by Nancy Kochuk
Yoga can be most effective in places that you might consider the least friendly environments for a such a practice - in prisons, for example. But if you are a yoga student, yoga in prison makes perfect sense. In your yoga practice, you’ve already experienced that shift from a ramped-up, vigilant state (that's our sympathetic nervous system responding to stress) to a calmer, less reactive state (the parasympathetic nervous system controls our rest-and-digest functions). That state of equilibrium in both the body and the mind that yoga produces can be enormously helpful to the men and women incarcerated in our prisons and jails. So many of them have already experienced trauma (think homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and more) in their lives, then they experience even more trauma and stress living in harsh, overcrowded prison environments.
Research studies confirm the positive impact that yoga can have on the men and women who participate in prison yoga classes. But for an up-close and personal view, all you need to do is listen to what incarcerated students tell their yoga teachers:
When prisoners are released back into our communities, we want them to be healthier people, in body, mind and spirit. Yoga is a tool that can help people become their best selves.
In any yoga class, when we focus on the experience we are having on our mat and in our body in that moment, we give ourselves permission to let go, breathe and create those little moments of peace, clarity and empowered choice that are essential to our wellbeing. That’s a practice all of us - incarcerated or not - can use in our daily lives.
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NOTE: Retreat Center of Maryland sponsored a daylong “Replenish the Well” retreat in early July 2018 at no cost for yoga teachers and meditators who volunteer in Maryland prisons.
Nancy Kochuk is a volunteer teacher and coordinator for the Maryland Prison Yoga Project. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Retreat Center of Maryland and editor of the RCM newsletter, Moving Forward Together.