An unprecedented form of healing is underway at the RSW Regional Jail in Front Royal, thanks to an innovative resident of Rappahannock County and a warden who realizes that an important element could be missing in the nation’s overcrowded prison system.
OK, not yoga per se, but the ancient practice’s proven mind healing benefits in helping offenders gain insight into their behavior, take personal accountability for the harm they’ve caused others, and understand the fundamental issues that got them into trouble in the first place.
Since January, the jail that primarily serves Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren counties became one of only 260 correctional facilities around the world that currently benefit from the Prison Yoga Project, which was launched more than a decade ago at San Quentin in California (there are approximately 10,000 federal, state and local prison and jails in the United States, housing more than 2.3 million men, women and juveniles).
The Rappahannock instructor, who asks to remain anonymous, is among 1,800 teachers who have been trained by the project to provide “trauma-informed yoga” to prisoners and other impacted groups.
“Part of the training is how to approach jails with the concept,” she points out, given the rigid unbending rules of the penal system. When she first laid eyes on RSW Superintendent Russell W. Gilkison, who she describes as “this large, strapping man,” she had her doubts.
“But he basically said, ‘What’s there to lose?’” she recalls. “He’s been an absolute delight. I’m honored he’s given me this opportunity.”
She teaches both men’s and women’s yoga at the sprawling modern jail that opened in 2014, each class lasting one hour, with a strict limit of 10 inmates per class. Instruction is held only one day per week, although the demand is there for additional classes. The prisoners are led in their jail uniforms through a series of electric locking security doors to a brightly lit “indoor recreation” room, where they are frisked upon entering and leaving.
The guards then lock the doors and leave the yoga teacher alone, as mutually agreed, with her otherwise hardened students, as was the case during a special class last Friday leading into the Memorial Day weekend.
“I was definitely apprehensive the first time,” she admits. “I’ve worked in a psych ward outside San Diego, in La Jolla, for five years — it was a VA hospital — but there were always doctors and nurses around me. I never had a problem.
“Here at the jail there’s no guard in the room, but there are cameras and a panic button,” she continues. “But within four minutes of the first class I realized these people are all humans, all souls, just managing their suffering, their circumstances. It’s been very enjoyable for me, very emotional.
“I don’t know what my students did to get into jail and I don’t want to know,” she adds. “I just know they’ve been through a lot. I’ve had one woman in my class tell me that she’s been on all kinds of medications and seen all sorts of therapists, but this works better for her that anything she’s found.”
The founder of the Prison Yoga Project is James Fox, who educates that a majority of prisoners in the United States suffer from “Complex Trauma” — chronic interpersonal trauma experienced early in life, such as abandonment, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime, including murder.
“We call this ‘original pain.’ These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behavior, and tendencies toward drug and alcohol addiction as well as violence,” he writes.
“Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in prison, where they experience even more trauma,” Fox points out. “The Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga, taught specifically as a mindfulness practice, is very effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma, allowing us to address the resultant behavioral issues.
“Yoga as a mindfulness practice is our tool for re-engaging prisoners with their bodies to restore the connection between mind, heart and body. We use a yoga practice to develop the whole person, increase sensitivity toward oneself and empathy for others. By putting the men and women back in touch with their bodies, they begin to care more about themselves and understand the harm they have caused.”
A similar objective of the Rappahannock instructor is for prisoners to utilize the “mindfulness tool” whenever they face confrontation, helping them to arrive at practical solutions instead of dangerous outcomes.
“I point to a lot of good in them,” she says. “I help them manage their lives and suffering — that battlefield between the ears. This helps control the emotions, helps them forgive. A yoga class goes straight for a switch and turns it.”
“I wish it was more than one day a week,” prisoner Josh Schmidt says of the weekly yoga class for men.
A father of four from Warren County, Schmidt served “hard time” on a previous felony conviction, was released in 2005, but during a subsequent traffic stop while driving a friend’s car a gun was discovered in the glove compartment, which is how we wound up back in jail.
At the start of her class, the instructor goes around the circle of seated inmates to hear whatever is on their minds. At this most recent class, only one person chooses not to speak. Schmidt doesn’t hold back, saying how much the class has helped him control anger issues, “when my brain is moving 100 miles per hour.”
The classes are “something I look forward to on Wednesdays,” the prisoner says. “I’m relaxed when I leave here, and I find I sleep much better on Wednesday nights.”
Other inmates who ride their blue mats to freedom, if only for a brief hour, are Jeff Staples and Clayton Williams of Warren County, Josh Miller of Strasburg, Jeff Mays of Mount Jackson, Scotty Vanover from Kentucky (“I got off on the wrong exit,” he explains); there’s a prisoner named Adam, and another nicknamed “Ace,” who is attending the class for the first time.
“People will joke about it, saying ‘Are you going back to yoga?’” Adam observes when it’s his turn to speak. “But I tell them it’s like entering a silent, distant space, where you can get away.”
Sure enough, after only five months, word of the yoga sessions is filtering through the large jail, which can hold up to 560 inmates, and as of this week there is a waiting list of “dozens” who want to take the classes. The Rappahannock instructor wishes there were additional sessions to offer instead of just once a week, and she’d like to teach a separate class for the prison guards, who have their own stressful days on the job.
Adam reveals to the group that he is practicing yoga and meditation outside the class, using it to manage negative thought patterns. Out of curiosity, he asks the teacher: “What made you do this, come into this room with a bunch of egos?”
The Rappahannock teacher explains a bit of her past, reminding the inmates that everybody, incarcerated or not, “stores emotions, stores trauma in our bodies.”
She reminds each of them to “wear a gentle smile on your face, it releases endorphins” and produces a healthy analgesic effect.
And then the most the difficult part of the class begins, the repetitive if not strenuous inhales and exhales, pinwheels and pigeons, windshield wipers and exalted warrior stretches.
“This is my first episode,” Ace tells the instructor, not quite certain what to call a session of yoga. Halfway through the class he interjects, “I work out regularly, and this is hard!”
RSW Superintendent Gilkison says he’s received “a lot of positive feedback” of the specialized yoga at the jail.
“Any time we get results even for one or two [inmates] that is one or two that we reached that we didn’t before,” he says. “Certain things work for certain people. For some it is Bible study, for others NA [Narcotics Anonymous], AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], anger management classes — we offer a lot to accommodate needs. Yoga is another tool in the box.
“Whatever we can try to provide people that is not medication related or a cost to taxpayers it’s a good thing,” Gilkison says.
“Many of these guys are addicts, people who are sick,” says an inmate and yoga enthusiast who is serving time for not paying child support. “There’s a lot of hostility in here and this class is a good release. They need rehab, not hostility.”
Schmidt agrees, saying the yoga classes have helped him focus on “having a purpose, which is to come home and be with my kids.” He has five months remaining before he serves out his sentence, or better yet exactly 20 yoga classes.
And as for any future yoga class for the jail staff, Superintendent Gilkison says why not?
“I’d give it a shot,” he laughs. “I’m not sure how well I would do the first go round. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.”