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Colorado Springs youth treatment center uses yoga to help felons

December 26, 2017 Updated: December 26, 2017 at 9:33 am
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Instructor Kimberly Nowland teaches yoga to Corlion, 19, (Can't use his last name) Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, at the Zebulon Pike Correctional Facility in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The sound of a Tibetan singing bowl echoes through the close confines of the gym at Zebulon Pike Youth Services Center.

Corlion (last names of Zebulon Pike residents are withheld), a 19-year-old Colorado Springs man, stands in front of yoga teacher Kimberly Nowland. His gaze is focused on the round instrument he holds in the palm of one hand, while he runs a mallet around its outside edges with his other hand. After the ringing reverberates and slowly dies, Nowland guides the gray sweatshirt- and sweatpants-clad teen into mountain pose and then his favorite shape - warrior two.

Corlion, who's been at the all-male secure treatment center near Norris-Penrose Event Center for eight months, started practicing with Nowland in May, first in individual hourlong classes and now in 60- to 90-minute weekly group classes.

"I thought it was kind of corny at first," he said. "I thought it was a female thing, and it was for people who wanted to be calm or people who had anger management (issues)."

That mindset changed after one class.

"I was surprised at the reaction I had from my body. It felt good, more calm, relaxed. There was a mellow feeling that I'd never had."

Yoga was introduced about two years ago as an intervention choice for Zebulon Pike residents, who have all committed felonies. The kids who live here are aged 12 to 20, mostly from southern Colorado, and are committed by a judge to the state center. The placement option depends on the kids' treatment needs and risk scores. Residents stay nine months to two years, with an average stay of about 13 months.

"We place a high premium on transitioning youth back out into the community as soon as they have proven they can be safe to themselves and others," said Zebulon Pike Director Dan Beilfuss. "They work their way through a system. All stakeholders for that youth come together to determine the next steps for that youth and reintegrating back into community."

About six of the teens at the 39-bed facility currently are doing yoga.

"This is part of a process we have called trauma-informed care," said Jim Reed, a mental health clinician at Zebulon Pike. "A lot of our residents are victims of emotional, psychological and sexual abuse. The clinician works with residents based on histories and maybe discusses some of those interventions, like yoga, that might be helpful to them to deal with their own trauma."

Reed has noticed a positive change in those who do yoga. It helps with difficulty managing their emotions, a common symptom of early traumatization. It allows them to take a step back when they feel triggered or overly emotional and practice what they've learned in class, such as breathing skills. It can prevent them from acting out or fighting.

Yoga also helps in the treatment of substance addiction.

"A lot of times it's trying to numb themselves to past traumas," said Reed. "We've seen some good results as far as reduction of craving or that desire to go back to using because they're a little bit more in touch with their body."

Nowland, who also teaches yoga at ComCor, a nonprofit community corrections program, is a graduate of the Prison Yoga Project, which trains people to teach yoga to prisoners and others affected by trauma.

"My goal is to connect with them," she said. "They sense it. I have really positive interactions with them. They tell me about how they use yoga. It's giving them power. They don't have to go to somebody else to feel better."

Corlion's pleasure in the practice is apparent. Once he leaves the treatment center, he said, he plans to continue doing yoga, either with Nowland or at a gym. The treatment center will fund the activity while a youth remains out on parole.

"I've become very self-aware of my body emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally," said Corlion. "I've come a long way to being able to notice when I'm getting worked up or triggered or notice when I need to calm down or when my body's getting tense. Yoga is wonderful, and anybody can use it. It's for people who want to become self-aware and want to learn more about their psyche."

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