Who do you work with? How did you get involved? I volunteer teach and do part time development work for Yoga Behind Bars, a Seattle based nonprofit that shares 25 weekly yoga and meditation classes to men, women, and youth in 12 facilities around Washington State. I originally heard about the organization from another yoga teacher friend who raved about their trauma-informed teacher training. One thing I have developed in my personal practice is a sense of discipline and integrity. I feel the call to do social justice work in order to live in integrity with my principles. It just didn’t feel quite right to teach at a studio to an already privileged population, though I know we are all fighting our own battles, and we can all benefit from the healing aspects of the practice. I wanted to go deeper, I wanted to work with people who may not otherwise have access. When I moved to Seattle I knew I had to get involved with an organization that combines two of my biggest passions. I now teach incarcerated teenage girls and work at Yoga Behind Bars sharing the stories of our students and securing funding to continue and expand our programs.
What role has yoga played in your own life? I discovered yoga while in college in 2009, and soon after graduating completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training. I found that the more deeply I explored all elements of yoga, and the more disciplined I was in my practice, the more inspired I felt. For me, embodiment equals empowerment. I felt like not only was the world of yoga opening up for me, but a world of possibility was presenting itself as well. It was from this space of possibility that my life has subsequently fallen into place—I studied Ashtanga yoga in Ireland, rock climbed all along Western North America, married the love of my life, spent the past three years working as a public school teacher in Title 1 (high needs) schools, and moved to Seattle and connected with Yoga Behind Bars. Yoga has served as a gateway to health, self-discovery, and community for me, and I am proud to work for an organization that brings the same potential to others.
Describe the challenges and rewards of your work: The most challenging and rewarding aspect of yoga service work, or any social justice work, is cultivating compassion without burning out. My work supports the growth of people in prison. I am not naive, I know that many of our students have done some really terrible things. But I also know that we are all more than our worst mistake, and I know that there are complex structural systems that either grants us privilege or oppression, and that inherently influences our choices and consequences. I have compassion for my students knowing that many of them are victims of structural oppression and have experienced unbearable traumas. A greater challenge is to be consistent in my compassion. If I can forgive, empathize, and love someone who has done a most terrible thing, how can I not also also forgive, empathize, and love someone whose actions uphold the systems of structural oppression or someone who has done a terrible thing in my own life? How can I cultivate compassion consistently, and wisely? How can compassion be a tool that energizes and inspires my work? The fact that service leads me to introspect and expand in such a personal way is rewarding.
What poses or practices do you find especially helpful to teach? Many of our students behind bars are healing from physical and emotional trauma. It is best to keep things simple. It is especially helpful to start and end with a meditation and attention to the breath. From there I move into a simple sequence always encouraging students to listen to their own bodies and make the modifications that make sense to them. The teen girls that I teach seem to really enjoy single leg balance poses such as tree pose, warrior 3, and eagle pose. I suspect this is because it requires their full attention and is a pose in which they can see clear growth with practice.
What practical advice or resources would you share with others who’d like to get involved in similar work? Research organizations or individuals who are doing the work that you want to do, and learn what you can from them. There is no need to make things up from scratch. Do your research on the population you wish to serve. And be clear on WHY you want to serve this population, and let that why inform all of your decisions–how you sequence your classes, how you interact with your students, how you describe your work to others. This is something I so love about Yoga Behind Bars. The “why” is so much more than to spread yoga. It is to promote healing and transformation in individuals as well as a broken criminal justice system. It is also important to know the scope of what you can do, and be confident that that is enough. I am not a physician, I am not a mental health therapist, I am not a lawyer, I do not have all the answers for my students, and there are a lot of things I can’t help them with even though I care. But I teach yoga to provide a loving and humanizing environment for students to heal and learn skills to help them self-manage and become successful upon re-entry to our society. That is enough.
If you’re interested in training or teaching with Yoga Behind Bars, read about their training here.