On October 5, Prison Yoga Santa Barbara held a cocktail party at Yoga Soup to raise awareness and funds for the transformative work of this relatively new nonprofit. Prison Yoga provides yoga/meditation instruction to incarcerated adults at the S.B. County Main Jail and S.B. County Medium Security Facility and to youth held at Los Prietos Boys Camp and Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.
Founded by Ginny Kuhn in 2012 as the Prison Yoga Project, it became its own nonprofit under the name Prison Yoga Santa Barbara last year. The idea is to use the proven rehabilitative therapies of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to reduce the impact of life’s traumas and the stress of incarceration. And it’s working. According to Sheriff Bill Brown
“We at the Sheriff’s office are very proud to partner with Prison Yoga Santa Barbara and have them deliver this outstanding stress reliever to many of our inmates. Being in jail is stressful and difficult for anybody, especially female inmates, and the program has proven to be very effective at getting them to concentrate on positive thoughts and to help develop them into people who can make better decisions when they leave our jail.”
At the fundraiser, the 40 or so guests mingled while sampling donated passed appetizers from Board President Nimita Dhirajlal’s Nimita’s Cuisine. Boardmember and teacher Mike Lewis welcomed the guests and shared stories of people he had taught in the jail later coming to the yoga class he teaches on the beach and how gratifying it is to see the tremendous changes in their lives. Probation Officer Bill Krantz shared how he witnesses firsthand the benefits of the program, seeing inmates go from lives of addiction, ambivalence, and making quick choices to a life of peace, prosperity, and sense of purpose.
Founder and CEO Ginny Kuhn related how for homework for one of her classes at the jail, she asked what she should tell the community at this fundraiser about the benefits of the program. All 15 students completed the homework, which is a testimonial in itself. One inmate wrote, “Jail is not a peaceful environment so when we have access to these classes, we are able to create a peaceful internal environment and then be more chill around everyone else.” Another shared, “yoga and meditation class brings unity to us guys who wouldn’t normally hang out,” while another wrote, “we are talking peace, working on being peaceful, man you know that’s a good thing to let the community know,” which of course drew nodding heads and smiles from the audience.
Boardmember Paul Ehrlich related how the inmates will get out of jail and become our neighbors and how we want them to have skills to be able to self regulate — to slow down, take a breath, and assess situations. Prison Yoga’s classes teach the mindfulness necessary to do this.
Guest speaker James Mihaley, author of The New Yogi Manifesto, gave a spirited reading of some of his writings.
Prison Yoga is founded on the belief, supported by research studies, that yoga taught with mindfulness can heal unresolved trauma and reduce symptoms that lead to reactive behaviors and stress-related disease. The sessions are designed to provide stress relief for the present and build critical skills for successful societal re-entry.
A couple of the classes are provided as part of the mandatory curriculum in the Sheriff’s Treatment Program (STP), which is for inmates identified as being at a high risk of reoffending. Prison Yoga designed a special curriculum for STP inmates, which has weekly themes such as Mindfulness and Response-able, and Loving Kindness. Inmates are assigned homework geared toward cultivating a daily meditation practice.
Other classes offered by Prison Yoga are voluntary. As with the STP, a trauma-sensitive approach is followed, with inviting, rather than commanding, instruction. There is extensive focus on breath awareness.
The Sheriff’s Office has requested three additional classes, which Kuhn is in the process of coordinating.
Prison Yoga has separate classes for males and females, with 70 percent of those served being males. Since it began in 2012, Prison Yoga has taught 830 classes to 2,500 incarcerated adults and youth in detention facilities.
Until recently, everyone, including Kuhn, worked for free. Now Kuhn, as CEO, is the only paid staff member (and is part-time) and teachers get a stipend. Fundraisers like this are necessary to generate funds for program coordination, recruitment, and promotion, purchasing supplies (mats and blocks), and teacher stipends.
For more info, go to prisonyogasb.org.
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