Local organization offers unique chance for recovery

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Seattle-based Yoga Behind Bars (YBB) is in its 10th year of instilling peace and renewing hope in incarcerated men, women and children across the state of Washington.

What started as a means of sharing yoga with local prisoners has blossomed into an organization rich with care, compassion and a deep-rooted dedication to approaching America’s justice system in a different light. YBB is devoted to establishing values that strengthen students’ senses of self-worth, and does so by guiding prisoners in the practice of meditative yoga. In turn, this physical and emotional restoration allows prisoners to either approach life after release with newfound principles or experience a sort of personal liberation in their most restricted state of being.

“We’re not solving mass incarceration; we’re not disrupting the system. Our organization is trying to get individual tools to break this cycle of stress trauma and incarceration,” YBB Program Director and University of Puget Sound alumna Jess Frank said.

YBB focuses on the integration of a specific approach to yoga into the local correctional facilities for its unique consideration to personal sensitivities.

“The lens that YBB uses, which is trauma-informed yoga … really has an appreciation for the reality of systems of oppression, trauma and the impact that they have on incarcerated people, but also recognizes the resilience that exists in all people,” Frank said. “We’re trying to hold a balance between understanding the challenges that people face because of trauma and because of oppression, but also equally acknowledge the resilience and power that every person has to heal themselves within that system.”

As rewarding as trauma-informed yoga is, however, the qualifications for teaching it are demanding. Each instructor at YBB must go through training to learn how to support the students in addressing their unique physical, mental and emotional circumstances. Puget Sound senior and Yoga Club President Elayna Caron is one of these dedicated and well-trained instructors. She teaches a few classes a month and relishes in YBB’s transformative power.

“It’s totally changed who I am as a person in the way that I think about activism and … how I teach yoga,” Caron said. “Each population I go into, I have to adjust and modify. Am I actually creating peace and helping people feel better, or am I causing harm? Am I triggering people, or am I helping people work through these emotional blockages? With this population, I’ve had to become so much more aware of the words I use, the way I present myself, even something as little as having my tattoo showing.”

Caron, Frank, and the other 100 volunteer instructors, 15 of which are currently incarcerated themselves, understand the importance of recognizing and honoring the individuality of their students. A critical aspect of YBB’s philosophy is the idea of providing alternatives and ensuring that each student has authority over themselves.

“I always give a modification. I always give an option if you want to close your eyes or not. The language I use shifts from population to population … because words are triggering,” Caron said. “The trauma-aware principle is just letting your students know what’s going to happen, giving options, giving variations in poses, letting them know they are totally in control of their practice.”

Caron has taken these lessons to heart, applying what she has learned through YBB to how she approaches teaching Puget Sound students and more generally, how she navigates through life. Frank has reported the same effect of YBB in how it has shaped her sense of self as well as her perception of those around her.

“It’s really shown me that situations dictate our differences more than who we are at our core, and at our core we actually have way more in common than we do different,” Frank said.

YBB is a powerful force in breaking some of the social barriers that stand between those who are incarcerated and those who are not. It sheds light on the societal dissociation of prisoners and works to end the isolation they often feel upon re-entry.

In order to carry out this responsibility, the current agenda of YBB includes weekly programs in 18 different prisons and jails across the state, working with students in various custody levels, including those in solitary confinement and mental health treatment facilities. As for the future, the organization’s goals include advocating for increased education and funding for rehabilitative programs in prisons, training and supporting additional cohorts of incarcerated instructors to encourage teaching within prisons and developing a curriculum specifically catered to incarcerated youth, like those at local Remann Hall.

With this last goal, however, is the immediate need for more volunteers. YBB welcomes Puget Sound students who have yoga certifications and would like to be instructors, or those who do not have certifications but would like to be assistants and practice alongside the students.

Equipped with loving and committed volunteers, as well as a thoroughly researched practice, YBB is an extremely worthwhile cause that deserves the support of each member of the Puget Sound community.