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Yoga: How We Say Yes and Serve in Correctional Facilities

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This is an interview with Heather Ruggero, whose yoga service work began in March 2010 teaching weekly classes to staff and clients at SafePlace, a shelter for people escaping domestic violence. While teaching at SafePlace, she met Jyl Kutsche, the founder of Community Yoga Austin. Through Community Yoga, she taught yoga to staff at the Travis County Sheriff's office in Austin, Texas, as well as to incarcerated men and women at the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) in Del Valle, Texas. She is still teaching at TCCC.

Rob: 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 hearing from people like Jyl Kutsche (founder of Community Yoga) and James Fox (founder of the Prison Yoga Project) about the work they were doing with incarcerated populations. I had a hunger to do something meaningful with the abundance I had received from my own practice. There is a real momentum that occurs when you take a step in the direction of service. Suddenly wonderful opportunities appear, roadblocks fall away, and saying "yes" is all that is required. The students and their appreciation for the practice are what continue to motivate me. I'm also inspired by the fact that every time I teach at TCCC I feel more alive and more awake. When you have the privilege of witnessing people working hard to transform their lives, it's difficult to take things for granted.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Community Yoga or with prisoners?

A regular yoga student in our women's class was moved to maximum security while awaiting her trial. At the time, maximum security prisoners were not offered yoga classes. After about a month, she was moved back to minimum security and resumed her yoga classes. She told me that she and some other women in maximum had written a letter and signed a petition requesting yoga -- the petition was signed by 36 women! She said she knew the difference yoga could make for these women in breaking cycles that have gotten them in trouble. Community Yoga's Prison Program Director, Geoff O'Meara, has been working with jail officials, and has gotten approval to begin offering yoga classes to people serving sentences in maximum security. This woman became a yoga advocate in that moment and helped make this expansion of the program possible.

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 didn't know very much about prisoners beyond stereotypical depictions of hardened and tough criminals. I would not be telling the truth if I said I wasn't nervous or concerned the first time I arrived to teach. What won out for me were the other assumptions: that these were folks who weren't given many tools or much guidance early in life, who had unresolved social and emotional issues, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Another thing that's changed is that I'm more aware of race and class disparities between the general population and incarcerated population.

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 classes at TCCC, I'm very careful with my word choices. I once said "you are free to go" when we were dismissed from the room at the end of class. Wow, was that unfortunate! I'm careful to avoid using imagery from nature or family so as to not evoke longing or despair. I wear conservative, plain clothing because prisoners have uniforms, and do not have the option to express themselves with their clothing. To avoid any sexual tension, I'm mindful about the ways I demonstrate postures.

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

In the women's class more than the men's, we've had occasional issues of eye rolling, using class time to connect with friends, whispering, or even loud discourse. It can be frustrating because it interferes with the others' experience. Standing near the unsettled student, using audible breathing (ujjaii), direct eye contact, engaging the student by name as she arrives for class, or even just stopping and sitting in silence, have all been helpful techniques when working with disruptions. Overall, these disruptive behaviors are not extremely common and are best addressed compassionately.

What advice would you give to another woman who is going to teach male prisoners?

Before class begins take some time in the classroom or in your car to center yourself. When students begin arriving, if I am seated and centered I am able to hold the space with more certainty. Get to know your students' first names. It helps me to write names down. At the end of class shake their hand, look them in the eye, say their name; in prison culture these gestures show respect. The prison uniform is initially unsettling, but you'll quickly feel yourself to be in a room of humans, which of course you are! Finally, there is a mudra by Siri Singh Sahib that my teacher taught me that really takes me out of the female/male paradigm. I recite it silently before almost every class.

"I'm not a woman, I'm not a man, I'm not a person, I'm not myself, I am a teacher."

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

I'm hopeful that mindfulness practices will continue to make their way into all aspects of American life, from schools and board rooms to hospitals and prisons. My hope is that the people who experience the benefits of these wisdom traditions will in turn share the practices with others. It is so affirming to see all the studios in Austin support the work of Community Yoga by hosting donation classes and sponsoring events. I would love to see yoga teacher training programs facilitate service opportunities for their students.

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

Most traditions include a service component and yoga is no different. Karma yoga is a rich and essential aspect of the practice. I originally thought it was about contributing to pay back for all that I have received, but am increasingly realizing that what I receive for the small amount I give is so much greater. I have begun to realize that service was a missing ingredient in my own spiritual development and yoga practice.

What other organizations do you admire?

Prison Yoga Project: http://www.prisonyoga.org/
Street Yoga: http://streetyoga.org/
Give Back Yoga Foundation: http://givebackyoga.org/
SafePlace: http://www.safeplace.org/
Southern Poverty Law Center: http://www.splcenter.org/

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).

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!