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From the Mat Up: Yoga Behind Bars Helps Our Incarcerated Community Members Rebuild Before Reentry

By Jerry Millhon in collaboration with Christine List and Faraji Bhakti (both of Yoga Behind Bars)


"Yoga Behind Bars has helped thousands of incarcerated youth and adults transform their lives through embodied movement and meditation." (From their Website.)


Thriving Communities began the study of prison reform and communities in action in 2022. Our film for “The Fountain Fund,” sparked a flood of conversation amongst similar organizations at our November 2022 Gathering. Two team members from Yoga Behind Bars (YBB) were guests at the event including, Faraji Bhakti, Community Engagement Specialist, and Christine List, Veteran's Programs and Social Media, and presented their mission and work to the Gathering. We can learn a lot from them and the collective thinking on incarceration to inform future efforts.


The Work of Yoga Behind Bars


Often the name an organization uses belies the true nature and goals of their unique work. And history is important! In this case, the initial goal of Shaina Traisman in the early part of this century was to introduce yoga to incarcerated people. In 2008, Shaina and Natalie Cielle–the first official volunteer of YBB--– founded the Seattle-based 501c 3 organization. Funded by donations, and local, state, and federal grants they became increasingly recognized and trusted for their work with adults and youth.


The word that flows from the description of their work is trust. Certainly, trust is the basis for developing relationships with those who are incarcerated no matter what age group. That trust is built on a profound capacity to listen and observe without judgment. Trust is the sweet sauce that opens pathways toward growth.


One deep connection of being seen, an “aha moment” (inner peace, joy, all the words we might take for granted), or a gentle nod of approval can be all that is needed for an incarcerated individual to feel human again. Being seen in this way can be the seed that germinates with a consistent affirmation of a person’s humanity. Over time, this trusting relationship can foster growth that can lead to mental, physical, and spiritual healing and life beyond bars.


Where is yoga in this process? The YBB yoga class is the container for the interaction described above. A mat is a place where trust can be built, a place one returns to for continuing their journey in safety, taking that kernel of joy, hope, and love off the mat and back to their cell. That seed is essential.


The work of Yoga Behind Bars reminds each of us of our humanity. And for incarcerated folks, connecting with the physical and spiritual through yoga brings healing, awareness, and self-worth. Building people up behind bars is critical so they can reintegrate back into society with a greater chance of success. YBB helps restore minds and bodies for the benefit of our communities.


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