My Prison Yoga Experience

Six weeks ago, my partner, John, and were given the opportunity to teach a non-traditional yoga class — a class of about 15 male students, ranging in age from 20’s to (what looked to be) 70’s, some with injuries or conditions physical and/or mental, and little to no known experience of yoga or meditation.

These students are patients in the Montford Men’s Prison, part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

As the Prison Yoga Project was starting, John was going to teach the class by himself, being a male yoga teacher in an all-male prison seemed like a good fit. He scheduled a meeting with the director, who we would soon be in close contact with, and arranged for a tour of the prison. I went along on the tour, partially out of curiosity, and mainly for support of John’s new endeavor. We both really loved the director, she is very positive and is working diligently to secure volunteer programming – like yoga – to the patients (as she called them, not prisoners) of the Montford. By the end of our meeting and tour, John and I were thinking of ways we could collaborate and teach the class together, as a team.

I connected with the owner of the Yoga Shala at HWY108, where I teach public classes, and she gave much support of the project and offered to help make it come to life. We offered the 108 at 108 (108 Sun Salutations on New Year’s Day) as a fund-raiser for the Prison Yoga Project. And a Yoga Mat Donation Drive in which students could donate their gently used mats and receive a discount from The Shop at HWY108 in exchange. From those two events, we were able to donate 15 yoga mats and 30 foam blocks as a permanent collection to the Montford! (Thank you Yoga Shala Sangha!)

We planned a 6-week beginner series to start off the Prison Yoga Project. On a road-trip from Texas to Colorado, John drove and I wrote out our class plan. We picked the key concepts that we wanted to focus on and then we filled in the class plans with asana (yoga postures). Each class would include Pranayama (breath work) and relaxation. Our goal was to establish the foundation of asana and relaxation practices that the students could practice on their own and continue throughout their lives. (A lofty goal for 6-weeks!)

We started off very slow. Our first class was strictly focused on Mountain Pose. Over half of the students participated and few looked at us like ‘who the hell are these people?!’ and they just did their own thing, it was clear that they were either not interested in what we were putting out there or they were holding onto an aspect of the ego that restricted their participation. We encouraged them each to start a “home” practice, which I believe in this case would be more like a “cell” practice. We gave them the assignment to “find Mountain Pose throughout the week: in the lunch line, while brushing your teeth, etc.”

The second week we began to add in more content which covered the Seven Movements of the Spine: flexion (forward fold), extension (back bend), twist (right and left), lateral (right and left) and (my personal favorite to teach) axial extension, which is basically the movement of “sitting up straight”. We added in the assignment to “find one of the 7 Movements throughout the week.”

The third and fourth weeks we began to stack more poses during the class. Each one starting with Pranayama and ending with reclined relaxation. We stopped giving assignments and continued with the encouragement to “start a home practice!”

Just as we got the ball rolling on the pranayama, asana, and relaxation vibes — we switched it all up for the fifth week!… we taught Restorative Yoga with Sound Meditation. Included in our list of items we were approved to take into the prison that fifth week were: 1 didgeridoo, 5 singing bowls, 12 blankets (one for each student, our class got smaller over the weeks), a 28″ Symphonic Gong, and another teacher: Rocky! I messaged my two sound healing teachers the week beforehand to get their opinions on the offering — they were both very encouraging! The students walked into the room wide-eyed, probably wondering, again — ‘who the hell are these people?!.. what are they about to do?.. and what is that thing – a gong?!’ Collectively, we taught them 3 Restorative Yoga poses: Mountain Brook, Instant Maui (with a chair), and Supported Savasana. We played all of the sound healing tools we brought, and for 60-minutes we saw these students relax. I saw them more still in Savasana that I had ever witnessed and for the first time since we started teaching the series, the majority of the students closed their eyes. (During the TDCJ Volunteer Training John and I attended, we learned that closing the eyes while in prison is a vulnerable position for most people.) The class was well received and they seemed to leave the room lighter that day than they came in.

john val gong

The sixth and last week of our series, I was given the opportunity to teach two yoga classes to the Staff of the Montford Unit! This was such an amazing experience for me! For both of these classes we practiced yoga seated in chairs or used the chairs as props for standing poses. They learned pranayama and relaxation as well. I encouraged each of them to bring body awareness to what felt good throughout the class, where they were holding tension, what could soften or release, and of course, if this feels good… continue the practice — or better yet, come to a public yoga class and learn more! These classes were very well received and it felt so good to give a bit of light to the beautiful beings that were called to do what must be challenging work. Teaching the staff classes made me fall even more in love with Adaptive Yoga than ever before! During these classes, I talked with a few of the staff members and they told me the stories they had heard from the patients we had been teaching in our series. Hearing these stories really made me grin ear-to-ear. It was reassuring to learn that the practices we had been teaching were beginning to stick. Thats just yoga doing it’s thing!

We finished out the sixth week of the Prison Yoga Project series with a full-on Hatha yoga class. We flowed through all of the asanas we had learned throughout the few weeks we had been together, we practiced pranayama, and ended with a sweet relaxation. We welcomed comments and questions from the students. A few of them told us they had been challenging each other to do the really hard poses! And they were so excited when I told them that we had combed our yoga library and donated a few books to them!

Our last day with them was bittersweet, it was hard to say good-bye to these students who allowed us to introduce them to the practice that we love so much. I knew many of them by their first names and looked each of them directly in the eyes when we taught them. We saw them open up to the practice of yoga, and witnessed them learn how to relax and find stillness (maybe some for the first time). Not once did I ever feel unsafe as a female teacher in a room full of male prisoners. I was challenged through this experience to teach yoga asana to a group of seemingly far-from-yoga students. And to teach relaxation in one of the most un-relaxing environments — a prison. I have no idea what any of these students did to wind up where they are in their paths, nor do I care to ever know. To me, they hold a special place in my heart, they allowed me to teach the thing that I truly believe is the step toward deep self-love and appreciation: yoga.

much love and light

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