Three years ago, Natalie Smith, a certified yoga teacher took the reins of a local but growing Seattle non-profit after many frustrating years working in social justice. Yoga Behind Bars was originally founded by Shaina Traisman, a Seattle yogini and fellow graduate of the first teacher training I took with Kathleen Hunt, who gave birth to the idea of serving the incarcerated community through the power of yoga after using her combined skills in yoga and massage to work with a political prisoner. The response was powerful, a shell cracking open within the spirit of the man long devoid of touch or any type of human connection. This inspired Shaina to take action in a broader way, creating Yoga Behind Bars, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization in Seattle that brings yoga and meditation classes to incarcerated youth and adults in Washington State. Their mission is to share tools of self-awareness, healing and transformation with their students.
The Yoga Behind Bars program is a Continued Education ten-hour training that is taken after a formal two hundred hour certification. I personally know many of the teachers who have done this, Chielle, Bonnie, Hasna, all amazing women!
“We realized what infrastructure we needed to build so we could grow wisely. We just graduated 20 more teachers. Now we have 45 teachers total and they are prepared to teach kids, women and men. We have developed our own curriculum to support our mission,” says Natalie Smith. At the heart of their program, simply, is compassion. The YBB teacher is someone working through the process from within, acting from a place of true compassion, not seeking outward gratification. There is no problem to fix, nothing external to them. They simply identify with the transformative process we are all going through, seeing themselves as much in the world as they are behind bars.
One of Natalie’s many ‘aha’ moments was centered around compassion. Everyday after working at the downtown jail, Natalie felt her heart harden up a bit whenever she boarded the number two bus, making efforts to avoid sitting next to certain people. There was a sense of separation and a closing inward.
“Then one afternoon, I got on the bus and someone I considered the ‘other’ sat next to me and my heart just opened. For the first time, I felt this connection. There was a lack of separation and that was when I recognized this was a powerful kind of yoga.
I really don’t care if I can touch my toes. This is the kind of yoga I should be doing because it is changing me from the inside out.”
As the program grows, so has their ability to attract grant money which has enabled them to make sound investments, one of which is the recent collaboration with long-time prison yoga advocate, Nova Guthrie.
“We brought on the expertise of Nova Guthrie who was incarcerated for eight years. The first year and a half she was in solitary confinement and practiced yoga from a book three to four times daily. She began teaching women over seven years ago. You meet her and she is glowing. She is the expert in every way, from the inside out. She’s done the work, she has been there,” adds Smith.
When asked if it’s hard to be effective within the correctional system, Natalie smiles.
“We manage to the needs of the facility. At first, we tried to have ‘our’ formula, but when working with an institution as rigid as the prison system, we realized we needed to be flexible, and fluid. We had to be like water. We bring the same love and the same infrastructure, but tailored to the facility. But that has allowed us to go deeper.
We truly have to be the yogis, and we have seen the fruit. Several of the facilities have requested doubling the number of classes that YBB offers.”
For those working in a correctional facility, there can be no touch. The YBB teacher needs to not only teach yoga, but to provide in spirit the bodywork feeling. “You have to see the student becoming their own healer.”
The YBB teacher quickly learns real insights into the system. “What I have found in doing this work,” Smith adds, “has really opened my eyes to the criminal justice system. I am seeing specifically lower socio-economic individuals, some of whom have experienced horrific trauma and were leading difficult lives. They either did not have or did not choose skillful ways to respond to those pressures, so they used drugs and alcohol. Some have a history of mental illness. It is more of an issue of lack of life skills, addiction, mental illness, than a desire to harm another human being.”
Social justice and compassion can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Social justice can be about doing good because there is the idea of the ‘me’ doing a right by the ‘them’. Compassion is doing good because you see everyone as an extension of yourself.
As demand grows for YBB programs, there are many ways to get involved. Currently, it takes about five people donating $15 per month to start a new weekly class. All the teachers are volunteers and most expenses come from the transportation costs to get to and from the facilities. ‘Become a Friend of YBB’ is a campaign aimed at getting an additional fifty friends to fund the current requests for additional classes. “With this community support we would not have to do any fundraising; we could focus 100% on our mission- to serve.” Another popular event, Gratitude in Motion, has Seattle teachers and yoga studios hosting benefit classes around Thanksgiving with 100% of profits going to YBB. My home studio, Bala Yoga hosted an event last year. Other studios include Be Luminous, and Sutra, who will soon be hosting a dinner fundraising event for the organization. If you would like to learn more about becoming a YBB teacher, making a donation or getting involved in this incredible, heart-felt organization, please check out: http://www.yogabehindbars.org for additional information.
For those of you looking to examine the path of compassion more broadly, Charlotte-based Universal Yoga teacher, Mara Healy, shares her insights on practicing compassion off the mat in simple ways in the next blog, ‘Cloning Compasssion’.