Home » Nonprofit yoga studio brings practice into prison system – a Q&A

Nonprofit yoga studio brings practice into prison system – a Q&A

While much yoga in the West tends to be practiced at studios and parks, or in front of a TV screen with an instructional video playing, one Sacramento studio is bringing the ancient healing practice to those who may need it the most.

The Yoga Seed Collective, a nonprofit donation-based studio at 14th and E streets, recently partnered with Buddhist Pathways Prison Project to teach yoga and meditation to inmates at New Folsom Prison, formerly known as California State Prison, Sacramento. It’s located next to Folsom State Prison and holds about 2,800 maximum-security male inmates.

This Saturday the Yoga Seed is holding a kirtan concert-fundraiser to help cover the costs of these classes, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Kirtan is call-and-response chanting that is often accompanied by instruments. It’s free, though donations are accepted, and open to everyone.

We spoke with Jessica Rhodes, outreach coordinator and teacher at the Yoga Seed, via email to learn more about the cause behind the fundraiser.

Jessica Rhodes of the Yoga Seed Collective in downtown discusses its outreach program at New Folsom Prison.

Sacramento Press: Tell me more about the New Folsom Prison yoga project that The Yoga Seed is doing. When did it start, how often does it occur, how many inmates get to practice? And most importantly, why teach yoga to prisoners?

Jessica Rhodes: We were asked by a partner organization, Buddhist Pathways Prison Project, to join with Asian Classics Institute here in Sacramento to offer Buddhist teaching through yoga and meditation in their current program at Sacramento County Prison or "New Folsom." Since we do much of our outreach work with children, teens and families to give them alternatives of health before they end up in prison, we also wanted to branch out to help in the prison community as well.

Guards and prisoners have shared the importance of serving vulnerable youth. The line I’ve heard more than once is, "if only I would have known _____ maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in prison." The blank can be filled with, mentor, peace, there were options, how to ease anger. It depends on the person.

We currently teach one class per week, to up to 30 male prisoners in the maximum security prison. We teach this class with two other organizations as well. We have recently been asked to offer yoga classes that were secular, completely under the Yoga Seed’s direction, so this is what we are fundraising for. We hope to branch out to another yard and potentially into the women’s prison this summer and need the funds to get it started.

SP: What does the money raised from the kirtan fundraiser go toward? Specifically, does it go toward paying teachers, training, travel costs?

JR: Money from the Kirtan will go towards paying teachers and when necessary, hourly staff wages in the management of this outreach program.

SP: Tell me more about the inmates who get to practice. What level of security are they? How are they responding to the practice?

JR: They are maximum security male inmates. Many of them are in prison for life. So far they have been some of the most willing and open minded students I have ever seen. They are seeking to find freedom, at least in their minds, as we all are. It is particularly difficult, however, in the politics of a prison, to have the mental space for love, peace, and release, when fear is constant.

SP: What are some of the challenges, risks, and rewards of this teaching project?

JR: It was scary walking into the prison the first time. There were so many guards, fences, places to sign in, and different vocabulary than I was used to. Plus, there was the fact that we were going to teach to maximum security inmates in an open room without any guards in the room where we taught. The second they walked in, however, my nerves were calmed. They walked in, respectfully removed their shoes when asked and found their yoga mats ready to practice. They are humans, just like me, and that is humbling.

It is a challenge for us to find the teachers willing to spend four hours at a time teaching at the prison. Although we only teach for an hour and a half, it takes much time getting in and out of the prison. Once a teacher goes, however, they are usually so enamored that it is hard to get them to do anything else.

The reason people love this class is that the rewards are constant. We are providing 90 minutes of peace, rest, and self-exploration for men who must live in constant awareness of what they are doing, wearing, who they are talking to, and how they are holding themselves to stay alive and well in the intricate web of prison politics. As the class goes on, inmates also speak of using meditation and yoga to help in their daily lives, using it to circumvent anger, which may go on to save more lives of both prisoners and guards as this program progresses.

SP: Lastly, describe kirtan, please. I’ve never been, and have only heard about it through friends. Is this something anyone can participate in? What should people know going into it, who haven’t been before?

JR: This kirtan is one of our monthly fundraisers for our outreach program, which currently serves Sacramento Children’s Crisis Nursery, pregnant teens at Heritage Peak Charter school, and autistic and vulnerable youth at Sierra School. Kirtan is a gathering for singing yoga. There is no required movement, so anyone can participate. A band sings one line, and you repeat the line. The chants are usually in sanskrit, which is said to be a language of unlocking. A sample chant is “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu,” which means, "May all beings be happy and free."

So feel free to come, and sing the chants you believe in. Dance whenever you want, and feel no pressure to fall in tune. Singing is a hilarious release that few of us practice outside the shower for fear of judgment. Kirtans are the places where you can belt out a few notes and not care what anyone else thinks. And somehow, it usually ends up beautiful to the ears. 

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