Hi, I’m Kirsty, a Kiwi yoga student and teacher at Pura Aura Yoga. I thought I would share my experiences teaching yoga in prison, perhaps to inspire other teachers to volunteer or simply shed some light how yoga can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. Questions and Answers by me!
How did you get involved?
The truth is I don’t really know how I got into this. I remember at my teacher training having a discussion about how we can share our practices. We looked at parts of the world where yoga is accessible and what yoga means to different areas of society. For me, yoga is the ability to connect to my breath, body and mind and create a positive change for my mental health and wellbeing. The physical effects of a strong yoga practice are secondary for me, however they are a welcome addition.
The western yoga market is saturated. For Auckland city-goers, a class on every corner if you have $20 to spare. I was beginning to think about the individual that can not afford these classes or feels that they may be restricted to attend in some way. Many charities are fortunate enough to host yoga and meditation classes – perhaps at a hospital, school, or for other health departments where yoga could be key to someones recovery. An area that I thought would be the least accessible for a multitude of reasons would be a corrections facility. I started researching online and getting statistics of yoga in prisons worldwide and the positive effects on prisoners mental health and wanted to get involved with this change.
How did you choose to teach at Paremoremo, a Maximum Security Men’s prison, not at a ladies or low-risk? What do you wear?
Those are the most common questions I receive when I tell others about my recent project. And I wear trackies and a baggy jumper abiding by prison dress etiquette. I knew there was yoga in NZ prisons and that the Yoga Education in Prison Trust existed but I didn’t know how to go about it. After a few emails I was in contact with Mt Eden Prison and Auckland Prison. Talking in further detail with the volunteer coordinator at Auckland, I felt safe and supported and she was really excited to get my classes up and running. I trusted her judgment and knew that we could make it work!
Do people question your decision to help criminals and do the prisoners deserve this? You are giving up your valuable time.
For one part of me, I wholeheartedly agree. We make our own choices in life that lead us to where we are today. During my research, what stood out to me was the way that yoga in prisons DID impact the wider community. By the inmates creating a understanding on breath, mindfulness and self-awareness it may allow them to take these yogic concepts further off the mat …
- It may affect the way they speak to their child or family on the phone
- Take deeper breaths and pause before activating flight or fight mode
- Better sleep and wellbeing
- Improved mobility in the body
- Increased positive interactions with another prisoner or staff member
- Adjusted mindset for integrating back in to the community
How did the classes go?
With the nature of the environment you have to take classes week by week. The classrooms can vary from a private small room down the hall, or has been in the eye of other prisoners in their mess at break time. This is where I really have to practice what I preach and use breath techniques for my own sense of calm before I can dream of influencing the prisoners to follow suite! The disruption that an outsider can cause in the prison is huge, particularly a female yoga teacher. The staff did their best to make sure I was hardly visible. They would show me the cameras I was being monitored on and quickly get me into the teaching space. If I was seen by other prisoners often they would try to get some attention, loudly. Some were perfectionists at intimidation. At times, I would be surrounded by up to six guards and always had one guard in the room while I taught with a few outside. The men in the classes were consistent, respectful and appreciated my time. They were responsive and open made each session so rewarding and worthwhile.
What style of yoga did you teach?
Teaching in prison altered the way I taught for sure. I had to ooze confidence and use a strong and steady voice, while being trauma sensitive. I was also wearing a holster with a radio, ready to communicate in any emergency. I adjusted my asana so the men spent most of the time on their back or seated. I wanted the practice to be mindful and not as visual as other classes. Ideally, the students could go inwards on their own practice with their eyes shut and feel through their own bodies, moving in a mindful and meditative way. The range of movement in their bodies was more limited than those attending a yoga studio regularly, or living an active lifestyle. The men are in a cell 23 hours a day. We did a lot of pranayama and I could almost see layers shedding off them with their exhales. Very impressive since there was often yelling, banging on the walls and someone causing a distraction. The mens’ faces at the end of class kept me coming back. There was a softness to them and a visual reset that was very moving. I can’t comment on how long that lasts or any of their actions thorough the day. The present moment is what counts for these classes.
After word around the prison got out that there would be a new yoga class for inmates, staff wanted to get involved too. Staff have never had the opportunity to participate in onsite classes and so we developed a programme for them. I think staff classes are equally important as the prisoners – although their experiences within the facility couldn’t be more different, both are faced with challenges. Unfortunately they were just starting to take off just as I had to go back to full-time work. The classes were during weekday work hours and I only had a few months where I could juggle my work to make them fit. I hope to teach when and where I can and will continue to support the YEPT. I have learnt so much and grown through this experience in so many ways. I am equally as thankful to these men as they were to me at the end of each session.
If you are interested do check out https://www.yogainprisonstrust.org for more info or feel free to contact me @puraaurayoga if you would like a chat.