Yoga Behind Bars Can Free a Man Within

The Story of Santa Barbara’s Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis at Leadbetter Beach | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

I followed the sounds of Irish music as I made my way up the paved path of Blueberry Hill Park in Goleta. It led me to a group of 15 adults, each positioned on their own yoga mats around one man at the center. 

It was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and Michael J. Lewis was conducting his weekly “After Dark in the Park” yoga class. Each of Lewis’s classes has a unique theme with a specifically curated playlist to match. While his message of peace and love aligns with that of other yogis, the presentation is often more accessible to a less spiritually inclined audience. 

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Many of Lewis’s students are adults with full-time jobs and kids. My roommates and I are known as “The Vaqueros,” since we are the youngest members by at least a decade. For the past year, I have been captivated by the distinct power of Lewis’s teachings, and I continue to be inspired by his story.

In 2004, a rough separation prompted Lewis to move to Texas to find work. At the time, he had two baby girls and would send half his paychecks to California to support them. On his birthday, he was served with official divorce papers and spun into a pattern of “drinking and raging,” turning to alcoholism to cope with his emotions, and then yoga to cope with his alcoholism.

Lewis took his first yoga class with Joseph Stingley in Arlington, Texas, after a 19-year hiatus from the practice and all its “humming and chanting.” He didn’t see it as a valid workout — that is, until Stingley “kicked our ass really hard. A good, physical class, and that’s what I needed.” At the end of it, as he lay in the Savasana pose, Lewis remembered tears streaking down his face and realizing “how much I needed to start to heal from all my shit. I wasn’t done drinking yet, but yoga was keeping me from being suicidal.”

In 2013, after a stint in Arizona, he returned to Santa Barbara. At 52 years old, he was going into kidney failure and diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a disease that was a direct result of his alcoholism. He knew he needed help. “This was my first legitimate moment of clarity in regard to the concept of surrender,” he said.

Lewis’s yoga and sobriety journeys intertwine, and he attributes his ultimate success to mentors in both areas. One of these is a woman named Christine at the Unity Church, who opened his eyes to the concept of forgiving himself. Marty, his therapist, taught him about mindfulness and meditation, and after attending his first AA meeting, he met Jim, his sponsor. 


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“As soon as I was willing to let go of being in charge of my own life, which I had messed up pretty badly, admitted my powerlessness over alcohol and drugs, and asked for help, help showed up,” he explained. With the support of his loved ones and case manager, Emily, Lewis moved into a homeless shelter called Transition House and took a job as a dishwasher at Santa Barbara City College. Humbly, he began to piece his life together.

One day, in his fifth month of sobriety, he received a life-changing phone call from a woman named Ginny Kuhn who was teaching yoga to female inmates as a part of her master’s degree project. “She had decided that it was time to start a men’s program, and she thought of me,” Lewis said. “The rewards of sobriety were coming fast to my life.” 

The classes have become “the best two hours of my week,” Lewis said. He has countless stories about teaching the men about mindfulness. One of his students, Jaime, stopped cutting himself after Lewis introduced him to meditation. “I knew it was going to be fun to work with that population, but I didn’t know what was going to happen to me as a result,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know it was going to radically change my whole perspective on my own freedom and my own appreciation of being sober.”

One of the biggest strides the Yoga Prison Project has made was getting into the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, a high-security facility with more than 125 men in solitary confinement. Federal rules prohibit instructors from interacting directly with inmates, so Lewis created a video that is positioned outside the Special Housing Units on flat-screen TVs for them to follow along to. 

Lewis’s next goal is to train inmates in a mentorship program to become certified yoga teachers. “A lot of guys get out of jail and come to my yoga class,” Lewis said. “I’m proud to tell people, ‘I have friends in low places,’ because you can learn and grow from the most unexpected people.”

Outside the prison project, Lewis has cultivated a yoga community like no other in Santa Barbara. His dad jokes at the weekly park get-togethers create an easygoing environment where imperfection is accepted and encouraged. Every student has their own story. “We have our tribe of misfits,” Lewis said. “I like to get to know everyone.”

In 2010, Mike Lewis didn’t believe in miracles. Now, he says, “They happen on a weekly basis.” 

“I look at my two little grandsons, and I realize I wouldn’t have a relationship with my daughter and I wouldn’t be able to be a grandpa if I wasn’t sober,” he said. “My other daughter is turning 20 and I’m taking her to a surprise concert next month. If I wasn’t sober, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this. That’s the miracle right there.”

The impact Lewis has made on inmates and the Santa Barbara community as a whole is immeasurable. But he remains modest. “I don’t wanna sit here and pretend like, ‘Oh, I’m helping all these people,’” he said. “These people are helping me!”


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