Yoga: Freedom Behind the Wall

04/15/2013 02:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

This is an interview with MaryAnne Hagglund, who has taught yoga at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women (VCCW) in Goochland, Virginia for the past three years. VCCW is a minimum security prison. MaryAnne said it "took me a long time to get into VCCW, and a lot of red tape, but it was worth it."

What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

While I was in yoga teacher training, I began to think about ways that I might use yoga as a vehicle for change, and as a way to give back. I taught in many of the local studios around town, but I always wanted to teach outside the traditional yoga box of a studio. I longed to find a way to share the benefits of yoga with people who might never get an opportunity to take a yoga class. After moving to Goochland, Virginia, I came into contact with The Elizabeth Kates Foundation, which since 1942 has been providing educational, vocational, and rehabilitation opportunities for women prisoners in the State of Virginia.

Yoga was an opportunity to give these women a Physical Education credit toward their college degree. While I don't agree with using yoga as Phys. Ed., it was a way to get "my yoga foot" inside the door. Now it has become a way to give these women some valuable tools to use while they are incarcerated, as well as after they are released. I continue to be motivated every time I walk through the gates and into the library, where we currently hold the yoga class. I get excited to be teaching this population, to share the gift of yoga, to see these women become enthusiastic about yoga and watch their practices evolve into something that becomes quite life-enhancing.

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

There are many! These moments usually arrive when we get to a place (during the course of 16 weeks) where the women are moving and breathing in unison; it reminds me of a well- choreographed dance. Many of the women thought yoga was just for the thin, or the super-athletic, or suburban housewives. Once they realize yoga is available to everyone, they get excited. No one can take their yoga practice away from them. A student said to me the other day "Yoga is a state of mind -- it gives me a sense of freedom from all the stress, worry, and anxiety." That is the moment that I know they are starting to "get it."

What did you know about female prisoners before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I was naive about what I was walking into. Many of these women have been in more than one prison; many have several children; have been addicted to drugs or alcohol; and have been the objects of abuse. Some are serving long sentences. I never thought I should be afraid of being inside with the prisoners, but so often people ask me "Why do you want to go into a prison?" I answer "Why not?" If my life choices were different, I could be the one behind bars and someone might be coming to teach me yoga. Recently, I was mandated to attend a training session on gang behavior and rape in prison, which certainly gave me more awareness as to what goes on within the prison setting across the country.

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

Because VCCW is a large institution, there is always the possibility of something changing, such as problems bringing in teaching materials or students needing to attend to other prison business during the time that has been designated for the yoga class. There might be a lockdown, which means no yoga classes. Even a change in the weather (heavy snow) results in the women not going out of their rooms (this prison looks like a college campus and the women walk to various buildings). You truly have to be ready to "go with the flow," because things will come up that you never anticipated.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

Gaining trust is essential. You need to be kind yet firm. I was told that prisoners are master manipulators, so you have to be able to balance being calm yet disciplined, and be keenly aware of the possibility that someone might be lying or BS-ing you. It is important that you remind these women that they have a light within them, that they each possess a unique purpose that must be put to use once they are released back into society. You have the capacity to be a conduit for change by helping these women see that they can live life in a different way, that they can use their time "behind the wall" to prepare for a better life, and they, too, can one day give back. I'm reminded of the quote by the poet Hafiz: "The place you are right now, God circled on a map for you."

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

I'd love to see more yoga in prison -- especially in women's prisons. It seems to me there is a lot more yoga offered in men's prisons. I would like to be able to teach more than one day a week in order to connect to more inmates. I suggested offering a yoga practice for the employees at the facility (they often stop me and say they wish they could go to the yoga class). No luck on that front so far. And, if possible, I would like to do some public speaking on this subject in order to help get the word out there from my perspective.

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

To serve has always meant that you help or aid someone else. I would say that serving gives me something back. It has made me a better instructor and each time I teach, it fuels my passion and makes me want to do more. Yoga is so much more than what people think -- it is truly a way of approaching life. It helps people (especially these women) realize that they possess an inner light and a special beauty. Yoga can help them work toward health and healing (no matter what their age), and to realize they have the freedom to make a choice on how they live their lives. This is extremely powerful. Finally, my practice has become more spiritual: I came to yoga, as most people do, for the physical. While I still enjoy a challenging, sweat-inducing practice, I feel my practice has softened a bit. Yoga asks us "how do we move through the world?" And, "how do we get the most out of every moment?" These questions can point the way to opening to the spiritual gifts of yoga practice.

What other organizations do you admire?

Off the Mat and Into the World, Prison Yoga Project, Human Kindness Foundation (Bo Lozoff - "We're All Doing Time") and organizations that are working with veterans suffering from PTSD.

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.

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).

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