HEALTH

Seeking stress relief, not necessarily karma, in prison yoga classes

Magdalena Sluzala, right, who is part of the Sheriff's Women's Justice Program, holds a yoga pose during a session with other inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, on July 26, 2013. Photo: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT

CHICAGO — Ten yoga mats, foam support blocks and a qualified instructor awaited the women who filed quietly into the recreation room. They slipped off their shoes and stood in place on the mats, prepared for the stretching routine to begin.

The only remarkable element among the trappings of this beginners yoga class was its location: inside the barbed wire fence of the Cook County Jail. The women preparing to stretch were inmates.

Instead of yoga pants, they wore Department of Corrections–issued pink and gray uniforms.

Yoga and meditation sessions have been a mainstay in the women’s jail for six years. It all began when a group of volunteers from a local nonprofit started showing up, mats in tow. Soon, they were leading classes for female inmates, said Alisa Kannett, an administrator for the nonprofit. The company, which is called Yoga for Recovery, encourages yoga as an element of rehabilitation.

Completing A Tree Pose

For years, correctional facilities across the country have been holding yoga workshops and programs, sometimes at the urging of the inmates. And, according to Gabriella Savelli, director of Prison S.M.A.R.T., the trend is growing. Savelli's group has helped implement yoga programs at 36 correctional facilities in 21 states.

An Oxford University study published this summer showed that prisoners participating in yoga get psychological benefits. These include reduced stress and improved mood.

Researchers found that prisoners who embarked on a 10-week yoga course also did better in a computer test of impulsivity and attention. But it doesn’t require an academic study to know that, for some inmates, practicing yoga just feels good.

As the 10 women in one of the jail’s residential programs stretched their arms and breathed deeply at the recent session, their satisfied sighs and comments made that clear.

“Lovely. That was cool,” said Kristy Montgomery, 29, after completing a tree pose.

Like many of the women in Montgomery’s division, she has a history of substance abuse and prostitution. The weekly class, she said, is healing. “Every time, my body feels lighter. My mind feels lighter and feels freer.”

Parolee's Own Yoga Practice

Despite the benefits, yoga can be a hard sell to some incarcerated men and women. This is particularly true for those with traumatic backgrounds who have never encountered it before, Savelli said.

Marshawn Feltus said he is a perfect example of that state of mind. When he entered the Illinois River Correctional Center in central Illinois years ago, he knew nothing about yoga. And frankly, he said, he didn’t much care about knowing it, either.

“The few poses that I had seen, I kinda just glanced it over and said ‘oh, that’s white people exercise,’” Feltus said.

But his shoulders hurt from weightlifting, he said, and after a buddy persuaded him to attend a session, he instantly became a fan.

“If yoga was a lady, I would’ve definitely said ‘I do,’” Feltus said of his first experience on a yoga mat.

Now living on the West Side and out of prison on parole, Feltus runs his own yoga practice, which opened in late June. He attributes a big part of his recovery to the practice, he said.

Time Out Of Their Cells 

Still, for some inmates, coming to yoga just means an hour or 90 minutes out of their cells, said Rick Fahnestock. He oversees the yoga program at Illinois River Correctional, a medium security prison with about 2,000 male inmates.

Fahnestock said he can expect at least 20 inmates to attend the yoga sessions offered five days a week. Sometimes, as many as 40 men show up, he added.

At least three other Illinois Department of Corrections prisons also offer yoga or meditation programs to inmates.

Because of tight budgets, neither the state nor the city spends any money to run yoga programs at the correctional facilities. For most, offering a yoga class for inmates depends on the availability of volunteers. At the Cook County Jail, Kannett oversees about 30 volunteers who lead yoga classes for women.

They take different approaches than traditional yoga, Kannett said. She urges instructors at the jail to avoid touching the inmates to adjust their positions. Many inmates, such as those with a history of abuse, could be sensitive to or offended by the touching, she said.

“People who’ve been through trauma don’t like to feel like someone’s behind them,” said Marcelyn Cole, an instructor who’s volunteered for two years with Yoga for Recovery.

Seeking Stress Management

Typically, eyes are closed as part of the savasana pose, during which participants lie completely relaxed on their backs. At a recent session at the jail, though, Cole told participants they didn’t need to close their eyes if doing so made them uncomfortable.

Yoga practiced in correctional centers focuses more on rehabilitation than on spiritual awakening, said Dr. Elizabeth Feldman, who is a medical coordinator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s no talking about how to improve people’s karma; there’s talking about stress management,” Feldman said.

Feldman said the men in the jail’s boot camp enjoy yoga as a break from the military-style approach of other exercise. For some, it helps soothe muscles cramped by vigorous exercise, or stiffened from sleeping nightly on a metal slab.

But yoga is not for all inmates. Those who find it difficult to sit still or follow directions, or who have committed extremely violent crimes, are generally not invited to the yoga sessions, Feldman said.

Yoga is just one element being used to help rehabilitate incarcerated people, Feldman said. “It’s not the miracle cure of everything that ails society. It’s one tool that might be helpful.”

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