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What It’s Like Teaching Yoga At A Jail

in YD News

We’ve been hearing more and more about the positive effects of yoga and meditation classes offered in jails and prisons, but it’s hard to know what they’re really like without actually being there. Chicago-based yoga teacher, Kate Rice, teaches at Cook County Jail and shares with us what her experience has been like bringing the practice to female inmates. Here, she provides the answers to some of her most frequently asked questions.

I teach yoga at Cook County Jail in Chicago. What’s it like? These are the most common questions I’ve been asked by actual people I meet.

Who do you teach? What are their stories? I teach women, and started with the help of Yoga for Recovery, a non-profit that places a limited number of teachers, assists with paperwork, and helps cover costs such as mandatory insurance for volunteers who serve for a year. I come into the class knowing what most of us know about students in public classes—not much! Cook County Jail is a jail, a pre-detention site, not a prison, and the vast majority of inmates/detainees there are awaiting trial and have not been convicted. According to The Sentencing Project, 63 percent of incarcerated women had non-violent charges (in 2014 at the national level).

Am I curious? Maybe a little. I think it’s natural to want to know more about people we meet and work with. I think most women I teach aren’t thrilled to talk about their charge, pretty understandably so (though everyone’s different), and it seems inappropriate to ask. People are more than one major event in their life; it wouldn’t be my intention to let the charge completely take over the person’s identity in my mind, though it’s a risk.

What do you wear? I usually wear loose pants—either capri-length sweat pants (do we still say that?) or track pants, long sleeves or short sleeves, but not typical yoga attire. In any service setting, a teacher’s attire has the potential to amplify the differences between teacher and participants, to build into the perception that you NEED expensive tight fitting yoga clothes to do this which already exists in the non-service yoga world. And while I do teach women, I also come into contact with people in professional attire such as administrative and security staff, and may pass by male inmates. Obviously, what I wear does not give people license to treat me a certain way, and I do take into account my comfort level as I will likely be the only one in form-fitting Lululemon and bare arms if I wear that.

What do they wear? Loose cotton clothing. Kath Meadows’ book points out that even women’s clothing in prisons may be clothing made for men’s typical proportions. Sometimes these looser fitting clothes seem well suited to yoga—we don’t do that many poses with the heart above the head—but sometimes if the shirts sag too much or pants are tighter fitting, the clothing can make doing yoga more challenging.

What do you teach? Do you offer hands on assists? My 200-hour training is in power vinyasa, and I do teach a number of standing postures similar to what I’d teach in a studio, plus incorporate linked breath and movement. I’ve done trauma-informed yoga trainings as well, which also influence how I approach things. It’s not always easy or obvious what to teach. Because a lot of people are newer to yoga or just don’t have as many opportunities for movement in jail as they would outside, I make the class very accessible to beginners. I avoid too much weight-bearing on the arms, and poses that require a lot of attention to detail to do safely (upward dog, dancer pose). Since many people who are incarcerated are also trauma survivors, I try to be mindful of offering options and avoiding vulnerable postures and generally try to give options without ranking them. I try to remind myself that the experience and the opportunity to choose what to do is helpful in an environment where people don’t have many options.

I don’t offer hands-on assists. Most practitioners in trauma-informed yoga advise against physical touch. Sometimes I work with a group just once and not again. The topic of touch is often a heated one among yoga instructors!

Is it like Orange Is The New Black? I haven’t seen this show! Sometimes when I’ve watched dramatic representations of other places I’ve had some experience of (teaching English in Bosnia) the stereotypes are upsetting, so I’m not sure I’m up for this.

What IS it like? One thing that is distinctly different from the public classes I teach is that holding the focus of the group is more challenging. In line with my trauma-informed approach, I invite people to do what suits them and not feel they have to do every pose. Sometimes this means people talk—to each other or to me—during the class. Sometimes I reply (it’s valuable when people notice the right and left sides are different! Or find their edge and respect it), sometimes I try to ignore it. I ask people to respect themselves and their bodies first, and respect others as well by not letting their behavior be a distraction to others. From a trauma-informed approach, too, I also don’t try to shame people for talking or necessarily try to stop it all. Jail is a hard environment to cultivate positive social relationships, so joking with your neighbor is a positive step, helping your neighbor with blocks is kind, communicating your needs matters.

Of course the pace of the class is accessible, but moving at a sort of a business-like clip can also be a tool for staying on task.

Are you afraid? I have been nervous about whether the class will go well or not, but not afraid. There isn’t really a reason for anyone to hurt me, and security staff are nearby.

You’re really not afraid? (Because sometimes people ask twice.) I’m really not afraid. I’ve been nervous about whether the class will go well, if I’ll be able to hold the group’s focus and fill the time with poses and practices that they find useful. I’ve also been uncomfortable, but discomfort is also different than fear—for instance, when a security staff member expressed frustration that I let people leave the class early and allowed people to rest rather than do the poses: Will he report that I’m not doing my job? Will he still help me if I need it? In any yoga setting it can be unsettling to realize participants are not doing what the teacher says (see Yoga International’s article on “rogue-ies” for a public class similarity ) or to feel people whispering or giggling may be making fun of what I’m offering. I remind myself that most people are following along to the extent they can, most people are finding this worthwhile.

What do they get out of it? I think that just like in public classes, my students take different things from yoga. For some people it might just be a chance to spend time in a different space than the other 23 hours of their day. Some people might not like it at all, which happens in yoga studios, too! I hope others find some stress relief, or just time spent in the present moment, with less focus ruminating on the past or anticipating the future. These are the benefits I get from yoga; I don’t assume all the women I teach struggle with this but it seems possible. While I do think the benefits of yoga are far beyond physical, it’s easy for those of us who aren’t incarcerated to take for granted the ability to move in a way that is pleasant and helpful, so if people come away from these classes feeling physically better, that’s great, too.

Maybe underneath this question is something like, do people even take it seriously? I think plenty do. My impression is that jail is a hard place for anyone to be earnest about something like yoga. I’m fortunate to not be super earnest about yoga anywhere! I like to think this makes me more down to earth than the stereotypical yoga teacher and maybe it makes my offerings a little easier to stomach.

Do you get paid? No. While on occasion, I’ve learned of a staff member who leads yoga once a week as part of their job, or a non-profit that offers instructors a small stipend as compensation for their time, I think it’s incredibly rare that any jail or prison would direct funds to pay a yoga instructor. In many facilities, understaffing is a concern and security staff may not feel safe themselves, so spending money on yoga could face an additional political hurdle. Yoga for Recovery offers to reimburse volunteers for their liability insurance after a year of consistent service. There have sometimes been funds to assist with the cost of trauma-informed trainings, too.

Why do you teach there? Ultimately, I see a lot of problems in our world and don’t feel I’m in much of a place to address them in a meaningful way. But offering yoga in settings where it wouldn’t otherwise be available is something I can do. I think yoga is a tremendous tool for self-care and stress relief.

Is yoga a tool for behavior change? Maybe, but it’s not my goal to change any of my students beyond offering a tool for self-care. In fact, it’s offensive, to me at least, to suggest that someone who is incarcerated necessarily needs to change any more than any other person, without knowing all the information, and without even considering the social context we live in.

How can I teach yoga in a jail? If you live in a state with a yoga service non-profit like Yoga Behind Bars (Washington), Liberation Prison Yoga (New York) or Transformation Yoga Project (Pennsylvania), you may be able to get both training and support connecting with a jail or prison. Otherwise, seek out trauma-informed yoga training on your own – trainings specific to teaching incarcerated folks like Prison Yoga Project, or trainings dealing more generally with trauma, like Street Yoga. Personally, I worked for a yoga service non-profit in an administrative capacity, attended several trainings, and taught community classes in libraries and in a drop in shelter facility for about two years overall before seeking out teaching at Cook County Jail. If this is your first venture out of teaching in a yoga studio, it can be tremendously helpful to teach a less dramatic but equally deserving underserved community—lower income students at a community center, seniors in assisted living, or residents of a homeless shelter.

I would never say that people in jail are “so different” that you need special training. I recommend trauma-informed yoga training for all yoga teachers! But most yoga teacher trainings do not address trauma at all. And while yoga teachers can, of course, have a variety of life experiences, right now, realistically, many yoga teachers have not personally experienced incarceration or had a close friend or family member incarcerated. These are all wise reasons to seek out training and experience in order to serve those we teach from a more informed perspective. The Yoga Service Council will release its Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System in November—another tremendous resource!

Finally, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t initially some curiosity about what it’s like to teach in this environment, and if I could do it. Once I tried it, I found I could do it, and, despite the challenges which are just different in each setting, I enjoy it and have learned a lot.


Kate Rice lives and teaches yoga in Chicago. In addition to public classes, she teaches trauma-informed yoga in non-profit settings and connects yoga teachers with trauma informed trainings and resources. Read more at shareyourpractice.org.

(Photos courtesy of Yoga for Recovery / Mary Carol Fitzgerald Photography)


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7 comments… add one
  • I think we need a program like this in South Africa. Our jails are so hostile, certainly not places at all for ‘rehabilitation’…
    Thanks for this interesting read.

  • Health is the most important part of life nothing is more valuable than good health its only possible when we get fit by workouts, exercises and yoga. Yoga increase the flexibility of the body and its very effective to get fit nice post shared i am very inspired by these activities which are doing in a jail thanks for nice post.

  • Recommend http://nepalyogahome.com/blog/ where you can find many blog post related to yoga and meditation

  • It’s nice that you describe it. It’s good to read about it.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective on your work, it sounds really interesting

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