This is the second article is this series looking all the ways in which people are excluded from yoga – reasons like social class, race, money, incarceration or general access.
In this article Adhyatma shares how the Yoga Education in Prisons Trust (YEPT) got started, what the challenges have been and what she’s learned from the experience.
by Adhyatma, Yoga Education in Prisons Trust
After I finish teaching my Yoga classes, the men in my class often come up respectfully and shake my hand and with full eye contact they express their gratitude.
It’s something I haven’t encountered in other classes I teach – this is the class I teach at Rimutaka Prison.
I’ve been teaching yoga in Rimutaka Prison for over two years now and at other prisons around New Zealand for the last seven years.
When I teach, I try to take a little bubble of light into what is a very hard and dark environment. Every group I’ve had has been different and so every group requires a totally different approach.
However they all respond to love. They all respond to humour. They all respond to humanity.
I’ve learned that it’s not so much what I teach them as in who I am, how I am and the underlying attitude I present in myself. I simply share my passion and love of yoga with these men and they ‘get it’.
Yoga Education in Prisons Trust started in 2009 when a nurse and a Satyananda Yoga teacher discovered they had the same vision.
We had no idea where our vision had sprung from but that vision was to teach Meditation and Yoga to prisoners.
The Yoga teacher, me, had been inspired to do this for years but I had only just started volunteering in Waikeria Prison. For two years whilst running a residential Yoga center in Hamilton I had been struggling to make ends meet as I taught weekly at the prison.
There was no funding available from Department of Corrections to pay me to drive the hour there and back plus teach a 2 hour session twice a week. However I was determined. Something was driving me.
When Heather called me she was working as a nurse at Spring Hill Corrections Facility just north of Mercer, and we found we had the same idea. We discussed the challenging money side of things and she suggested forming a trust.
Voila! …things fell into place rapidly. It seemed there were some divine forces were at play. The Trust deed was created with the help of a lawyer friend, and some reliable karma Yoginis came on board. We felt hopeful that we could get funding from community grants and individuals to pay me and possibly other Satyananda Yoga teachers around New Zealand.
Since that inception in 2009, YEPT teachers and trustees have donated hundreds of hours maintaining the trust and ensuring its continued growth.
The Trustees do a lot of managerial work. In 2011 we were graced with Leigh Taylor, a mother of two and Yogini who felt inspired to help. She saw the benefits of yoga in prisons and also personally wished to practice the highest form of yoga: selfless service. Leigh took on the role of Financial Controller (the title ‘Treasurer’ just doesn’t do her justice!) and we have beautifully kept accounts and sparkling up-to-date records. That help has been invaluable.
Despite all the challenges, starting and running YEPT has been an incredible journey.
Key things I’ve learnt:
Corrections love their volunteers.
Unfortunately there is no funding within the Department for our teachers, but we are still happy to provide our services because we all believe in their efficacy and we want to prove that. I often joke that ‘we are doing time too’.
The rewards are immense.
To see the transformation of a prisoner before my eyes makes my heart sing.
These are my favourite yoga classes to teach because prisoners are so receptive. They are starving for a way out of the monkey mind. The men I teach have committed serious violent crimes but when they relax and close their eyes I see the vulnerable young child within and that child is beautiful.
We teach these men practices specifically designed for their needs – practices that help create a deep sense of relaxation, alleviate stress and reduce physical, mental and emotional tensions.
Different programmes of regular yoga practices have been used throughout the world in a range of situations, such as prisons and rehabilitation centres, to manage anger, anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviours. International research shows that offenders alter their behaviour thanks to the increased awareness gained through yoga.
Funding – what’s worked?
We have noticed that the most generous people are the ones who have experienced transformation through Yoga in their own lives. They have a direct understanding of how helpful yoga can be – not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.
Since the formation of YEPT we have received one grant of $500 from the Waikato Trust in 2011. Our main source of income continues to come from one-off individual donations although we do have some small regular contributors. Our new sponsors ‘We’ar’ ethical clothing have granted us $500 per month for 6 months for teachers salaries and $2000 to start a Research Project.
Another solid supporter is Kara-Leah Grant, author of Forty Days of Yoga. Kara-Leah donates a portion of the cover price of each book sold to YEPT. She’s just published her second book The No-More-Excuses Guide to Yoga and is also donating $1 per print book from that one.
YEPT has also become a part of Payroll Giving and that has been a wonderful way for people to help out with their company donating an equal portion. Any employee can choose to donate to YEPT through their pay packet.
We ran a Pledge Me campaign in 2012 which skyrocketed beyond our goal and there are plans for another Crowdfunding Campaign. Those funds were put towards developing and publishing a free booklet for the prisoners based on our carefully developed programme ‘Freedom from Within’.
The biggest challenges:
A big challenge is in ‘selling’ Yoga in prisons to people who don’t have an understanding of the holistic benefits of it. Prison managers who haven’t done yoga think it’s simply a form of exercise. Plus we sometimes face some unusual attitudes. For example, funders have come back to us with statements such as;
‘Sorry we only fund organisations whose activities benefit the community and prisoners are not regarded as part of the community’.
I find that astounding. If prisoners can’t be welcomed and supported as part of our communities, how can we ever successfully reintegrate them into regular life?
Over the years of keeping my foot in the door I have realised the success of YEPT relies on forming relationships within the system.
My Volunteer Co-ordinator Julie Clifton is the most supportive one I’ve ever had. She has even attended yoga sessions with me so she understands what I’m doing in class. I always suggest to the guards and therapists they attend the sessions too. Unfortunately it’s often a time factor that restricts this.
Yoga is a tool the prisoners can use while they are inside to manage their minds and reactions more constructively. To see that ‘aha!’ light turn on fills me with joy. Helping Corrections and the staff to understand this helps me do my job better.
If you’re inspired to teach yoga to a disadvantaged group who may not be able to access yoga through the mainstream, here’s a few suggestions:
Wherever you plan to offer your wisdom, try to inspire the staff or students by offering them a free class, short session or talk.
Have a cup of tea! Try to meet them in person, so they can see you’re a non-threatening, real life person who isn’t necessarily going to start making them do all sorts of weird things with their bodies!
When you’re trying to work out where to teach, go where your heart leads.
What makes it leap? What weird desire is there? Follow it. Have faith it will work.
Yoga does the job, you are simply the facilitator. Every human has the right to learn these time tested tools for life that are so practical and should be accessible. Yoga isn’t something that should just be taught in an exclusively white middle class yoga studio. Reaching out to other community groups is an invaluable way to teach.
Remember that breaks are good!
Yoga teachers often just keep going and going and going – all the way to the point of sickness and exhaustion. Have a break before this happens! I’ve learnt that the break is just as crucial for our continued learning and development as the ‘teaching’ can be.
Taking time out to replenish your energy and process your own stuff is vital if you wish continue offering your services to a high professional degree.
This work is where you will learn the most – about yourself, yoga and life. You really will learn to balance on your toes! Not just your head.
But most of all, no matter how difficult it seems, if you have a real passion to teach a particular group of people, know that it will happen.
You just have to take the first step, and then the step after that. Keep showing up, keep moving forward. People will come forward to help you, funding will come available. Best of all will be the reception you get from your students.
Adhyatma teaches Satyananda Yoga in Wellington and Paekakariki and is available in your area for private or workplace classes. She also volunteers with the Yoga Education in Prisons Trust (YEPT), supporting New Zealand prisoners to practice yoga.