Instructor Gina Kieval’s Monday night yoga class
“We begin by formally arriving at the mat,” Kieval said, as she sat down on a mat to begin a recent yoga class. “This is your time and your practice.”
But there are no suburban mommies practicing poses, the students in this class are all inmates.
Once a week, volunteer instructors from a non-profit organization called Living Yoga teach class in a small chapel at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a 570-bed minimum-security facility.
At a place where pumping iron in the yard is expected, behind locked doors and razor wire, male inmates are learning to breathe.
“Take a big breath in through your nose,” Kieval said, as she guided her students
“It’s about the mind and the body and kind of getting it all under control and finding peace inside of you,” said A. J. Martinez, an inmate who has been taking the class for nine months.
Self-awareness was not Martinez’s goal when he signed up for yoga. He said the class was just a way to pass the time while he did time for a drug conviction.
Martinez, like most of these inmates, had never been exposed to yoga before.
“I knew my rich brother did it, his wife,” said inmate Dane Jensen. “Really, in the circle I ran around with, not a lot of yoga going on.”
But Jensen said he immediately noticed a positive effect.
“Right off the bat, it took me to some other place than here,” he said.
“Yoga is so many things,” said Kieval, who’s been a yoga practitioner for more than 11 years.
She said she had no pre-conceived ideas about what to expect when she began teaching yoga to male inmates. She said she feels almost selfish for all she gets in return.
“I don’t have an agenda,” she said. “But I do like to encourage them to be empowered to think for themselves (and ask) ‘Why am I here, why am I on this mat?'”
The Oregon Department of Corrections said the class is all volunteer, with no public funding.
Several university studies have found that prison yoga and meditation classes can lower aggressive behavior and reduce re-incarceration rates.
“I’ve seen inmates who’ve come in and have been challenging with their behavior and they’ve taken the yoga class and I’ve seen a change immediately,” said corrections officer, Corporal Lindsay Noack. “They’re less hostile, more respectful, more engaged in their programming and that’s really the goal of the institution.”
“It kind of gives me my own space for a little bit,” said Jensen.
And when these inmates are released, many said they plan to continue their practice.
In addition to the Columbia River prison, Living Yoga also offers a yoga class at the Coffee Creek Women’s Correctional facility.
Since 1998, Living Yoga has worked with marginalized populations, offering about 900 volunteer-taught classes to youth and adults in recovery programs and correctional facilities.