Complete loss of freedom, independence, and the ability to make choices, along with the loss of a lot of confidence and self-worth is what every prisoner experiences.Given the situation, could it be possible to help those same people to learn how to cultivate the feelings of empowerment and confidence again…while still in prison?
According to yoga teacher and author Kath Meadows, it is possible. And she sees it happen.
Meadows, an RYT 500, as well as a mental health therapist by training, and author of the book, A Woman’s Practice: Healing from the Heart, teaches yoga to women in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland.
“Yoga gives the women a sense of independence and freedom with their bodies – especially when they are given options on how or when to move in and out of poses,” says Meadows, “In prison, they are told what to do, where to go, and how to do everything – they’re given orders. One of the things you lose when incarcerated is the ability to choose, and it’s a powerful need for living.”
Her book, A Woman’s Practice: Healing from the Heart, is part of the Give Back Yoga Foundation’s effort to empower individuals and build communities through yoga in hopes to reduce suffering in the world. The book was produced in partnership with the Prison Yoga Project to help women with a history of trauma or addiction to engage in self-healing through a personal practice.
With each book sold, Give Back Yoga Foundation can fund three free copies of the book for women in prison. The book is also offered free of charge to any incarcerated woman who requests a copy through the organization.
Meadows explains that writing the book was a completely volunteer effort and that all proceeds to back to supporting publishing costs and distributing free copies to women in prison.
For the past five years, Meadows has taught three to four classes per week at the women’s prisons on a volunteer basis which served as inspiration for her book.
“I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do,” says Meadows, describing how she was drawn to helping these women through yoga shortly after graduating from teacher training at The Yoga Center of Columbia and hearing about the opportunity to teach through her teacher, Kathy Donnelly, director of the Center, who spearheaded the yoga program for women prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and the Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
Most of the women participating in the prison classes have a higher degree of ADHD behavior, and a lot of disassociation with their bodies due to many of the women having history with abuse and trauma.
According to the Prison Yoga Project, Most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma, chronic interpersonal trauma experienced early in life. These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly, in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behavior which often land them in prison.
The Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga, taught as a mindfulness practice, is effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma, allowing us to address the resultant behavioral issues. Yoga as a mindfulness practice reengages prisoners with their bodies to restore the connection between mind, heart and body that increases sensitivity toward oneself and empathy for others.
“Many of the women don’t have a sense of safety with their body,” explains Meadows, “I see a lot of ‘deer-in-the-headlight-looks’ from trauma, so I keep the poses, as well as the instructions, very simple.”
Most of the focus is on inviting each woman to experience each pose, rather than Meadows trying to control the pose with too many verbal instructions or physical modifications, enabling and empowering each person to feel the physical sensations and trust themselves to be in the pose.
“A lot of what I do is about getting the women to pay attention to what they feel. Being aware of the body and the sensations is very therapeutic.”
Language and direction is very important in the classes as well. By using transitional phrases such as, “When you feel ready,” or, “If you feel this one side needs more stretching that the other, feel free to continue,” the women are given a sense of independence and freedom with their bodies – along with a sense of mindfulness about themselves.
Teaching classes with mats placed in a circle is also another way Meadows has been able to equalize egos, along with her own, as she practices alongside them, adding, “Anything that I can do to counterbalance the ‘I can do and you can’t’ is great – especially when I sometimes stumble out of poses with them.”
“I approach some poses that I think women might struggle with – like Tree pose – and do it in a circle while supporting each other with only touching pinky fingers. They come to realize that not only are they supporting each other, but they’re able to do the pose themselves and feel empowered.”
Meadows’ yoga classes teach the women to understand that they are all born worthy, stating. “While we might lose our way, or our accord with it, we never lose our worthiness in the world.”