Prison Yoga Program

imageIt was Spring of 2013, I wanted to give back to the community in some way as part of my personal karma yoga practice and had just discovered an amazing program down in California that had yoga being taught successfully to the male prisoners in the San Quentin prison. Looking more into this program, I just knew that this is what I needed to do, and as fate would have it, it was around this time that I met Joe Sheen, the program’s director at the Fort Saskatchewan Corrections Center(FSCC). It is with his assistance, support, determination and hard work that this program began. He sought out the funding and space, provided me with an orientation and tour and got everything in place to make sure the program runs smoothly.

The FSCC Yoga Program officially began January 2014, and I can still remember the very first class and how extremely nervous and unsure I felt. I was escorted into the facility by Joe and introduced to the recreation staff, who have been and continue to be, an amazing support to both myself and the program, and I am thankful for all of them. When the first group entered, my plan was to be nice and it would all be ok…or so I thought…I soon discovered the need for very clear boundaries and that I couldn’t be a pushover, I needed to be firm. Those first few weeks were very interesting as I could get a group that was very respectful and open and the class would flow smoothly and on another week, the complete opposite, where there were disruptive individuals who I had to send back to the unit and the class felt like it would never end. The recreation crew and I would work together and through trial and error, we began to figured out how we could offer a good experience to those who wanted it and I learned how to be tough but still kind and compassionate.

Fast forward 18 months…The women enter the gym one at a time in a haphazard line and quickly make their way to a favorite colored mat or to a spot in the front or back depending on preference. Each week new faces are among the familiar, and there is an understanding of what to do and not to do. A quick introduction, an explanation of the rules and we begin. They settle on their mats, preparing for the practice. The next hour is theirs, to forget where they are, to move their bodies mindfully, to breathe and to begin or continue the process of self love, acceptance and forgiveness.

Every class begins with relaxing the body, a short meditation and some breathing exercises, followed by some warm-ups. The class is them dictated by first taking into account that the women have just eaten dinner, then the mood and energy of the class and the behaviors that are showing up. I teach to the group in front of me, most weeks, the class moves seamlessly along as the women move together, breathe together and heal together. As the class comes to an end, the women are given a few minutes of stillness, silence and peace before wiping their mats down and heading back to their respective unit.

Sometimes after a class, someone will come up to me and thank me, share a personal story or ask how they can continue practicing once they get out. It is these moments that my heart fills with joy and my belief that yoga can make a difference is reinforced. It is why I keep coming back.

I have often been asked why I teach yoga to the inmates and my answer is simple, because they need it. There is 100% guarantee that the women who attend my class will return to their communities and if the yoga program can make a difference for even one woman to help her make healthier choices to breathe deeper, to slow down,to be more mindful and present and to love themselves, then, to me, it is a very successful program. We must all, as Gandhi once said, “Be the change we want to see in the word”. I truly believe this and the yoga program at the Fort Saskatchewan Corrections Center is one of the ways I can be that change and for that I am deeply grateful for the opportunity.

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