At a high-security prison in Maryland, 16 women are enrolled in one of the first-ever 200-hour yoga teacher trainings behind bars. Yoga Journal gained exclusive access to join them, and found out how the practice is helping the women find trust, peace, and forgiveness in the darkest of places—and chart a new course for their futures.
It's Friday evening and prisoners are scattered barefoot in a loose circle of yoga mats around center court of the prison gym at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW), in Jessup, Maryland. This could be mistaken for a high school gym if not for the metal bars covering the windows or the wall displaying posterboards covered in pleas for forgiveness from God, interspersed with pictures of dozens of kids growing up without their mothers.
A few of the women hunch over their yoga-teacher-training (YTT) binders and anatomy books, reviewing Sanskrit names for poses as well as the location and function of various muscle groups. One woman stretches and warms up her body, pushing back into a lazy Downward Dog, while others talk and joke with their neighbors. Several women simply sit tall and breathe, seemingly content to be here in the moment, preparing to have this time away from the always-watch-your-back existence that lurks outside the walls of the gym. It’s a reality that some of the women have lived with for decades. For some, it’s one they’ll live with for the rest of their lives.
The prisoners are gathered for a three-day-weekend session, a welcome reprieve from their usual routine, to practice and learn how to teach yoga. They’re months into their yearlong 200-hour YTT, one that’s helping them use yoga to seek self-compassion and inner peace—an invaluable life tool for the 16 attendees.
The group brightens as their teacher, Kath Meadows, breezes in and enlivens the place with a cheerful greeting and a warm smile that spreads to her eyes. Donna Querido, Meadows’s assistant teacher, shuffles in behind her dragging a skeleton with one hand and clutching a flower-filled vase in the other. Meadows immediately draws her students’ attention.
“Hello, my lovelies,” she says, her English accent warming the room. “Shall we begin?”
As participants in one of the first prison YTTs, the women in this gym have to complete 11 of these 18-hour yoga-packed weekends from February through December, take the weekly asana class offered to all prisoners at MCIW, and have twice-monthly review sessions with Meadows. If they meet these requirements, they’ll receive a certificate from the Yoga Center of Columbia, in Maryland, enabling them to teach within the prison and in the outside world if they’re released.
Meadows, 53, is the director of women prisoner initiatives for the Prison Yoga Project, an organization dedicated to bringing yoga to prisoners. The London-raised mom of two daughters (21 and 24) has taught yoga full-time since 2009, and this YTT is the product of seven years of teaching yoga in prisons. It’s open to any inmate at MCIW, as long as she has at least two years of her sentence remaining, to ensure time to complete the course. Twenty women initially signed up, but four immediately dropped out. Of the 16 remaining, most are doing serious time, having been convicted of crimes ranging from embezzlement to first-degree murder.
For inmates looking for a second chance, this YTT could be their golden ticket—an opportunity to return to society with a purpose and potential career. Shamere, 24, the youngest in the class, joined her mother at MCIW eight years ago after being convicted of first-degree assault at just 16 years old. She’s bubbly, leaping up to show off her defined calves during the anatomy lesson covering that particular muscle group. She’ll be eligible for parole in two years; if she gets out, she’ll have served half of her 20-year sentence, and she’s focused on getting every possible certification. “This YTT is an opportunity for me, something I can take out of here and use immediately,” Shamere says, pushing back her dark, wavy hair. “Plus it keeps me calm, and it keeps my body strong.”
For those in the class who will likely never get out, they focus solely on the here and now—how the study of yoga can improve their lives in prison. Keri, 43, has spent the last eight years at MCIW and is sentenced to serve until 2056 for murder; she says that learning to teach and practice yoga has helped her cope with the debilitating anxiety and not seeing her loved ones, not to mention the aches and pains that come from living in prison and not moving enough or eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. “Yoga has changed my life in a lot of ways,” says Keri, who’s tall and pale with grey hair and long limbs that splay awkwardly on her mat. “I’m so glad I’m doing this, for the confidence-building and the physical aspects. I have mad anxiety—I’d give my life for a Xanax right now—but I don’t need it as much with yoga.”
Later, when Keri talks about the murder she committed, her words are matter-of-fact. She says that the YTT and writing poetry have been instrumental in helping her find acceptance, forgiveness, and purpose. “I did it [killed someone]. I feared for my mother and my brother, and I did it,” she says. “I have to take responsibility for that. I figure if I just do one thing that makes a difference in somebody else’s life, that helps.
Meadows starts class with the Shanti Mantra, a Hindu invocation for peace, looking like a proud mama. She’s proud of her students for showing up and dedicating themselves to the practice of yoga when they could be watching movies, sleeping, or hanging out with a cellmate. But she’s also proud of the foam blocks, anatomy books, and the prisoners’ highlighted, dog-eared copies of the Bhagavad Gita, which were donated by the Yoga Center of Columbia. These items are hard-won treasures that Meadows secured with help from the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which also helped her raise $14,000 to cover other costs for this YTT.
Tonight, Meadows finishes the anatomy portion of her lesson on the psoas muscle, and then delves into a discussion about one of the yamas—satya, or truthfulness. The conversation gets real in a hurry. The women talk animatedly, raising concerns about being truthful here, in this bleak place, where telling the truth can sometimes put you in harm’s way.
Rhonda, 43, raises her hand, giving voice to the issue she and many of her fellow prisoners seem to be grappling with. “The thing is, in this environment, telling the truth might not be a good thing. Say a corrections officer asks you if you saw something, you may not think it’s safe to tell,” she says. “You’ll be known as a snitch. You know? So, what should you do then?”
The women continue to offer other anecdotes and examples of when honesty isn’t so easy. Some bring up awkward social situations, like when someone asks if you like her new haircut and you don’t. But most of the concerns they express around satya are much more complex because they potentially involve violating the social mores of prison, where honesty can expose you to danger.
Meadows’s eyes widen a bit, but she nods, empathy written across her face. She listens and considers the women’s questions, eventually offering an explanation that takes the prison culture and its distinct set of unwritten rules into account. “It’s important to distinguish ‘the truth’ from ‘your truth,’” she tells them. “Listen, guys, this stuff is intense. It’s harder than some of the yoga poses.” What Meadows is trying to instill in her students is how to get to know their truth, which leaves some room for interpretation.
The inmates continue to dig deep and open up to each other, which Keri—having been incarcerated at MCIW for eight years already—says wasn’t always the case. Trust, she says, even more than truth, is a rare and precious commodity in prison. “I don’t trust anybody. That’s one thing you learn in here,” Keri says. “But I would trust these girls in this class if I needed help. I feel like I could trust any one of them.”
That trust becomes apparent again later in class, when the women are asked to teach poses to each other in small groups, and they let themselves be vulnerable as they stumble over phrasing, make alignment mistakes, and then have to start again. “When we first started teaching each other, it was really awkward,” says Keri. “I’ve become more comfortable practice-teaching. But the thing that’s impressed me most is that when we falter, everybody is really supportive of each other. And in this environment, that’s amazing.”
Fifty-two-year-old Connie, who has been practicing yoga for 10 years at MCIW, praises 27-year-old Keonay as having been especially supportive during her practice-teaching lesson. Keonay has short, tight dreads and long eyelashes, and is one of the youngest in the class. She has a tougher exterior than some of her classmates, and the smiles don’t come as easily. “She told us, ‘I’m here, never to offend, always to assist,’” Connie says, provoking a shy smile from Keonay. With this, the group cheers and claps, welcoming and celebrating a newly flagged teaching achievement. This is a safe place for every single one of them, and that, almost as much as the yoga, is invaluable.
Whether it’s a reaction to the active participation during the anatomy lesson or the vibrant and open exchange of ideas during the discussion on satya, Meadows’s spirit is visibly lifted by her students’ engaged, enthusiastic attitudes. The fact that she’s able to help these women who so badly need it is the realization of a dream. When Meadows did her first YTT, in 2009, her teacher, Kathy Donnelly, told her about the opportunity to teach yoga at MCIW. “The minute Kathy said it, I knew teaching yoga in prison is what I wanted to do,” Meadows says. “Ninety percent of the prison population will be released, and if we provide people with skills to reinforce the deeper good in their nature and their stronger, better selves while they are in prison, they will take that with them.”
Meadows was about a year into teaching at MCIW when she had a thought: Wouldn’t it be fantastic to do a teacher training here? She had seen firsthand yoga’s calming effect on the prisoners who regularly came to her classes, and it occurred to her that it would be even more beneficial to fully immerse her students in yoga in the form of a 200-hour YTT. While they could use the certification if they got out, Meadows also felt clear that a YTT would improve the prisoners’ everyday lives. “All of us have the unsullied, better part of ourselves,” says Meadows. “I think one of the greatest gifts yoga offers us is to help us get in touch with that part—and boost it.”
At first, it seemed like a pipe dream. She had limited resources and knew that getting approval through the highly bureaucratic prison system would be laden with landmines. But that changed when MCIW’s warden, Margaret Chippendale, took Meadows’s staff yoga class at the prison. Afterward, she asked Meadows if she would offer a YTT. Backed by an insider’s support, Meadows charged ahead.
Chippendale has been working at the Maryland Division of Correction since 1970, holding every job from stenographer to case manager before working her way up to warden. Now, she has two major objectives: First, that her prison run smoothly; and second, that her roughly 800 offenders, who range in age from 16 to 79, improve themselves while behind bars so they can become productive members of society if they leave.
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In Chippendale’s mind, a YTT was an extension of MCIW’s existing mission to offer as many certifications as possible. “If the ladies get some type of certification, then maybe they can go outside this institution and get a job somewhere,” she says. As a secondary benefit, the prison runs more efficiently when inmates are productive and engaged, she says. There’s a bulletin board in Chippendale’s office with a list of programs and certifications the prison offers, including college-level classes. These programs have proven to be very effective: At its last measure, Maryland’s prison recidivism rate had dropped from 47.8 percent in 2007 (before programs like these were widely in place) to 40.5 percent in 2012, says Renata Seergae, communications and public information associate for Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “While it’s too early to determine how yoga teacher training will affect recidivism, we hope to see the same positive result,” she says.
Given the ballooning of the female prison population in America, finding effective tools to lower recidivism would be hugely consequential. The female prison and jail population in this country—a total of about 201,000 women—makes up one-third of female prisoners worldwide. While the number of incarcerated Americans has grown across the board, the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate of men since 1985, a 404 percent jump for women versus 209 percent for men according to the research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project. This statistic isn’t lost on Meadows, and it factors into her hope that the YTT she’s running at MCIW might take off nationally. From her standpoint, one of the greatest byproducts of a YTT in prison is the potential to give the prisoners the ability to expand the practice of yoga within its walls, potentially teaching it to each other and using its teachings to treat fellow prisoners with respect and kindness.
Rob Schware, the executive director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, says that’s exactly why his organization and the Prison Yoga Project fight so hard to get yoga into prisons. “Yoga is important because it creates skills for impulse control, in addition to reducing anxiety and depression,” he says.
Managing anxiety and depression is a never-ending battle for many prisoners. Some rely on various medications to help alleviate their symptoms, but the stress of being incarcerated and away from loved ones still takes its toll. “During the first part of my sentence, I broke out in this horrific, stress-related rash,” says 27-year-old Whitney Ingram, who was incarcerated at MCIW from 2007 to 2009 for her involvement in a drug deal. While in prison, desperate for relief from her anxiety, Ingram took a yoga class, and it changed the course of her life. “My teacher, Jean-Jacques Gabriel, ended class in a reclined twisting pose, and I just cried and cried. I went back and I told my cellmate, ‘This is it. Yoga is what I’m supposed to be doing,’” she says. Her yoga classes with Gabriel afforded her a sense of calm for the first time since she’d begun her sentence, and she knew yoga could help her serve out her time: “It came to me when I needed it, when I needed direction.”
Now living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with her 4-year-old daughter and fiancé, Ingram teaches yoga at a local studio and offers private lessons. She’s also working with the Prison Yoga Project, looking to give back to a practice that helped her through one of the most difficult ordeals of her life. “The practice realigned me with my soul so that instead of looking outward for guidance, I started to look within,” she says.
To help prisoners achieve the alignment of body and soul Ingram experienced, Meadows spends as much time teaching the spiritual aspects of yoga as she does on the asana. To wit: During the sessions, she provides context for some of the yogic-philosophy teachings through reading and discussing the Bhagavad Gita. During today’s class, inmates are asked to read several chapters aloud and talk about the passages that resonate most. Keri goes first, reading: It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity. She pauses a beat, and then she tells the class: “In here, in prison, we need to stick to our own path and let other people go on their own paths. When you try to follow someone else’s path, that’s really when you get yourself into trouble.” They go around the room this way, each woman reading passages and making connections—sometimes sharing personal things about her family at home or her belief in God. Brittany, 33, reads: What the outstanding person does, others will try to do. The standards such people create will be followed by the whole world. “I liked this because my parents would always say, ‘Surround yourself with people who have goals,’ and it’s so true,” says Brittany. “Because it’s like, I don’t want to be the only one not succeeding. It really motivates you.”
Meadows is keenly aware that if this training is successful, it can provide a template for offering YTTs in correctional institutions nationwide and beyond. And, since Meadows did most of the legwork to find the funding, Warden Chippendale believes other institutions could similarly offer YTTs to their prison populations without too many logistical challenges. “The only thing I provided was the inmates, the space, and the time. Kath really did the work,” Chippendale says.
Yet for the countless hours Meadows has spent on the program, she hasn’t earned a penny. She does this because she wants to and is able to, but she knows many would-be prison YTT teachers wouldn’t have the luxury of working for free. “[Kath’s work] is the first of its kind in the world, and it’s our hope that it will be sustainable and copied,” says Give Back Yoga’s Schware. “But as we continue to build these programs, relying on yoga teachers to do this work without being compensated won’t be feasible in the long run.” (To help support these programs, visit givebackyoga.org/campaigns.)
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While there is still a long way to go to before programs like this are offered nationally, the rise in availability of yoga classes in prison over such a short period of time suggests hope for the birth of more prison-based YTTs. When James Fox, the founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, volunteered to teach yoga in San Quentin State Prison, in Caliornia, almost 14 years ago, he never imagined it would one day be offered in more than 100 prisons across the country—or that 16 inmates could get certified to teach yoga from within the walls of a women’s correctional institution. “This program is another plateau we’ve reached in the Prison Yoga Project, and it’s nothing short of miraculous,” Fox says. “It’s a major turning point, and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
Meadows knows where she wants it to go: to as many American prisons as possible. She is watching her students transform before her eyes, and she can’t help but want to share that opportunity with others. For now, she’s feeling good about what this class has accomplished in just a few short months.
Midday on Saturday, halfway through the YTT weekend, the prisoners gather in groups of four in each corner of the gym. They take turns patiently teaching each other Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge). Back at center court, just behind the vase of flowers, Meadows and her assistant, Querido, wrap their arms around each other in a girlish embrace, both full of admiration for their students. Meadows says she doesn’t think any aspect of yoga absolves these women of their crimes—many, regardless of their offense, were led here by poor decision-making. But she does believe each one of them has the capacity to move toward a better part of themselves, and she considers it her job to look beyond their mug shots, criminal histories, and sentences so she can teach yoga with an open heart. “I’m not coming in here with some airy-fairy mindset,” she says. “Yet as ugly as some of these crimes they’ve committed are, I don’t think any one of us is defined by any one act, no matter how shocking or egregious it can be. We are more than any simplistic definitions of ourselves, and yoga is a tool to unlocking that.”
This is her earnest belief, and her students sense it and respond to it by increasingly opening up, both physically and emotionally. With each class, they share more, offering intimate details and giving more of themselves to each other and to the practice. Throughout class, Meadows often steps off to the side with a prisoner, the two deep in a discussion or locked in a spontaneous and loving embrace; or she walks around the room, dipping in and out of groups, gently offering guidance on a pose or cues. For these inmates, Meadows’s forgiving presence is cathartic. “Kath and Donna, they’re not just teaching the poses, they’re kind of giving us advice—how to use the eight limbs of yoga in our lives and different ways to apply it,” says Shamere, who is up for parole in two years. “So it’s yoga, but it’s kind of like therapy, too.”
Meadows closes today’s session with three Oms, a warm smile, and a Namaste.“OK, my lovelies,” she says. “Until next time, then.”
Jessica Downey is a writer and editor in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.