What I learned teaching yoga in a prison rehab project

“Dat was da bomb” were the words from one of the women as I finished teaching yoga relaxation.  Having moved through some resistance, this bright outgoing woman emerging with a big grin on her face.

Most of the women in the room hadn’t experienced yoga, meditation or relaxation.  The majority didn’t know how to relax their bodies.  Many couldn’t remember feeling a sense of peace in their minds from the constant bombardment of worry and stress.  They’d never experienced how that felt.  

The last thing on your mind when facing prison or being homeless is trying to find a yoga class.


Cycles and Patterns

There’s often no home to go to when leaving these places.  Many are escaping domestic abuse situations and have children left in care or with family members.  Getting clean whilst trying to find a home, stay out of prison and get their children back isn’t easy. 

A few are fortunate to have family homes or some support.  However, this is often in the same communities and environment that tend to trigger behaviours and mental patterns again.  Even though they may have come along way during their rehabilitation.  

We all know to some degree that it’s much more challenging to change our habits when we’re in the same conditions & environment.  It takes a strong will, good self-esteem, solid support and a real purpose to be able to break cycles.  Especially ones that have been going on for generations.   Sometimes we can’t be in that same environment, but this isn’t always possible for everyone.


Speaking Out

One of the qualities I love in many of these women is their ability to speak out.  Some are quiet but many will speak up during class and say what they think and ask questions out loud.  They will call me out or become talkative, walk-in eating food, or any number of distractions.  I have to be fully present, engaged & honest, it keeps me on my toes for sure.  

I remember doing a Yoga Nidra relaxation once which the women generally loved, it was during a visualisation we were walking in nature, trees, birds, etc when a comment came ‘yeh and then they come and get ya’.  Even though I made sure to say this place is safe, and try to be mindful, this work may trigger the women in some way.  

I feel my job is to provide a safe, open and protective environment and still be honest in sharing my experience of yoga or speaking up when someone is disturbing others in the room.

At the end of the relaxation, the same woman shouted out ‘bullshit’.  Fair enough, this was her experience, one thing to remember is it’s not personal and she’s got every right to her opinion! 

Approaching her afterwards when the others weren’t around, I asked her how she was doing and said it’s not all bullshit, there can be some real benefits to this and it’s worth trying.  She looked surprised but said yes, she knows it’s not bullshit and it does help.


Breaking down Barriers

Being open and honest can help to break down barriers, understandably there can be a lot of trust issues and if it seems that you’re not being authentic as a teacher/facilitator or it appears that you think you’re better in some way then the women will know.  This is about sharing the experience of yoga, the women there also have a lot to share about resiliency, community, their own talents, some of the women have degrees and had well-paid jobs previously. 

We need to re-look at our perception of who these women or men are in prisons and rehabs, a twist of fate can put any of us in the same situation, I’ve seen it happen. 



I found the woman who spoke out is an artist.  A strong courageous woman who had experienced alcohol issues, homelessness and challenging family/social situations.  She was also on her way to being an ‘Aunty’ in her community and I could see that she’d be hugely valuable.  She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and stand up for herself and others, she was a natural protector, kind and intelligent.  

I liked and respected her and told her about a storytelling project I was thinking of and asked if she’d be willing to help in some way, I said it’s still forming at the moment, I don’t know how long it will take but we agreed to keep in touch when it was ready.  

I won’t go into her story as to why she was in there.   What the women do choose to share is confidential, it’s for her to tell if she wants to. I will say had she not done what she did then she’d likely not be here at all, it took courage to do what she did.  Do we always make the right decisions in a crisis situation?


Building Trust

Developing trust is key in this environment, lack of consistency in support is something that the women are dealing with on a daily basis.  The turnover of women here is roughly every 3 months.   They talk to each other and if you can get a few of them on board then the message spreads.  If you’re a teacher thinking of working in this area don’t give up on them!

Find the women in the room that are engaging in the practice.  Acknowledge but try not to give too much attention to others who aren’t.  This is because the focus in the class can fall apart quite quickly.  I’ve found that attitudes can change as they see and feel the effects of the practice. 

It’s about choice, if there’s disruption in the class then it might be necessary to say something.  If the women don’t want to join in the physical practice I usually suggest joining in meditation and gentle movements.   When there’s choice there’s nothing to rebel against.  I think this is important when these women’s choices are already very limited.


The Little Things Matter

Sometimes it’s the words you say.  That you ‘see them’ and what these women have to offer as human beings right now.  I’ve seen so much loyalty, courage, spiritedness, vulnerability and innate intelligence in that room.  

Lack of self-worth and shame is, I believe, huge drivers for re-offending.  If we want there to be a lower rate of re-offending we need to be addressing these core issues.  That’s really where yoga, meditation and creative expression can be hugely beneficial.  

There’s not a quick fix with these practices but there’s an opportunity to feel safe in our own body.  It’s an act of self-care.  Yoga & meditation help to self-soothe, to manage anxiety, calm our minds, and if we stick with it long enough change the neural pathways in our brains. Through creativity, movement & using our voices there is a safe, productive and valuable outlet for emotions that are usually either suppressed and/or channelled into self-abuse.  


Self Care whilst Teaching Yoga

Fear is one thing that these women know, their nervous systems are on high alert most of the time.  It’s essential for the facilitator to feel centred, grounded in their approach and know the value of the practice.  It takes time to feel a room and person out.  

Teaching yoga in rehab helps facilitators develop patience, non-judgement and honesty (all yogic teachings!).  Making sure you have your own ‘self-care’ in place is also essential.  Especially if there is a past history of trauma, whether that’s first-hand or with someone close.  

I’ve been teaching yoga to people who don’t normally get access to yoga classes for the past 14 years.  It’s never too early or late to start.  Every time I engage in this work there’s always so much to learn.  Every place or person is different.   I liked this article although written a few years ago it gives some statistics and context around women in prison, it’s from the women’s legal service in NSW, you can find more information about them here.

After a few years teaching voluntarily at this centre I taught my last class there towards the end of 2017.  Its valuable work that I hope receives funding in the future.

I hope these words help us to see people with different eyes.  We’re all human with very different privileges and conditions growing up.  I’ll be exploring more how to find our voice and be a voice of change in some upcoming workshops.  I also offer online one-to-one voice coaching.  If you want to contact me and talk more feel free to email me.

Have a wonderful day.  Peace out xx


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