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Yoga: How We Serve Incarcerated Women and Those in Transition

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This is an interview with Traci Lundstrom, who began learning yoga while serving time in the Boulder, Colorado, county jail the fall of 2009. This is where her yoga service career started; as she incorporated yoga into her daily exercise routine, other women in the jail approached her to learn yoga for themselves. While on parole in 2010, she was invited by Nancy Candea, founder of Yoga Impact, to a teacher training program through a scholarship. She became a certified yoga teacher a year later, and began volunteering to teach the same class she first attended in the jail in January 2012. She has recently started a transitional program for released women.

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've always been motivated to help others. My mother used to say that I was "always trying to help the underdog." The deeper I got into my own yoga practice, the more I came to understand the matrix of effects it had on my life -- my health, strength, emotions and spirit. With that came a deep sense of connection with everything around me. I began to see through my own interpretations of people and their actions. I discovered many more similarities with others than I could find differences. Feeling a kinship that I had never been open to before, I feel more and more motivated to bring what gifts I have to offer and share.

Is there a standout moment from your work with incarcerated women?

There've been several standout moments: A woman whose "head was exploding" found quietness in asana (repertoire of postures) practice; another who said she was "broken" because she "felt" things too intensely understood the concept of the gunas (properties or tendencies of all living beings) during a class discussion, and realized that she wasn't "messed up" after all. And one woman said to me, tearfully during her last class, "I always thought yoga was for wimps, but I can see that it really takes a lot of strength to do it and to live it. I don't want to lose that."

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 have those assumptions changed?

I spent nine months in jail several years ago. I understand the routine, the daily challenges one faces. I watched the politics, the habits, the emotions, and the chaos. My introduction to yoga allowed me the opportunity to stay with all of that and learn how to hold my own space, while being able to connect with everyone in there, no matter what they were going through at the time. That gave me the chance to grow in compassion and understanding and allowed me to leave many of my own judgments behind. Because of that experience I was able to begin teaching the class with few assumptions or attachments as to how the class would be received.

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?

I teach class based on themes. I incorporate the chakras, and the teachings of the yoga sutras. The women have shown more interest in practicing yoga as a whole, rather than as an exercise class. There is a power in discussions of the yamas, niyamas ("right living" or ethical rules), gunas and the Four Noble Truths (the conceptual framework for all of Buddhist thought.) These break through one signature belief that grips most incarcerated women -- that they are different from everyone else.

I also do guided metta (loving kindness) and forgiveness meditations. Many women describe this as the most powerful and favorite part of the class, because they have not been able to tap into compassion for themselves for a very long time. Many tears are shed and there are many expressions of gratitude for being offered a safe place to release that.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

My greatest challenge has been the student who is resistant to the class, whether it be in the form of being argumentative about the teachings, or complaining that all the asana are painful. It caused a lot of stress in me, because at the beginning I felt personally challenged and my own emotions would get in the way of my being a teacher.

Through my own practice, I've come to understand that these behaviors have nothing to do with me -- they have to do with people reacting to their own fears. This allows me to respond to these situations with compassion without losing my space as the instructor.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach incarcerated women?

Don't have expectations. Allow whatever happens to blossom.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

I would love to see this program develop all over. I would like to see it expand to men. I would like to see the Boulder County Community Justice Services support (but not mandate) the program. I would like to see it become a full circle program in which participants could be granted scholarships to become teachers, and be of service themselves.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My definition of yoga is always changing. At times it's about being grounded and present, at other times it is about growing deeper in my understanding of connection, and at other times it's about completely letting go. My practice contains the same components of my classes. Service to me is a gift I'm privileged to give.

What other organizations do you admire?

Yoga Impact, Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga Workshop http://yogaworkshop.com/, Restorative Justice Services and the Boulder County Jail all support my Transitional program.

Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing And Recovery
1 in 100 American adults are in prison today, and 60% of all released prisoners will return to prison within 3 years.
Yoga can help break the cycle. GIVE THE GIFT OF YOGA TO A PRISONER. http://givebackyoga.org/shop/prison-yoga-project-a-path-for-healing-and-recovery
Yoga, A Path for Healing & Recovery -A Path for Healing & Recovery provides practices that have been proven effective in helping prisoners to gain insight into unconscious patterns of thinking and compulsive behavior. They have also greatly helped in improving their overall quality of life - mentally, emotionally and physically. Although this program has been developed through years of experience teaching yoga to incarcerated youth and adults, it focuses on the self-reflection and personal discipline necessary for one to lead a more conscious life, whether incarcerated or free. It is a powerful resource for anyone trying to break free of negative behavioral patterns. The book contains guides for physical practice (asana), breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dyhana).

Series Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email rschware@gmail.com 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 Recovering from 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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