by Michelle Bense
Since his firsthand experiences in stressful and traumatic situations like prison, Michael Huggins, RYT, learned that yoga can work wonders. His nonprofit, Transformation Yoga Project (TYP), now offers yoga classes in prisons and detention centers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, as well as to veterans and other unique groups.
Huggins first tried yoga around 2003 in an effort to alleviate back pain. He was hooked after the first class, and has been practicing at least three times a week since then. “I did a deep dive into studying yoga. I was going to become a teacher,” says Huggins. He studied meditation, attended retreats and received his 200-hour RYT certification.
His direction became clearer when a Seattle organization called Street Yoga (StreetYoga.org) brought a workshop to Philadelphia. Huggins and friend Colleen Devirgiliis were “blown away by the idea that we could take the practice of yoga and take it into the real world, outside of a normal studio.”
“The switch went on, and I knew this was what I had to be doing,” enthuses Huggins. They began by setting up youth programs with the Police Athletic League in Phoenixville and West Chester, which were successful.
Legal struggles later sent Huggins to prison for a misdemeanor. “That was a life-changing event for me. From a personal survival point of view, the yoga practice got me through it. It gave me the strength to deal with my circumstances,” he recalls.
The greatly modified version of yoga he practiced attracted the attention of other inmates. Many were drug dealers and most had some type of drug addiction. The yoga practice led to conversations about their addictions or trauma. He recalls the unique experience of seeing the physical effects of yoga on a person who would typically not go into a yoga studio. “I thought, if we could take the benefit of yoga and demystify it so it becomes a very practical tool, we may be able to provide some assistance to people who need it.”
After his nine-month sentence, Huggins taught a Prison Yoga workshop in New York, then came back to teach at the Kirkbride Center, a rehab facility in Philadelphia. “I started teaching there as a volunteer first, honing my skills and fine-tuning a yoga practice that benefited them,” he recalls. When the program was successful, Huggins was asked to bring it to other centers as well, where participants said it helped with impulse control, and to make a connection with their body which they hadn’t had for years.
In January 2014, he decided there should be a community of people who do yoga programs for rehab, and created the Transformation Yoga Project.
Yoga Aids in Addiction Recovery
People dealing with addiction and trauma tend to “live in their heads”—their minds are frequently racing or caught up in obsessive thinking. They may abuse their bodies, drink too much and fail to eat or sleep properly.
“Through a series of poses and breathing, the yoga practice can reconnect pathways from the body and mind,” illuminates Huggins. “They begin to reconnect with their bodies and start to see how terrible their addictions make them feel. Very slowly, they can start to make decisions to help them listen to their body.”
Yoga also helps with impulse control. “What I’m told is that people in recovery are essentially always struggling to get through the next five minutes. Yoga helps them get through longer periods of time,” explains Huggins. When they learn to focus on breathing in meditation, addicts can later use this ability to focus on the breath when they are struggling to resist that cigarette or drink. “They can get through a day. Then get through two days, rather than just the next five minutes,” he says.
“Yoga is a very personal practice, but there is a community in what we do. Everyone in recovery has a shared experience as a group. We can have discussions about how they’re feeling after the practice, which is helpful.”
Huggins expanded his program to offer transformative yoga at rehab centers, where people would spend anywhere from a few weeks to six months using yoga as part of their recovery program. “Those in recovery have usually tried everything to beat their addictions,” muses Huggins. “They come to class with a good attitude because they want to succeed.”
“We were finding that once they were getting ready to be released, they were panicking because they wanted to continue their yoga practice and didn’t know where to go,” Huggins explains. “A large percentage of these people may have left rehab to go live in a shelter or on the streets. They had nowhere to go. So we started the program to create continuity for those recovering, in the real world.”
There are currently about 14 studios in the Greater Philadelphia area that offer these community classes. “We’ve been fortunate to find studio owners who donate their space for the program.”
Training Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Teachers
In order to teach trauma-sensitive yoga to those in the criminal justice program, in prisons and to veterans, TYP needs to first train yoga teachers the ins and outs of teaching these at-risk populations. In May, about 33 teachers completed the training. “About 25 have expressed interest in getting involved further, so TYP will help match them with a place to teach recovery yoga,” beams Huggins.
There are many logistical differences in teaching a yoga class for those in recovery. For example, instructors never touch anybody. “In regular yoga, teachers might adjust someone’s pose by touching, but we would never do that, because that may be a trigger for some people,” says Huggins. Classes are set up in a semicircle to avoid having anyone behind someone else, which makes some people uncomfortable.
A very important aspect of transformative yoga is meditation. However, Huggins is very clear that they only lead classes in guided meditation. “People are scared of meditation because they’re sitting quietly. These are people who are living in their head, so sitting quietly is not beneficial to them,” he describes. “We have a very structured guided meditation practice, which is more beneficial because we don’t leave them alone with their thoughts for very long.”
According to Huggins, the three essential elements that are crucial when setting up a yoga class in a center or community group are safety, predictability and teaching with control and empathy. Instructors of these classes are obligated to ensure the safety of all involved. They must keep things predictable each week, with the same teacher and about 80 percent of the same poses so that there is a sense of routine. Lastly, the teacher must maintain control of the class, be confident and show compassion for the students.
Huggins says TYP has been overwhelmed by the demand to bring its programs to more centers. “We want to add additional trained teachers to provide mindfulness classes to more places, both at the in-patient facilities and the community itself. We will need more funding and resources to be able to reach further,” he surmises. TYP has also been approached by several groups to expand into two areas: eating disorders and the LGBTQ community.
“Our mission is to provide tools for disadvantaged people to relax in a stressful situation in their lives,” Huggins concludes. “This way, when these tense situations occur in the real world, they can overcome that situation—whether involving drugs or otherwise.”
For more information, visit TransformationYogaProject.org.
Michelle Bense is a freelance writer and editor for Natural Awakenings. Connect with her at EditorMichelleBense@gmail.com. June 2015.