This is an interview with Elizabeth Johnstone, who in 2007 started teaching yoga and meditation at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., a high-security women's prison. After attending a "Personal Revolution" bootcamp with Baron Baptiste, she began teaching weekly yoga and meditation classes there. After class one day, some young girls said they were leaving prison, and with tears in their eyes, they told Elizabeth how much her classes had meant to them. "I cried all the way home, thinking about those young girls and how much more support needs to be in place in the critical first year after being released." In 2008, she founded the non-profit organization Recovery Yoga, whose mission is to expand yoga and meditation instruction in correctional facilities throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
I was motivated by that week-long "Personal Revolution" program with Baron Baptiste. But what continues to motivate me is my students' courage and heartfelt deep gratitude, seeing their growth, and the support I have from my community (including my teachers, the Recovery Yoga teachers, and the Forrest and Frances Lattner Foundation). Over time, my motivation increased as I became aware of the exponential growth in the number of prisoners in this country. More than one in every 100 adults are now confined in a U.S. jail or prison. Very few prisoners are provided meaningful programs to aid in their rehabilitation. The system is broken.
Is there a standout moment from your work with prisoners?
After Yoga Nidra (a guided relaxation practice), a woman shared how the meditation reminded her of her 4-year-old son. She told me how she used to do a form of this relaxation technique with the imagery of balloons to help her little boy fall asleep. It broke her heart how he was being medicated to go to sleep now. I felt her sadness. I shared with her how keeping your heart open, even when you feel like shutting it down, is a powerful practice. For instance, in a backbend, she can tell herself "I will keep my heart open no matter what," which will help her to really be there for that child and herself. We worked together on feeling our feet on the earth, deepening our breath, and allowing the feelings to move out of the body. She was so grateful for my support. There are approximately 1,500 children with mothers behind bars at York, and an estimated 1.3 million children in America with mothers in prison or under the control of the criminal justice system. Seventy percent of incarcerated women are mothers.
What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if any, have those assumptions changed?
I'm in recovery myself, and the child of an alcoholic. I went in with the assumption that we are all the same. That assumption has proven to be true to me and has not changed. By the grace of God, I am alive, and so are they.
What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?
In the prison, I mostly use the principle of "adaptation." I never assist; the prison's rule is not to touch any inmate. Instead, for example, we will stand in a circle in Tree pose, with our own palms together.
What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?
The greatest challenge teaching at York is the mandatory lockdowns and the lockdowns that occur due to inaccurate counts and prohibited items found in rooms. I'm not allowed to teach my classes during lockdowns; they get cancelled. I've tried to address this by teaching my students that these practices are within them always; they can do them anywhere and anytime, including in their own cells. Another challenge is the amount of time it takes to approve donated books. I think at times that this place is my greatest teacher. It reminds me to accept things I cannot change.
What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach women in prison?
Listen to, and follow, your heart -- and follow the rules. Also, you cannot teach what you do not know. Go to a trauma-sensitive training and get educated about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Veterans Yoga Project and the Trauma Center have excellent trainings. Take care of yourself. Maintain YOUR practice. Meditate, pray. Do things to nurture yourself -- for example, Epsom salt baths, walks, and practicing energy techniques such as surrounding yourself with a blue light.
What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?
I hope for: (a) a system of support in that critical first year after release from prison during which people can practice asana and meditation free of charge; (b) more teacher trainings and yoga studios incorporating one weekly volunteer class taught by each yoga teacher in the community; and (c) meditation CDs made available to facilities that do not have the staff or space to have people come teach yoga and meditation.
How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?
My definition of service has changed since I realized that when you give, you receive. My definition of yoga has changed too. I've come to realize that yoga is not just a physical practice and proper breathing technique; it is life itself.
What other organizations do you admire?
Editor: Alice Trembour
Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!
Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.
The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.
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