’s try to connect and trust one another,” Kim said.

“You don’t trust anybody in here,” scoffed one of the remaining four mothers-to-be.  This is how Weiss-Lewit recalled her first prenatal yoga class, through Prison Yoga Project-NY (PYP-NY) at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s section of Rikers Island.

Weiss-Lewit says she has to remind herself, “My version of Rikers is not theirs.”

Entering any prison to help pregnant women prisoners relax always made her feel like she was walking on eggshells. A corrections officer stood at the door with a big smile and maintained it for most of the class, “Girl, you can do it!”

For years, Weiss-Lewit has taught yoga and art therapy in New York State correctional facilities. She had her first pregnancy while teaching at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (its prison nursery, founded in 1901, is the oldest in the nation) and bonded with mothers serving time with children outside.

It is one of only nine prison nurseries in the nation, four of which have been created within the past five years. She had developed relationships with many of the women she met at Bedford Hills who were serving long sentences. At Rikers, inmates serve one year or less, often for things as minor as missing bail. Kim might not see the same women from one week to the next.

Being pregnant in prison is extremely stressful, and the majority of pregnant women come to Rikers in a state of arrested development, unprepared and young. Three-fourths of women in prison are mothers. On average, six to ten percent of incarcerated women are pregnant, with the highest rates in local jails. Without a standard of treatment for pregnant women prisoners in the United States, the needs of women during pregnancy often conflict with the demands and priorities of the prison system. According to the National Women’s Law Center, many states have laws that penalize women based on their actions while pregnant, which they argue are misguided, often exceeding legislative intent and turning public health issues, such as substance abuse, into criminal ones.

New York has taken steps to address the unique healthcare needs of women prisoners. In 2009, New York ended its practice of shackling of prisoners in labor, an act that was found unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment. Throughout the U.S., it’s far from the same. There are several reasons for the schism.

Women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population, but there are scant data on women’s healthcare in prison. Some things are clear according to the Sentencing Project­­—between the 1980s when mandatory minimum sentencing laws were introduced, and 2012, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. grew by 646 percent. That is almost twice as fast as male prisoners.

Women of color are also almost three times as likely to be incarcerated, though recent studies have shown an increase for white women. Two-thirds of women are in jails and prisons serve time for nonviolent crimes, mainly drug offenses. This isn’t a new thing. The first federal women’s prison, opened in 1927, almost exclusively held women for drug and alcohol charges imposed during Prohibition.

Women have disproportionate histories of abuse and mental illness in prison. Over the decades the U.S. prison system, with much exasperation, has become surrogate for the nation’s mentally ill, blurring of the lines between criminal and mentally ill. In fact, Rikers has one of the largest psych wards in the country.

Controversially, many prisons have turned to privatization as a solution to overcrowding, which the U.S. Department of Justice in a report found had “diminishing returns.”

A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the outsourcing of private health care providers in New York directly correlated with the state’s rising prison population. Last year the state attorney general's office announced an investigation of one of the state’s largest private contractor’s role in the death of nine inmates, the AP reported.

While many states cut back on healthcare and education programs in correctional facilities, volunteer-led programs like yoga are increasingly practiced in prisons across the country.

Yoga has been around for 5,000 years, and these days the practice is associated with everything from spiritual enlightenment to yogurt. In prison, there are no superficialities and the classes are broken down into the most basic of yoga rules: being present.

“There are rules, but being in the moment is much more important in prison. It’s more immediate and present, there’s no room for yoga lingo or preachiness,” says Anneke Lucas, Director of PYP-NY.

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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