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Living Yoga, calming corrections
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
Published: 06/19/2006


Thirty women sit on mats across a recreation room at Oregon's Coffee Creek Correctional facility. Up front, a yoga instructor presses play on a stereo and calming music wafts through the air. The mood is set, and the women begin to mimic the instructor's stances, from positions like Downward Dog to leg stretches during the hour and a half session.

Taking deep breaths, the inmates try to center themselves and concentrate on their inner energy.

For the ladies of Coffee Creek, Living Yoga is a chance to find peace and quiet in the sometimes chaotic atmosphere of a dorm-style women's facility that houses 128 offenders.

“Yoga helps immensely with living in prison,” says Kim McCauley, an inmate at Coffee Creek and participant in Living Yoga. “We get to have a few moments of silence which is something you just can't find in a prison. There is no place to be alone here. There is no place to cry or have emotions without twenty people coming up to you. These classes are a huge relief. You can center and focus on yourself.”

Living Yoga is a non-profit outreach center established in 1998, and made up of volunteers that teach the mind and body discipline to men and women at substance abuse clinics, shelters, and prisons.

Volunteers began teaching at Coffee Creek's minimum and medium security facilities about three years ago and continue to receive positive feedback from offenders, who take two classes a week, typically on Tuesday and Thursday, in classes of thirty.

“Living Yoga is an invaluable tool for rehabilitation and recovery. It develops skills of emotional regulation and balance, and it improves decision making skills. It's changing the lives of these inmates. They just keep asking for more and more classes,” says Kayci Cavenah, administrator of Living Yoga.

Some might chalk inmate yoga up to New Age nonsense, but proponents of the practice disagree.

“There is nothing New Age about yoga,” says Jim Wanless, volunteer coordinator for Living Yoga. “Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years.”

In fact, its roots date back to ancient Hinduism. Although there are many different types of yoga, most practices focus on stances that keep the body fit, mantras and chanting that calm the mind, and elements of meditation that enhance self-awareness.

For inmates, it often can make the difference between a temperamental reaction and a peaceful reaction.

“Yoga really helps you develop inner peace,” says McCauley. “I can walk into a heated situation in the dorm, and I can diffuse from it and walk away rather than getting involved. Yoga has taught me not to let my surroundings affect me so much, which is a huge plus. It's made me calm. I sleep much better. This is an avenue for my spirituality, for my mind and my body to stay positive and well.”

Since the program is run by volunteers, the only cost to the Oregon Department of Corrections was the mats. According to officials, the program offers a chance for inmates to reconnect with the community before release. 

“These classes are booked. There is a huge inmate response to this program. It's quite popular,” says Elizabeth Craig, Community Resources Manager for Coffee Creek. “For us, it's also important because we focus on re-entry in Oregon. This program gives inmates the chance to see that there are great people in the community that care about them and want to help them succeed. This is an example of community support; they are building bridges back into the community with this program.”

Each class typically begins with meditation and silence. Once inmates feel relaxed, instructors move participants through a number of stances.

“The stances of yoga are largely based on who you have in class,” explains Wanless. “It varies from class to class. If you are teaching people who have been in a yoga class for over a year, the stances and poses will be much more challenging. If you are dealing with beginners, you focus more on meditation.”

Currently, Living Yoga has about 50 volunteers, all of whom went through a rigorous screening, orientation and training processes at the organization and the ORDOC.

“Volunteers have to pass drug screenings, security clearances, and background checks. They go through a four-day yoga training process with us. Once they have finished that, they have a DOC training, as well as training for the specific facility they will be working in,” Wanless says. “It's very different to teach a yoga class after walking through six steel doors and a metal detector to teach a class, and we want them to be prepared for that.”

Inmates reap the benefits of the yoga's peaceful practices and administrators continue to tout the program as a chance to change corrections.

“This program has cut back drastically on inmate idleness, and it gives our offender population a chance to learn something new,” Craig says. “For inmates, it's a place to center and reflect on themselves and their behavior. They can get away from the stress of living in a correctional facility. And hopefully, it gives them a mindset they can take back to the community to make real change.”

Bottom Line: Yoga gives inmates a chance to peacefully reflect on their behaviors and reactions. Administrators benefit from less inmate idle time and the community bonds that can benefit the re-entry process.


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