A wonderful initiative.
Yoga Behind Bars is a nonprofit here in Seattle that offers free yoga and meditation classes to incarcerated people throughout the Washington state prison system; I’m on the board of directors. Prison is an insanely stressful, dehumanizing environment–we try to counter that impact by giving prisoners tools for dealing with stress and anxiety both while they’re incarcerated and afterward, when they are back in their communities. Our students tell us they feel calmer, healthier, and happier from practicing yoga, and that leads to great downstream effects like more thoughtful conflict resolution and decision making. …
What does our program do for women? Well, on a purely physical level it helps them (and men) feel better. Many of our students have chronic aches and pains or other physical issues that yoga helps to relieve. It also helps them to find some quiet. New teachers are often shocked by how LOUD prisons are. For a couple of hours a week our students can be in a quiet room where they work on cultivating internal calm and peace. And most importantly, it builds their self-esteem, which is a major issue for many incarcerated women. We’re currently raising money to hold a 100-hour teacher training for women prisoners. Funds permitting, that should happen in the fall.
What doesn’t our program do for women? One thing is that it doesn’t help them sustain a yoga practice or yoga community post-release. Yoga classes are expensive, not to mention very white. Many of our students are of color, and when they look inside a commercial yoga studio they don’t see anyone who looks like them and are dissuaded. (Just like I’m too shy to go to one of those black churches with the big gospel choir even though it would be supremely awesome.) And even if that weren’t a barrier, affordability often is. We constantly kick around ideas–could we offer scholarships? could we at least give a free mat to every paroled student for home practice? There’s much to be done by the broader yoga community to make it more accessible to people who aren’t your standard head-standing middle-class white lady (like yours truly). One local studio launched a monthly class geared specifically toward people of color, and received such an onslaught of harassment, including death threats, that not only was the class cancelled, but the entire studio closed out of safety fears. Death threats! Over yoga! In one of the most liberal cities in America! I mean, sweet fancy Moses. So yeah, there is work to be done.
The entire interview is a treat, and also documents Coulter’s voyages through writing and not writing very much, and through drinking and not drinking at all.
You can visit Kristi Coulter’s blog here.