Yoga teacher Julian Wyatt waits in the makeshift chapel of the Maricopa County Towers Jail for his students to arrive. When the metal door swings open, 10 inmates wearing jail-issued gray striped pajamas and pink socks tucked into plastic shower shoes file in after the guard releases their wrists from handcuffs.
As the inmates settle into creaky plastic chairs in the khaki-colored chapel, a guard doing a head count asks why a particular inmate isn’t there. Someone calls out, “He was served that stuff y’all call breakfast.” The men share a nervous laugh.
A sense of calm envelops the room as Wyatt starts with a review of last week’s topics – contentment and purity, two core principles of yoga. He pops a disc into the CD player and relaxation music fills the sterile, airless space.
To be sure, this isn’t your standard big-yard prison calisthenics session. The inmates, all military veterans between the ages of 33 and 63, and all jailed for nonviolent crimes, are participating in a 12-week yoga and mindfulness class made possible by the nonprofit Prison Yoga Project.
Practicing yoga and mindfulness, a method of bringing awareness into the present moment and concentrating on the movement of breath and body sensations, gives prisoners a tangible way to cope with the stresses of incarceration. Program organizers say it also provides them with tools to succeed on the outside.
Wyatt asks them to share their thoughts. There’s a lot of talk about letting go of anger, seeking humility and staying positive while surrounded by the negative energy of jail. Many reference how praying and reading the Bible helps them with forgiveness and the ability to move forward.
“I just don’t let things bother me, especially things I can’t control,” says one heavily tattooed inmate. Another offers that he’s noticed more camaraderie and kindness among the men since starting yoga.
Wyatt, a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy who retired in 2010 after a 30-year career, was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism and has earned three black belts in martial arts. He started practicing yoga in 2014 to offset the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after a difficult tour in Iraq, where he “saw a lot of death and destruction,” while stationed in Baghdad as an assistant munitions management officer for 478 days.
This week’s topics are self-discipline and self-study. Wyatt urges the inmates to increase their knowledge in some small way. “What are you doing to improve yourselves? Do something every day to be a better human being,” he says.
Prisoners who practice yoga and mindfulness report less stress, greater self-control and improved sleep. “Yoga helps me to relax, calm down and reduces my anxiety,” says one Towers Jail inmate. Another says, “It helps me cope by making me think, breathe and then control my actions better.”
After Wyatt asks each man for a personal reflection, inmates stack their chairs and then roll out thin yoga mats on the shabby, faded carpet. The men jockey to find a spot in the tight space, careful not to overlap their mats so they have room to maneuver freely.
Wyatt and a female yoga instructor, Kelly, lead them in a mindfulness meditation exercise. Each inmate receives an “angel card,” similar to a playing card, with an intention or positive message to reflect on, like family, peace or tranquility. Wyatt tells them to “put the card face up, look at it, live it and think about it.”
He encourages them to close their eyes and focus on breathing. “Inhale, exhale. Stop your mind from wandering. You’re grounded, at peace and you’re safe. Have an attitude of gratitude,” he says in a hushed voice.
Kelly, petite and impossibly limber, leads the inmates in stretches and yoga exercises. She’s been instructed by MCSO to wear modest clothing – no spandex yoga pants or bare midriff tops. As a woman leading a fitness class in a men’s prison, Kelly expresses no fear or feelings of uneasiness. “They’re really respectful and grateful to have us,” she says.
Some of the men strain to assume the poses, their limbs stiff from inactivity. Wyatt encourages them to let go of what’s bothering them. The inmates struggle to stay balanced, wobbling and groaning. Yoga equalizes everyone in the room.
Wyatt walks between the mats to make sure the men are doing the poses correctly. He crouches down and demonstrates next to them because touching is not permitted. Rules are strict on that point, because
touching or adjusting an inmate could trigger a memory of abuse or a violent incident. There are no guards in the room.
As the session ends, the men lay on their backs, close their eyes and assume the corpse pose for five minutes while Wyatt switches the music to trance-inducing Gregorian chant. The inmates relax and concentrate on their breathing. “When they come out of that (pose), there’s a sense of stillness and calmness and peace that’s unbelievable,” Wyatt says.
In closing, Wyatt leads the inmates in a traditional meditation common to Kundalini yoga. “Love before me, love behind me, love at my left… love in all my surroundings, love to all, love to the universe.” They quietly repeat the same words, inserting “peace” and then “light” in place of love.
Wyatt asks the men to notice the change in how they feel from when they first came into the room. On one side of the chapel, an inmate lowers his head and sobs quietly. Everyone is respectful. Someone hands him a tissue.
While the inmates file into the hallway, Wyatt reminds them that yoga and mindfulness are available at any time and they can practice on their own. Two guards arrive to handcuff the men and escort them back to their pods after the 90-minute class.
Even though Wyatt knows how much he’s helping the inmates, sometimes when he leaves the jail he carries the “weight of the world” on his shoulders. “I walk out of there and feel terrible most days. It’s hard for me to see the beauty in things for a while. But you know the impact that you’re having because you can feel their energy.”
Typically he calls his adult daughter for a chat. When he gets home, he’ll “get grounded” by taking off his shoes and walking barefoot in the yard. “Sitting in a sauna or being in the sunlight, just sitting and breathing, works absolute wonders,” he says.
The Prison Yoga Project was founded at California’s San Quentin State Prison in 2002 by James Fox, a former Valley resident who holds a master’s degree from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. A yoga enthusiast since the late 1980s, the marketing executive began his odyssey by volunteering with at-risk youth in the Bay Area, ultimately hatching the ambitious goal of bringing yoga and mindfulness into prisons “everywhere.” “I had experienced so many physical and emotional benefits from yoga that I wanted to avail people who weren’t being exposed to it,” Fox says.
Today, the Prison Yoga Project is in 165 prisons and jails in 25 states and six foreign countries, and has trained more than 1,500 yoga teachers, including Wyatt, who serves as program director for Phoenix, and Nancy Hand, the organization’s Tucson director. The organization provides inmates with a copy of “Yoga – A Path for Healing and Recovery,” written by Fox, and distributed to more than 17,000 prisoners around the world.
One of the organization’s goals is to help inmates build resilience of the body and the mind. “Yoga supports increased self-awareness, and that’s where change begins,” Fox says. “Hopefully over time, a greater sensitivity toward oneself translates into developing empathy.”
Many prisoners who have been released report back to Fox that practicing yoga has helped them outside of prison. “Our biggest concern in terms of having them re-enter society is that they won’t harm again,” Fox, 70, says. “It’s a public safety issue. If you lock people in a cage and don’t give them rehabilitative and life skill practices, they’re going to come back as wild animals.”
Currently there are no studies on recidivism rates of prisoners who practice yoga and mindfulness during incarceration because the correctional facilities don’t allow Prison Yoga Project access to prisoners’ files, Fox says. “We have to do our own assessment of outcomes and show the benefits of impulse control and emotional stability.”
According to Fox, the program has not encountered any of the expected chop that similar education and self-improvement programs often draw from reform-model critics. No lawmakers have railed against PYP, and administrators have generally been receptive.
Wyatt first connected with Prison Yoga Project while serving as board chairman of Scottsdale-based Mindfulness First, a nonprofit organization that provides children and adults with tools to manage stress. Founder Sunny Wight tasked Wyatt with taking mindfulness meditation and yoga into the Arizona prison system. In 2016, he became certified to teach prison yoga.
The next step was to convince Glenn Young of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office – then under Joe Arpaio – that the program he was proposing had merit. “They had no other programs in the jail that my proposal would duplicate – yoga and mindfulness meditation, mindfulness movement and the ability to self-regulate, self-manage when going through a difficult time,” he says.
A study conducted in 2005 by the Arizona Department of Corrections reports that 42.4 percent of its released offenders returned to prison during a three-year follow-up period. That figure is slightly less than the rate for federal offenders, which is close to 50 percent, according to the United States Sentencing Commission.
After Wyatt wrote a detailed proposal highlighting the benefits of yoga for inmates – including improved impulse control and enhanced addiction recovery – MCSO gave him the green light to teach a 12-week class to veterans, and separate classes for juvenile girls and boys, ages 15-17. He received no opposition to the proposal.
Wyatt also teaches a non-movement class to incarcerated juvenile boys who are handcuffed to desks with their ankles shackled for safety reasons. “They can’t move, so for them it’s just breathing and mindfulness-based stress reduction through meditation and mantras. It’s philosophy – how to live a good life and deal with stress and coping skills.”
Quickly realizing he couldn’t teach all the classes himself, Wyatt recruited other Valley yoga teachers to join him at the jail. None of the teachers, including Wyatt, is compensated. “It’s all volunteer,” he says.
Teaching yoga to prisoners fulfills an underlying need Wyatt has to give back and serve others, an internal demand that once prompted him to volunteer for military
service. As a practicing Jew, Wyatt embodies the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) and advocates the notion that everyone should participate in volunteer service.
For Wyatt, seeing the positive impact that yoga and mindfulness practice has on inmates is the ultimate reward. “The minute I step into that room and I see the looks on their faces – that look of gratitude, of thank you – they’re so happy to see us,” Wyatt says. “And there’s no place else I’d rather be.”
To learn more about the Prison Yoga Project, visit prisonyoga.org or visit Prison Yoga Project Phoenix’s Facebook page.
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