Let’s Get to Know Prison Yoga Project

At the Trauma Research Foundation, we’re committed to the ideal that trauma healing shouldn’t only happen in the rooms of therapists for people who can afford to spend money on it. Because trauma and its lasting effects resonate throughout every strata of our society, it’s only right that healing should as well.

One group committed to helping some of the most vulnerable in our society is the Prison Yoga Project (PYP).  They’re an organization that supports incarcerated people with trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness practices to promote rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety. 

The Overview

The Prison Yoga Project was initiated by James Fox at San Quentin, in California, outside San Francisco in 2002, and originally stemmed from his desire to be of service and his knowledge of how beneficial yoga can be to people’s mindset.

James Fox, far right, San Quentin, California

According to Josefin Wikstrom, Program Director and Training Coordinator of Prison Yoga Project Europe, James originally wrote a book to give to the incarcerated population, due to not being able to provide enough classes to meet the demand. As incarcerated individuals were transferred between prisons, so was the yoga book and the information carried with it, and suddenly James started getting requests from all over the United States. 

This galvanized James’ ambitions and highlighted the need for yoga inside places of incarceration, and he started a training program for other teachers in 2008. The group has been expanding ever since and is now in over 75 facilities, both state and federal, in the United States alone, and in multiple different countries.

Josefin explained to us how in Sweden, the Prison Yoga Project has now expanded into both youth and psychiatric institutions, as well as the correctional system. She told me how although there is no doubt that yoga helps people deal with the symptoms of trauma, it’s only ever intended to be used as an ancillary for other therapeutic interventions.  

Despite this, Josefin shared many success stories – from being able to develop trusting relationships, to inmates having profound emotional revelations. One incarcerated person Josefin worked with had a violent history and was a self-professed “angry” man, who came to realize and reveal to the group his inner sadness that he was using his anger to mask. This caused a cascade of empathetic reactions, with many other people in the group recognizing they had similar experience. 

Josefin Wikstrom

Josefin said:

“I feel proud to be able to share the psychoeducation regarding trauma with the men, women and institutions we work with. The understanding not only about how the body keeps trauma, but also how we can affect negative responses with the practices we offer to provide relief from trauma symptoms which they get to feel weekly when we practice together. 

Also knowing about the impact of trauma provides a deeper understanding regarding past and current behaviors, attachment, the need of belonging and why they might have been self medicating these symptoms with drugs. 

Many came into a criminal lifestyle from the beginning as the result from this ongoing survival response and seeking new belonging and attachment in criminal environments and gangs. 

Being aware of the impact of being exposed to trauma from childhood and in life has empowered many to move forward inspired and hopeful and not to see themselves as “damaged goods” with low self-esteem and shame-based identity, but as a person with a physical, emotional and psychological response geared for survival. This self empathy can provide a higher sense of taking responsibility for one’s actions, to make amends and to be in service to society when released.

The men and women now released working with youth on the outside in our programs are shining examples of post -traumatic growth, and how to use their own experiences to empower others.”

The View from The Ground

We also got a chance to meet with two founding PYP instructors of the Massacheusests Chapter – John McDonough and Karen Kwass. They shared how their branch has grown over the years since its inception at a training camp in 2017, and how they’ve overcome various obstacles in their path so far, such as institutional resistance, the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to get a gong into a correctional facility.

When most people think of yoga taking place in a prison they think of the inmates doing it – and they’re right, for the most part. The Prison Yoga Project mainly caters to incarcerated individuals. However, John and Karen explained that the work they do doesn’t end there – they encourage prison staff to watch and even join in with their yoga classes.

They told me that when the facility staff see the benefits of yoga first hand it assures them that what they’re doing is effective, and “levels the playing field” in terms of emotional communication. They recognize that while jail is very tough for inmates, it’s also difficult for the correctional officers. They work long hours in a potentially dangerous and stressful job – the average prison guard’s life expectancy in the States is only around fifty-nine, compared to seventy-five.  Prisons are an especially difficult place to be right now, with many inmates being confined to their cells for over a year due to the pandemic.

By fostering a calming and trauma-informed environment, it not only helps the incarcerated population, but provides a safer and less-stressful working situation for the facility employees. This is a fantastic example of how, through trauma-informed practice, we can start to reverse the way that trauma ripples through society. Moving toward a place of healing can light the touchpaper for others to start their journey – it only takes one person.

Los Colinas Detention Facility, Santee, CA – 2016

A Personal View

A TRF team member has a son who is incarcerated. During COVID she reached out to Josefin seeking resources for her son who put her in touch with two local PYP-trained yoga instructors, Karen and Genoveva. While they were not able to assist in getting yoga into her son’s facility at the time due to COVID, they volunteered their time to create a yoga/mindfulness program for her and others like her. As Karen and Geno explained, the incarcerated loved ones would benefit in two ways by the family members’ participation in self-care. First, they knew through their experience of working with incarcerated individuals how much concern there is for the well-being of family “on the outside”. Knowing that their family member is taking care of themselves provides a sense of relief. Additionally, grounding tools learned by family members on the outside would be transferred in a sense to their incarcerated loved ones, even over the phone. This proved to be a win-win situation for both the family on the outside and the loved ones on the inside. 

A Community Opportunity to Get Involved

Incarcerated populations of people are among the most traumatized in our society. Trauma-informed yoga is an inexpensive, effective way to impart trauma-healing tools that can be applied on a daily basis outside of class. The Prison Yoga Project is now slowly getting back into facilities across the world as they open up to outside visitors.  If you’re interested in making a difference, they have a wide range of publications available for purchase and are currently running training programs and taking applications for facilitators

The benefits of yoga and mindfulness instruction to incarcerated individuals and those who work with them cannot be overstated. We are proud to partner with the Prison Yoga Project to help support and promote the life-transforming work they do.

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