Imagining Transformative Care with Yoga Behind Bars

Yoga instructor and two students wearing prison garb

Catherine Ruha, UUC Member

Yoga became a transformative experience for many who attended the Yoga Behind Bars event that is part of a UUC series of programs on Reimagining Public Safety. Katie Renschler wrote, “The session gave me a key reminder: our justice system is not designed for justice, repair and healing. Yoga Behind Bars is one way of aiming for repair and healing—through breath, movement, invitation, and honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person.” And Christine Edgar reminded us that these prisoners are us; these issues, this pain of traumatized lives and incarceration inflicts a terrible cost on all of us—emotionally and spiritually. But what if all incarcerated people learned yoga or meditation? Or better yet, what if everyone had health care, a place to call home, and enough food; what if everyone really was our beloved child?

Yoga Behind Bars Instructor, Jess Frank, began our yoga session with these words, “Trauma lives in the body.” Trauma is the experience of being powerless to establish a boundary between oneself and that which is about to inflict, or is already inflicting serious harm or the experience of imminent annihilation.1 I wondered, how can you find that hurt living in your body, let alone, care for it, when you are frightened and angry and repeatedly traumatized in your life and then again, in prison? I would soon find out through my participation in a trauma-informed yoga practice brought to our church by instructor Jess Frank and Yoga Behind Bars Development Coordinator, Anthony Blankenship.

We were continually reminded to attend to our breathing, and to how we were feeling emotionally and physically as we moved through the postures. I realized how much tension I carried in me, in my shoulders. Now I had a new way to think about it. In a video we watched of incarcerated men practicing yoga, we heard how the yoga practice gave them a different choice: it offered them a way to release the pain and injury held in their bodies, make room to pause, breathe, attend, and reflect rather than defensively react. Yoga became a transformative experience.2

1) https://cac.org/traumatization-of-spirituality-2018-10-23/

2) How Yoga Behind Bars Is Reshaping These Prisoners’ Lives (NowThis): https://youtu.be/Dic1Bzl4Cw0