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LIVE WELL: Yoga eases stress on prisoners

April 30, 2013
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There are a handful of yogic paths, and karma yoga is known as that of selfless service.

I've met several yoga teachers this year who are practicing karma yoga in our local criminal justice system. They are teaching prisoners and parolees - a different ballgame from teaching in a studio or gym - and they're doing it for free.

Two years ago, Jacquie Ostrom approached the Criminal Justice Center about teaching yoga and meditation to prisoners. She was inspired by a similar program at the Boulder County Jail. The CJC approved her idea, and she now teaches a weekly class. Jail is a stressful place, she said, and an hour of yoga and sitting can reap benefits.

'They love it, ' Ostrom said. 'They come back over and over. They report how much better they feel physically and how much more relaxed. It helps them release their stress. '

The program evolved, and Ostrom found three other teachers to help. Michael Mendenall and Kathy Morrissey co-teach the men with her while Aylin Aydin leads a weekly power vinyasa class for the women.

Aydin admitted she was a little nervous at first.

'The word jail can be intimidating, ' she said.

But the progress she has seen in the women, even after only a few sessions, is its own reward.

'I want to share that there is a different perspective and always a different approach when things become challenging, ' Aydin said. 'They can bring the strength they gain from yoga into their everyday life. When difficulty arises, there does not have to be an immediate reaction, but just breathing with what is and knowing that the sensation or reaction is going to pass.

'It's not giving them advice but just offering up that they have the opportunity to change their perspective without anger or an aggressive approach to it. '

Yoga teacher Susanna Kelland knew she wanted to give back to the community in some capacity.

'It dawned on me that you can give back when something is fun to you, ' she said. 'I love yoga, and I'll be doing nothing but having fun and sharing it with people. And why not people who are in the at-risk community? '

After earning her initial 200 hours in yoga teacher training at CorePower Yoga!, she decided to expand her knowledge last fall by taking James Fox's Prison Yoga Project in Denver. For a decade, Fox has taught prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in California. Since December, Kelland has taught weekly at ComCor, a nonprofit community corrections program. She teaches both men and women.

'ComCor teaches life skills and how to stand on their own, ' Kelland said. 'They have an anxiety about their addictions. They're sober, but temptations are huge. Yoga helps them get a sense of control and confidence that they can be their own person on the outside, instead of following the habits and influences that got them in trouble in the first place. '

It can be a challenge to teach this population. Kelland breaks it down: About one-third of a group will respond well to yoga, one-third is neutral and one-third does not want to participate. But when they do settle in, the yoga works.

'The physical aspect of breathing through the nose activates the parasympathetic system, ' Kelland said. 'It's the opposite of fight or flight. These guys have done nothing but fight or flight their whole life. But when they breathe, they're introduced to the opposite system. The emotional side is they are not used to being in the present moment. They are used to worrying about the past and dealing with the consequences.

'They worry about the future. They have basic problems in housing and transportation. Give them an hour on the mat, and they are in awe of how they feel. They've never taken a moment to focus inwards and meet themselves. '


Mulson's column appears biweekly in The Gazette. Email her at

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