There’s nothing like a little time on the yoga mat to take you away from it all—especially behind prison walls, where that goal is not easily accomplished.
While incarcerated people have made mistakes in their lives and caused others pain, many are victims themselves—of poverty, neglect, sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes. Because of that, they are poised to benefit deeply from the holistic self-care offered by a Charleston, West Virginia nonprofit.
Every week, Laotong Yoga—the name means ‘kindred spirit’—brings mats into the Lakin Correctional Center for women in West Columbia and the men’s maximum-security prison in Mount Olive.
“The need for healing within the prison environment is profound,” co-founder Sue Julian told Good News Network. “They’re using these tools to get in touch with what they care about. What kind of person do they want to be while they’re in prison—and how to find that freedom on the inside while they’re incarcerated. It’s really very powerful.”
Before 2013, when Julian and her co-founder Barbara Steinke launched the nonprofit, both taught yoga for years while working in the criminal justice system–Julian as a domestic-violence activist, and Steinke as a federal court reporter.
“The yoga that Barbara and I offer is rooted in the Kripalu model, a philosophy of non-judgment and compassion for self and others,” Julian said in a phone call. “We really do believe that we’re all connected in the present moment, and that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are involved in the healing of one another.”
In addition to the emotional and spiritual benefits, participants in the program earn certificates of completion after each 8-week session they attend–documentation of ‘good behavior’ that could help their case before a judge or parole board.
The breathing and other mindfulness practices that inmates learn in class has helped them reduce reactive behavior, avoid confrontations in the yard, and better cope with their anger and depression.
“Yoga makes me focus on one thing and one thing only. My mind doesn’t race or move around,” reports one female inmate. “I used it the day I went before the parole board—my (yogic) breathing—and it calmed me down, it relaxed me. It’s very peaceful.”
By now, hundreds of inmates at both facilities have completed Laotong’s beginners’ series, and dozens of these ‘grads’ have continued as regulars in the ongoing series.
After a recent class at Mt. Olive, one participant seemed stunned by the power of yoga.
“I’m not sure what happened back there,” he said. “All of a sudden I felt overcome by emotion and just wanted to cry. It’s been a long time since that has happened to me.”
(WATCH video below) Photo by Laotong Yoga released — Story tip from Colleen Anderson
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