11/28/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Yoga: How We Serve in Correctional Facilities

This is an interview with Geoff O'Meara, Community Yoga's Prison Program Director. His first classes with Community Yoga in Austin, Texas, in October 2010, were with male and female inmates at the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) in Del Valle. Passionate about yoga service, he has also taught populations in residential addiction recovery programs, mental health support programs, and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

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?

For most of my life I experienced the anxieties typical of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Fortunately, in the midst of my own suffering there were always people who were determined to help me, if not simply support me: my parents, sister, wife, friends, teachers, employers. Incarcerated populations are lacking that care to a tragic degree and must face their suffering largely alone, with minimal resources, and in the most challenging of environments. When I realized this, I felt compelled to let them know through action that someone is caring for them and wanting them to be happy.

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

One of my students had been moved to a different correctional facility to complete his sentence. He sent me a beautiful letter expressing gratitude for his yoga experience at the TCCC. Here is what he wrote: "Thank you for helping me get to know who I am inside ... and for how much you have changed my direction and thought on life. Indebted to you forever -- Yogi Robbie."

Every week I get a sense of how these men and women benefit from their yoga practice; but this blew me away! I've found tremendous joy in witnessing Robbie's trajectory away from addiction and violence. "I never would have gone to a yoga class," he once told me. "I thought it was for girls. For my job I'm a mover ... we just go to work and then go drink." This joy is his gift to me, and it has been a great source of shraddha -- conviction, and virya -- joyful effort -- in my own practice. For this sustenance and advancement on my own path, I am forever indebted to Yogi Robbie, as well as to all of my students. Clearly they are my teachers.

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?

Honestly, I knew very little about incarcerated populations before I started working with them. Fortunately, Jyl Kutsche, one of the founders of Community Yoga, gave me the opportunity to teach and was very generous in helping me learn how to teach effectively. The big assumption I initially had was that the inmates might accept yoga as a physical practice but would be resistant to opening to it as a spiritual practice. I was very happy to see in the very first class I taught that this was not the case.

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?

At the TCCC I feel no obligation to teach any form of a "physical" fitness class. As far as I'm concerned, as long as you have a breathing body -- no matter its condition -- you're physically fit for yoga, and the real "work" becomes spiritual work.

Whether I like it or not, I'm more inspired when I teach to inmates because I can feel their sincere appreciation for the opportunity to have a yoga class. They always offer me a helpful reminder to be grateful for every opportunity to learn, every opportunity to practice. And that motivates me as a teacher to give back as much as I can of the little wisdom I've gained.

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

My greatest challenge in working with inmates has been cultivating and maintaining the level of seriousness that yoga requires, while still leaving room for humor and whimsy. It's actually something I struggle with day to day as well. Teaching in a correctional facility has shown me what a valuable skill humor is, and how it's not just used for your own well-being. There's often very little expression coming from the inmates, as well as a palpable feeling of separation (free person vs. incarcerated person, outside world vs. inside world). Somehow, when you create laughter, the walls dissolve and a great meeting occurs. Along with yoga, I think laughter is a great unifier/equalizer. I've seen it work, but I need much more practice.

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

Try not to be pulled down by the apparent gravity of inmates' situations. This is a real tough one for me. Despair can arise when you are blindsided with information regarding some of your students. Prepare yourself, because it will probably happen. Strengthen your own confidence in yoga so that you will continue to be a steady presence when these students come to your yoga class.

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

I hope yogis will really see that service is a vital part of their yoga practice, and that, in fact, without the intention of service, it's not really yoga anyway. Every authentic spiritual practice -- and certainly yoga -- will teach you that you will only be happy when you stop thinking about yourself all the time. However, for many in this country, a misunderstanding of yoga has led to an increased attachment to the physique, instead of a release from that absorption. If even a small percentage of these practitioners shift the focus from their bodies to the benefit of others, there will be a real "Happiness Army" out there.

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

I'm not sure it's changed my definition of service, but it's helped me to understand how important it is to serve in a way that really resonates with you. Your work may seem like climbing an impossibly high mountain, but once you take that first step, there's nothing you'll want to do but keep climbing. As the inmates continue to open my eyes, yoga seems to have less and less to do with what I thought of as "yoga."

What other organizations do you admire?

Prison Yoga Project, Human Kindness Foundation, Bob Marley Foundation. Can I include Give Back Yoga Foundation? If so ... Give Back Yoga Foundation!

One in 100 American adults is in prison today, and 60 percent of all released prisoners will return to prison within three 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).

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

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