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Yoga Behind Bars

November 26, 2014

A Seattle based non-profit brings the practice of yoga to incarcerated youth and adults.

In the context of contemporary western culture, the word yoga conjures up a variety of images.  While those who engage in the practice regularly can speak to the physical and emotional benefits, for others the word yoga brings to mind images of classes in posh studios and gyms.  The word prison conjures up a contradictory set of images, and seems like the last place where yoga would be taught.  A Seattle based non-profit organization, Yoga Behind Bars, is sharing the practice of yoga to a population that may benefit most from its restorative effects; incarcerated youth and adults. 

Deer wandering onto the grounds of Echo Glen Children's Center, a medium to maximum security juvenile detention center bordered by forest land.

Yoga Behind Bars was founded in 2008, and began with one teacher teaching two adult classes at a Seattle jail.   Today, they have a team of over 40 volunteer yoga instructors, and last year taught yoga to over 4300 adults and youth at 10 prisons throughout Puget Sound.  At Echo Glen Children’s Center, a medium to maximum security juvenile detention center for girls under 21 and boys under 18, yoga classes integrate seamlessly into their rehabilitation programs which focus on teaching youth positive skills so that they are less likely to fall back into the activities that resulted in their sentences.   A Tedx talk from Yoga Behind Bars' Executive Director Rosa Vissers illuminates further on the transformative physical, personal, and societal impacts of yoga.

Two boys in savasana pose, a common way to end a yoga class.

Yoga Behind Bars volunteer instructor Ferrah Chino Roberts teaches a group of 13-16 year old boys in a medium security area of Echo Glen.   The young men speak candidly about their initial impressions of yoga as an activity for girls; all expressed an initial resistance to trying yoga.  However in their next breath, the boys then begin to express the profound impact that yoga has had for them.  One boy expresses that “Yoga makes me feel calmer, and kind of inbetween conscious and unconscious.   I feel like I'm in tune with things more after yoga.”  As I speak with each student, I am humbled by their thoughtful reflections about yoga, what they are learning, how these skills can be applied to life, and their gratitude to those who are trying to help them.

Instructor Ferrah Chino Roberts leads a class.

Through the support of those who believe that they can change and have the potential to become more than the labels of their offenses, this group of boys are making a difference in their own lives.  And they love yoga, too.

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Made possible in part by

Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 3-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

More stories by Aileen Imperial