Dr. Julian Wyatt, director of the Prison Yoga Project Phoenix, conducts a yoga class at the Maricopa County Towers Jail to help inmates cope.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com
Some say yoga sets you free. And one group of enthusiasts is taking that literally, hoping the ancient discipline will keep incarcerated military veterans from returning to jail.
After a breathing practice at the end of a Friday morning class at Maricopa County Towers Jail, one inmate opened his eyes to the white painted brick of the jail chapel and a row of orange uniforms marked “MCSO Unsentenced,” sighed and said, “Damn, I’m still here.”
He’s among the veterans incarcerated at Maricopa County Towers Jail participating in an eight week course using curriculum from the Prison Yoga Project. Volunteer yoga instructors teach the two-hour class once a week.
The intent is to promote rehabilitation, reduce recidivism and improve public safety.
“I’ve been making mistakes my entire life,” Joseph Allison, another inmate in the class and an Army veteran who served as a power generation equipment repairer during the Reagan era, said. “Being in jail for a second time is just a continuation of that.”
Allison said an extended struggle with drug abuse resulted in his incarcerations.
He said the yoga program has given him the tools to forgive himself and internalize change — a strength he said he didn’t have during his first time in jail.
“Taking this yoga class is the first time in my life where I feel like I have truly changed my thinking,” Allison said. “I’ve learned to channel my stress through yoga and different tools I never had before.”
Former Valley resident starts program
The non-profit Prison Yoga Project, started by former Valley resident James Fox at California’s San Quentin State Prison in 2002, provides the Maricopa County jail program.
Seventeen years later, more than 1,000 teachers trained by Fox now lead programs in 24 states and seven countries.
Fox, an alumnus of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, conceptualized the trauma-informed and mindfulness-based curriculum in Phoenix, but wasn’t able to have the program take hold in the Valley until 2016, said Julian Wyatt, who now serves as the program director in Maricopa County.
Wyatt, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Navy and retired in 2010 as a lieutenant commander with a Bronze Star for heroism, said he was searching for a way to bring his experience in mindfulness and yoga instruction to a group of people who would otherwise not have access to it.
He said he started practicing yoga to stay in shape during his time in the Navy and continued his practice after retirement to navigate his personal journey with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I identify with the incarcerated veterans because our backgrounds are very similar,” he said. “Yoga is a gift. In order to fully embrace it, you have to teach it.”
He said he connected with Fox on Facebook and within a few months was certified to lead the program in Maricopa County.
On Aug. 26, 2016, Wyatt brought the program to eight veterans incarcerated at Maricopa County Towers Jail. Since then, eight classes of veterans at the jail have graduated from the yoga program.
Wyatt has also brought the curriculum to other jails across the Valley, including Estrella Jail and Lower Buckeye Jail and started a partnership with the MOSAIC program offered through the Sheriff’s Office.
“The feedback has been incredible and just opened up more doors — they want me to extend the program to other jails and facilities in the area, but we just don’t have enough teachers to make that happen yet,” he said. “Staff members have even asked me to come in and teach them some of the same techniques.”
Yoga helps inmates with PTSD
Charles Gibson, a 50-year-old U.S. Navy veteran in the yoga program at Towers Jail, said the class has helped him cope with PTSD.
Half of all veterans in correctional facilities — 48 percent in prison and 44 percent in jail — have been told by a mental health professional they have a mental health disorder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Further, twice as many veterans in jail have been told they suffer from PTSD — 31 percent of veterans compared with 15 percent of nonveterans.
“Doing yoga and practicing meditation helps me get rid of anxiety and sleep better,” Gibson said.
An evaluation of yoga therapyby the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts noted individuals with PTSD have a difficult time calming down or self-regulating, which results in extended activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Wyatt said Prison Yoga Project’s mindfulness-based and trauma-informed curriculum provides inmates with the tools to discharge trauma held in the body and develop lifelong techniques for self-regulation and control.
“We give them breathing techniques and mindfulness practices to teach them how to get out of the constant state of fight-flight-freeze or regulate the constant barrage of negative emotions and energy while in jail,” he said. “It’s transformational — you can see it from day one.”
How the program works
Instructors must be registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 200-hour level or higher and have completed the Prison Yoga Project certification, which informs instructors about the principles and practices of trauma-sensitive yoga.
Instructors are taught to refrain from poses such as the happy baby pose in which participants lie on their back, knees to chest, grabbing the outside of the feet to pull their knees slightly wider than their torso. The intent of the modifications is to create a space where students feel comfortable and protected.
The class consists of an hour-long lesson on the Eightfold Path of Enlightenment, the seven chakras and meditative breathing techniques. The students then do an hour of yoga practice.
Gibson, who worked as a paramedic assistant delivering babies from 1986 to 1988 in the U.S. Navyand is in jail facing domestic violence charges, said the well-rounded nature of the program is what sets it apart.
“Instead of being one-dimensional, the program affects your whole being,” he said. “It is a balance between mind, body and spirit. I probably would have never come if it was just yoga.”
Allison, who has taken every program at MCSO Towers Jail available to him, said the physical aspect of the class helps him release toxic energy and refocus on the changes he is trying to make in his life.
“The yoga helps me relieve stress out of my body, so I am in a calmer state so what I learn in this class and the other programs can sink in and I can focus on it and apply it,” he said.
Allison said he often uses alternate nostril breathing in the morning to work through emotions flooding his mind as he lays in bed. He also focuses on holding his mula bandha, or pelvic floor, throughout the day while walking around the outdoor communal area to center his attention inward.
A popular class for inmates
In a group conversation, the inmates participating in the class said while none of them had practiced yoga previously, they were all drawn to the program because of its reputation among the inmates.
“Everyone who is not in it wants to be in it, and those who were in it and have finished want to get back in,” Gibson said.
He said as soon as they return to the common area, all of them get questions from other inmates.
Gibson said the peaceful disposition brought to those in the class is contagious.
“In this environment, people are watching you, and a lot of behavior here is mimicked behavior,” he said. “We are putting out calm and positive behavior that radiates out too, so I would definitely say the class has a positive effect on others.”
In 2012, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released an evaluation of the Insight Prison Project, including the Prison Yoga Project at its pioneer location at San Quentin State Prison in California.
The interviews indicated the program had been successful in helping participants increase impulse control, reduce stress and improve physical health. Further, the surveys found participants who completed the program had measurably higher self-esteem, lower levels of aggression and anger, improved problem solving and higher degrees of hope about the future compared with inmates surveyed who had not participated in the program.
“I can’t even begin to describe how blessed I feel to be … in this program,” Allison said. “I am grateful I have absorbed everything and let it change who I am.”
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