by Karen G. Meshkov and Michelle Bense
On any given day there are hundreds of yoga classes taking place in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. However, only one is being offered inside the area’s largest maximum-security prison, State Correctional Institution – Graterford (SCI Graterford), the 87-year-old correctional facility in Collegeville that is home to 3,500 incarcerated men.
“Breathe. Just breathe. Feel the chest rising and falling.” The voice of Mike Huggins, founder of the Transformation Yoga Project (TYP), reverberates from the cinder block walls of the prison gym. Fifteen men sit quietly on their mats, listening to the instruction of the mindfulness practice. The class is new for everyone, offered in response to an acknowledgment by policy makers and prison officials of the high rates of psychological problems experienced by individuals within the prison system, and the studies showing the relationship between yoga and reduced anxiety and depression, enhanced cognitive function and self-control. While yoga in prison may seem like a strange concept, it provides tools to help these men find comfort in a very uncomfortable environment.
As a former inmate, Huggins knows firsthand the enormous emotional upheaval that can come from being incarcerated. It was this distress that led Huggins to start practicing yoga in his cell during his first few months in prison in 2011. While other guys were lifting weights and playing cards, Huggins was moving through the postures and breathing exercises he learned at Power Yoga Works when he was a high-powered corporate executive. After receiving a sentence for a white-collar misdemeanor, he found that the practice that had helped with lowering his stress and keeping him fit “outside” was helping to keep his body healthy and his mind calm and centered while he was on the “inside”.
Huggins’ yoga poses quickly captured the attention of the guys on the block, and in a short time Huggins was teaching yoga—multiple classes a day—to an ever-growing number of participants. “Yoga was a source of strength, happiness and inner calmness in an environment filled with pain, sadness, hatred and despair,” Huggins says. “The power is real, it’s tangible and it’s within each of us. For instance, after guiding a yoga session, two inmates were in tears for the first time in their lives as they tried to deal with their inner demons. Yoga facilitates the creation of a safe zone, even within prison, where men can be vulnerable as they work on their stuff in a non-judgmental way.”
Huggins founded the Transformation Yoga Project in 2012 and, four years later, it has grown into a dedicated team serving people impacted by trauma, addiction and incarceration. Their classes are “trauma-sensitive”, in that they are explicitly designed to be effective for releasing deeply held, unresolved and painful experiences. People that regularly participate in the classes become aware of their mental patterns and habits and how those patterns relate to behaviors; they learn how yoga can be a tool for restoring the connection between mind, heart and body. The point of the practice is to develop the whole person and increase sensitivity and compassion toward oneself and others.
Huggins is right on time with this kind of work: with incarceration rates at all-time highs, and a spike in heroin and prescription medication abuse, the number of individuals and families impacted by addiction and criminalization is unprecedented. “Ninety percent of the people in prison are going to be released. They’re going to be neighbors in our communities. What happens after they serve their time?” questions Huggins. “This is similar for people in recovery. After rehab or other programs they’re coming back into the community, and many are at a loss as to where to go next. An ongoing yoga practice that they can use to provide physical and emotional well-being can be a critical part of their success as they take those next steps to rebuilding their lives.”
TYP’s work is growing. In 2015 alone, the organization served more than 1,300 participants in its recovery program and 2,000 in the prison program, as well as over 500 through veterans’ classes at nearly a dozen different facilities in the greater Philadelphia area.
Huggins explains, “Our objective is to provide those in physical and mental prisons access to practical and integrative mindfulness tools they can draw upon even when they are not in a class setting. Whether dealing with confrontation in the prison yard or working on recovery from addictions, yoga provides the opportunity to practice mindfulness and find practical solutions to difficult situations. Transformation Yoga Project facilitates this practical application of yoga as a lifestyle, on and beyond the mat.”
TYP believes strongly that the opportunity to practice yoga should be available outside of the institutions TYP serves; people need to continue their yoga practice during re-entry, the transitional experience that people go through when they are establishing new lives. To meet this need, TYP has developed a unique studio partnership program, working collaboratively with local yoga studios to provide classes specifically designed for those who are in the process of rebuilding.
TYP is actively seeking more partner studios in the Bucks, Montgomery and surrounding areas to support their growing programs. “We have facilities calling us every day that want us to start classes. But right now, we don’t have the resources,” says Lynn Rosenstock, TYP’s director of development and a longtime advocate of creating positive change in the criminal justice system. Partner studios make a difference and allow TYP to expand by setting up collection boxes at check-in desks, making monthly or annual donations, hosting or sponsoring donation-based trauma-sensitive classes and/or collecting supplies.
“We love receiving mats and blocks,” Rosenstock shares. “When we can get these kinds of supplies covered by donations from the yoga community, TYP can direct more money toward the costs related to instruction—meaning we can teach more classes to more people who need them.”
Partner studios can also extend scholarships to TYP participants that would like to complete their Yoga Teaching Training (YTT). “Some of our best teachers are former TYP participants in recovery. They totally understand,” says Huggins. TYP just completed its first 200-hour certified YTT program at SCI Graterford (a maximum-security prison), so the men can teach within the prison or in the community upon release. Inmate-led yoga programs are being developed for both hospice and cancer patients. “They have that experience that can reach out and connect to others on another level,” says Huggins.
TYP is truly grateful for those who participate and support their mission. They use social media to promote and support partner studios’ Transformation Yoga classes and events, as well as to acknowledge donations. Studios are also invited to participate in the Gratitude Festival, scheduled for spring 2017. As TYP is a sponsored media partner of Natural Awakenings of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, participating studios also receive special recognition in the yoga directory and discounted advertising rates. Donations to TYP are tax-deductible.
For Rosenstock, a devoted yoga practitioner herself, the greatest gift of being a part of this effort is karmic. “By supporting this work—through financial contribution, in-kind donation, volunteering and sharing the word—studios and their clients know that they are empowering others to use yoga to heal and transform their lives.”
Karen G. Meshkov is the Publisher and Director of Advertising Partnerships for NA BuxMont, as well as an Integral Yoga teacher. She works with her husband on Broken On All Sides, a documentary and organizing project that confronts issues of systemic racism and mass incarceration in the U.S. Learn more at BrokenOnAllSides.com.
Michelle Bense is a freelance writer and editor based in Charlotte, North Carolina who is currently working with Mike Huggins on a book about his experiences. Connect with her at EditorMichelleBense@gmail.com.