What I Learned From Teaching Yoga In Prison

When I received my 200-hour yoga certification, I knew I wanted to volunteer. Several weeks later, I ran across an article about prison yoga in California, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

It took eight months to make it happen. I have a good friend who works at the men’s prison. I reached out to him because I wasn't having much luck with the women's prison, but the men’s prison was responsive. I recruited a good friend and we went through the volunteer training program; that's right, we were going to teach yoga to men in prison. Just three days before our first class, the chaplain called and canceled our class, as they were concerned for our safety. I took the opportunity to ask him if he could put in a good word for us at the women's prison. He did. I got the call and my first yoga teaching date was set.

I changed my outfit three times the morning. I was nervous, but I was looking forward to the experience. The loud buzz of the security door was startling when I entered the women's prison. I was surprised how well kept the grounds were. The lawn was manicured. I was about to teach my first volunteer yoga class.

Several inmates were outside. Some were working and some were in line at the small store buying snacks or whatever they could afford. I smiled and said “hello” to anyone I encountered along my path. Everyone was extremely friendly. On some level, I was expecting rude comments, but it was nothing like that. I had more bad encounters in high school than I ever did at the prison.

I'm certain I got more from these women than they got from me. Here are some of my most profound moments:

1. Their hearts break. 

After teaching one morning on the subject of gratitude, one young woman came up to me in tears. She had just been told by her husband he had fallen in love with someone else. She said she understood, but was struggling with gratitude. My heart was heavy that day for her.

2. They love achieving headstand too. 

In one class, we focused on tripod headstand and several women were able to get into headstand for the first time. Seeing them smile and cheer each other on was amazing. The next time I came back, one young woman walked up to me and said she'd been practicing her headstand in the yard all week.

3. They are moms, sisters, girlfriends and wives.

I wasn't allowed to ask any personal questions, but some of the women would offer personal information. One woman said she was almost done and had been an addict. She was now clean and excited to start a new life and spend time with her young son. It's so easy to forget these women aren't prisoners; they have lives they must return to after prison.

4. They love adjustments, just like all yogis. 

I treated these women like any yoga students. They were all new to yoga, so they needed a lot of adjustments.

5. They want good shampoo.

When I taught at the prison, I made sure I didn’t wear any makeup or fragrance, but one morning a woman asked me what shampoo I used. I didn’t even realize they could smell it. All of the women went into a big conversation about the one thing the missed the most: good shampoo.

6. They're self-conscious about their weight, too.

They wanted to talk about their weight issues. Several women were proud to announce they had lost weight. They also wanted to know if yoga would help them lose weight. Several women didn’t want to take off their outer shirt because they felt overweight and the tank top underneath would show what they didn’t want others to see.

7. They appreciate volunteers. 

At the end of every class, most of the women would stick around to tell me how much they appreciated me showing up. I never had to pack up the equipment alone, several women stayed after to help me roll mats and put them away. I left every class feeling completely appreciated for my time.

8. They don't laugh when you fall. 

One day after class I was heading to the parking lot. There were a lot of women on break and as I was passing a big group of women, I fell, really bad. I had to use my hands to catch me. I scraped up my hands and knee. I was horrified and thought for sure I was going to be mocked. Not one person laughed. Several women ran over to help. I limped off, embarrassed and relieved I didn't get mocked.

Teaching these women increased my level of compassion, and for that, I am grateful. I keep these women in my thoughts often. I hope you know there's a big community of loving, caring women who have just made some bad decisions.

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