Monday, February 22, 2016

What it is Like to Teach Yoga In Prison

by Ann Carlson, CSOY Alumni Class of 2014 and Yoga Teacher at Yoga Behind Bars

Ann Carlson outside of Clallam Bay Correctional Facility

“The basis of your life is freedom, the purpose of your life is joy.” -Abraham Hicks
The public is beginning to realize both the inefficiency and depravity that exists in the prison industrial complex today. Whether it is through the various docudramas on TV, news media, a personal experience or via a relative or a friend, the public can see the large gaps in our prison system. There is a lot to this story, but a good place to start is in the 80’s when the Reagan War on Drugs Initiative privatized the prison system. Since the prison system was privatized, there has been over a 700% increase of incarceration rates. As privately owned, for profit institutions, the prison systems have done little to focus on the rehabilitation of inmates because more prisoners means more money. Historically, there have been very few programs that give offenders skills and resources to change the way they think and act in order for them to successfully reenter society. Sadly, what happens to many offenders once they are “in the system” is that they have a hard time getting out and staying out. The term used for offenders who have been released from prison and then reenter is called recidivism. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of recidivism for offenders released in 2005 and re-entering within 5 years was 76 percent! To me, it is clear this system is not working. It is broken. It is not serving the safety of the general public and it is not considering the wellbeing of the offenders.

Yoga in Prison.

Participants in Yoga Behind Bars’ Teacher Training for Prisoners with instructor Laura
 Prudhomme at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. 
(Credit: Emily Westlake).

I walk into Clallam Bay Correctional Facility, a large 800-inmate maximum-security prison tucked between the coast of Washington and the Olympic National Park and the frustration I feel towards the “system” subsides. It has to. I cannot let the angst I feel get in the way of the experience and tools I am trying to give to my students as their yoga teacher. Going into the prison is fairly smooth as I am now a “red badge” volunteer, which means I’ve gone through the checks and training to walk around freely in the prison without a guard or staff member escorting me. The most humbling of times is walking in and walking out: walk through a door, wait for it to shut behind me, walk to the next door, wait for it to click open, walk through, wait for it to close, walk forward, wait for another door to open…and knowing someone is watching me but I can’t see them. I feel strange walking through these doors, it is so different from the free, open, limitless life I live outside these walls. The weight of it all hits me hard, especially when I know some of my students do not have an end in sight to life inside prison.

The hardest part in the beginning wasn’t what you may assume, the inmates, but the interactions with the guards who wanted to remind us (myself and two other teachers) that these guys were “dangerous criminals”. WHY WAS THIS HARD? That subsided after a few classes when we had established our capabilities and qualifications to hold a safe and respectful space.

At first, it was apparent that the students weren’t quite sure about the whole yoga thing. Most of the inmates had never done yoga before and thought it would be easy. They learned quickly that is not the case. In one of our first sessions, my fellow teacher Wendy was teaching a sun salutation and they were not shy about huffing and puffing, some even moaning and groaning. I interrupted the flow of the class to ask, “Wait a minute, did you all think yoga was easy?” and I received a resounding, “Yes!” from all but two guys (they had made it clear from the beginning they were serious about yoga). After squashing the “easy” notion, they graciously accepted their sweaty fate without much further complaint.

Each time I go, it gets better, I get to know my students more and more. This isn't your standard yoga class. We have discussions before and after asana practice. We talk about the 8 limbs of yoga and the relevance they have in our lives. They ask open, honest and raw questions. I remember the first time I went to teach alone I had a plan to cover the Yamas and review the other limbs we had already learned. As I began class, I felt their eyes on me and I started to stumble with my words, lose my train of thought and then my words just stopped coming out. I couldn’t believe how vulnerable I felt without the support of my fellow teachers next to me. My palms were really sweaty and for the first time as a teacher in the prison I felt inadequate, underprepared, and incapable. The only choice I had, besides running for the door, was to be honest with them. With watery eyes I looked up from my papers and said, “I’m sorry, guys, I’m so nervous. I’m losing my train of thought. I’m sorry.” Immediately, but without talking over one another, they started comforting me in a genuine way, “Take your time. We’re just happy you’re here.” “You’re doing great, Ann!  We appreciate you.” “We’re nervous, too!” I took a few deep breaths, gathered my thoughts, and we ending up having a great discussion, followed by practice. Afterwards, they all shook my hand, as they usually do, but this time a few of them let me know that I am always safe and they are thankful for the opportunity to learn yoga. Since then I have felt absolutely comfortable and confident each time.

For me, teaching yoga in prison is a surreal experience. I am behind bars, but I can walk out. My yoga students are in a prison and they cannot go anywhere. I believe we are all equal, but my liberty is far greater than theirs. I can relate to them as people who have made mistakes and are genuinely trying to figure out how to get through this challenging life experience. We’re really and truly all the same.


Even though it is yoga and the Crow Pose the prisoners practice is the same Crow Pose as the one you or I might do in the studio, the environment is different, and not always in a bad way. Sometimes the inmates get frustrated in poses, just like the rest of us, but instead of being inhibited by the formality of being in a yoga studio where “zenned-out" is hip, they will verbally express their frustration. They don’t have the lovely ambient background music that the yoga studios might but they have community and support each other. I find their remarks and reactions humorous--really, I love it because it is real. Perhaps, more yogis should try expressing themselves unfiltered and uninhibited by social norms.

In addition to asana, we also meditate. Depending on time, we’ll sit for 10-20 minutes at the end of each class. In the beginning, the inmates had mixed feelings about meditating, but I can say with confidence now that it is something they all really look forward to. One of the things I’ve enjoyed witnessing most is watching the students begin to understand true mindfulness; the idea of the present moment being the most important and the only moment worth trying to control. I think as a student of yoga this is really the practice, right? This is the actual gift I am trying to teach my students. Not arm-balances, not upward facing bow, but mindfulness and presence. We may be practicing it using the tools of our bodies, breath, movement and stillness, but the true goal is always complete acceptance of the present moment.

Seeing the calm, peaceful demeanor and gentle smile on an inmate’s face after opening their eyes from a meditative state is a humbling and joyous reminder of the importance of this work.

Men meditate in yoga class at Monroe Correctional Complex, WSRU. (Credit: Emily Westlake).

If you’re reading this and you practice yoga, you may remember that feeling in the beginning when your practice starts to blossom and you realize, “Whoa, I really LOVE this!” It’s such an exciting feeling. It is beautiful to see the inmates falling in love with yoga in the same way you and I have. Recently, one of the guys brought in Light On Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar and was showing me the different poses he’s been working on. He asked me how he can find more openness in one pose and if his breathing was right in another. The best part was when another guy started to give him tips because he had been working on the same pose in his cell! Needless to say, my heart felt like it was beating outside my body I was so overjoyed. These little moments are truly inspiring; sometimes, I can’t believe I’m witnessing them and that I’m a part of it all. I am very, very grateful.

I got my training to teach prisoners from Yoga Behind Bars. The incredible work this association and others like it are doing is having a positive impact and their survey data shows very low rates of recidivism for those involved in yoga programs. Yoga Behind Bars is expanding every year and developing a yoga teacher training for inmates; some of those trainees will be inmates with life sentences. At least two of the yoga-trained inmates will mentor with us and eventually teach an extra weekly class (or more) to inmates at our facility. This is groundbreaking stuff. This is true work. True progress.

The prison system needs radical change and I am honored to be a small part of that change. On a personal level, this experience has brought a perspective of gratefulness for my life and an even deeper level of compassion for all people I come into contact with. The truest joy I have felt is walking out of that place, feeling the reality of my freedom and the greatest love I have in my life: my relationship with my yoga practice and my ability to share it with those who it will truly benefit. I’m so fortunate to have the teachers I have had and my yoga training wasn’t just yoga education but LIFE education. Yoga has helped me walk straight into my fears with confidence because I know that what I do is not entirely about myself, it is about something much bigger.

If you are a yoga teacher and want to bring yoga to the criminal justice system I encourage you to see if there are any programs in your area such as Yoga Behind Bars and the Prison Yoga Project. You can also do what my studio owner, Jenny Stewart-Houston, did and reach out to those programs to see if they are interested in expanding into your area or can help you gain the knowledge to start something locally.


Ann Carlson currently teaches on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state at Poser Yoga in downtown Port Angeles. She also owns and operates the Outdoor Yoga Project which offers overnight backpacking and yoga retreats at the beaches of Olympic National Park. She is an outdoor enthusiast and has spent the past 9 years working and living in national parks and traveling the world in the off-season. After her Yoga Teacher Training with CSOY, she was inspired to grow roots in one place and share her love of yoga by teaching at local studios and for Yoga Behind Bars