www.thenorthwestern.com – December 29, 2013
Written by Jessica Vanegeren, The Capital Times
MADISON — On a recent Tuesday afternoon behind the security check point and steel doors that restrict free movement inside the Dane County Jail, 11 female inmates assemble their yoga mats in a circle in the gymnasium.
Ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-30s, the women have found themselves sharing this time of their lives together for crimes stemming from cocaine and heroin use to fraud and forgery. Dressed in blue T-shirts and baggy pants — the jail uniform that closely resembles doctors scrubs — the women quickly grow silent, finding a place of calm amid the noise and chaos that many of them say has taken over their lives.
The stress management and relaxation class that incorporates basic yoga poses is offered every Tuesday to female inmates at the Dane County jail.
Linda Miles, 27, of Reedsburg, is among the female inmates in the circle during the Tuesday class. With her reddish-brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, she begins the class, along with the others, by inhaling as her arms stretch up to the ceiling, and then exhaling as she brings them back to her sides.
Miles joined the class in the beginning of November and has been coming ever since. She said she initially showed up simply to get out of what the female inmates refer to as “the room,” an open space with bunk beds where 28 women spend most of their time.
The inner peace she found has kept her coming back to class. In jail for charges related to drug possession and manufacturing and delivery of heroin, Miles said the relaxation and balancing techniques taught in class give her “a different kind of high.”
“It makes me feel more spiritual,” Miles told The Capital Times. “I started to realize I needed this more than I thought I did. Just being able to sit down, tune out all the noise and drama and concentrate on me… It really helps.”
Now, she and Melissa Arvold, 24, of Dane County meditate and practice yoga stretches together.
Wensdae Rauls, 20, from Milwaukee, found herself transferred to the Dane County jail more than two months ago after breaking the terms of her probation for possession of cocaine.
The day she was transferred, a class was being held. Her feelings of sadness and depression initially led her to the class. The feeling of peace she feels now keeps her going back.
“It gives me a sense of peace . almost a way to escape the reality of your life for a moment” Rauls says.
She doesn’t know when she’ll get out of jail, but she says she plans to keep attending class until she does.
Yoga behind bars is becoming a bit of a trend nationally. The Prison Yoga Project, for example, has been highlighted by The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times as a way to connect with offenders and teach them the calming benefits and mindfulness of the yoga practice.
The program is being used in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, the Scott County Jail in Davenport, Iowa and numerous prisons in Maryland and the Southwest.
A recent story by the Texas Tribune highlights another program, Conviction Yoga, founded by Jim Freeman. Freeman is a lawyer turned yogi who is leading the yoga classes at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Powledge Unite in East Texas.
The program for female inmates in Dane County has been a quiet original, of sorts.
Originally started as a meditation class in 1999 by an educational psychology student attending UW-Madison, Ann Chavez, 62, got involved in 2000 when she was asked while raking leaves one day at the Deer Park Buddhist Center in Oregon if she’d be interested in taking over the class.
“I kept raking a little more then thought, ‘Yes, I really want to do this,’” she said.
Along the way, she and others, including Madison residents Frank Barone, also associated with Deer Park, Susan Hessel and Lynn Harmet, began volunteering their time. Inner Fire Yoga even donated some mats to the group a few years ago.
Chavez and Barone are leading the Tuesday class. When the stretching is over, the two transition the class into breathing and guided mediation with Chavez quoting from the Dalai Lama.
“We are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the very most,” she tells the women. “During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”
Barone asks each woman to state her name and then share what she would do in the new year if she were able to make one miracle happen.
Many mention curing a relative of cancer. Another requests the hardships her mother is experiencing be lifted from her life. Another brings laughter to the group by saying she’d like stardom for a younger sibling with a good singing voice. Another woman is moved to tears when she speaks of the cancer that has taken her father’s voice.
After the class, Barone says he has continued to volunteer with the class for the past 10 years for what he thinks the women gain and the good feeling he gets from helping others.
“You feel like you are making some good use of your life,” he says. “When you put yourself in that situation, you get to look at yourself as well. I get to see my own failings, my own weaknesses as well as my own abilities. I then use that as part of my own personal development.”
De Forest resident Kira Sergenian, 24, says there was a point in her life when participating in a class that incorporated yoga stretching and meditation would have had no impact on her. Now, much like Barone, she feels it is playing a large role in her development.
She’s facing a number of charges stemming from heroin use, including breaking into an abandoned house to steal metal, she says.
“The heroin is slowly ruining everything,” she adds.
She’s now starting to realize there is more to life than just “sitting around and doing drugs that bring me down.” This time in jail, with the help of the class, feels like an opportunity to better herself, the answer to a prayer, she says.
She’s waiting for a spot in a rehab program to open up and says she will attend as part of the terms of her probation. She says her family is taking her calls and is “very supportive.”
“I feel like this is my time. I’ll be here through Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday (Dec. 28) and New Year’s,” she says. “And I’m OK with that. I’m at peace with it and this (class) helps me reach that peace that I forget about up when I’m up in ‘the room.’”