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Training “Inside” Prisoner Apprentices with Rebecca J Foster

Updated: Mar 26

In this episode, Rebecca Foster talks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires, about her experiences bringing PMI's Path of Freedom training into prisons.

  • Training “Inside” prisoner apprentices (facilitator training for incarcerated men & women)

  • Integrating laughter, movement & play into the classroom

  • The transformative power of social meditation “Inside.”


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Rebecca Foster is a meditation teacher, conscious dance facilitator, hatha (traditional) & hasya (laughter) yoga instructor and has a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University. She presently serves as a lead facilitator and mentor for the Prison Mindfulness Institute and offers courses in Mindfulness Based Emotional Intelligence in the Men’s & Women’s Medium Security Correctional Facilities in Rhode Island.

Over the last 15 years Rebecca has taught a unique blend of mindfulness, movement, laughter and play in diverse settings ranging from yoga studios to hospitals, prisons to universities, pre-schools to nursing homes. She has also lived and worked in Africa, Asia and Latin America and currently resides in Providence.


Podcast Transcript


Vita Pires: 

Hello everyone. This is Vita Pires again. We're happy to be here today with Rebecca Foster. Rebecca is a meditation teacher, conscious dance facilitator, and traditional and laughter yoga teacher. She has a master's in public affairs from Princeton University. She presently serves as a lead facilitator and mentor for us, The Prison Mindfulness Institute. She offers courses in mindfulness-based emotional intelligence to the men's and women's medium security correctional facilities in Rhode Island. 


Over the past 15 years, Rebecca has taught a unique blend of the mindfulness movement, laughter, and play in diverse settings ranging from yoga studios to hospitals, prisons, universities, preschools, to nursing homes. She also has lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome, Rebecca. 


Rebecca Foster: 

Thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

So, you've been teaching for a long time in prisons. What got you started on this? What inspired you to start doing this many years ago? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Many, many years ago, I think, in my very first insight meditation retreat, there was a magazine. It was an insight journal, I think. I don't exactly remember what the title of the journal was, but there was an article. It's called Surviving the Hole. It just never left me. It was an article about a young man who had spent his lifetime really being thrown in the hole by his parents and then eventually by the facility he was incarcerated in. The only crack of air he had was at the very base of his door. 


He lay down next to the floor and breathed with no formal meditation instruction whatsoever. He simply breathed. In the course of this, he has a full unfolding of all of the things we want to unfold when we sit on the cushion or sit in the chair. He has quite a remarkable transformation. He is somewhat unaware of it because he's just in this experience of it. 


At one point, a correctional officer just complimented him on his behavior. He's never gotten a compliment before in his life. And so, it's like a profound moment of realization of the awakening that he has been experiencing. It's a beautiful story, and it just really touched me. That, along with Thich Nhat Hanh's Be Free Where You Are book. 


For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's just a simple speech of his in a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. So, those were two little pieces that kind of got lodged in my relationship with my own practice. I remember with Thich Nhat Hanh's book, I was just like, "Wow, he's talking about relating to all of life through an institutionalized green bean. And here I am with access to, like, organic, fresh everything. I darn well better be connected to all life through my green beans, etc. 


And so, those were two pieces, and then the Dharma Brothers movies came out. I watched that movie over and over again. I showed it to as many people as I could in my various and sundry communities of practice. And eventually, I was so struck by how deeply I was moved by that movie that I wanted to bring. I was already teaching on the outside, and I wanted to start teaching on the inside. It took me a while to find my way in, but I spoke to enough people, and eventually, I hooked up with a community that was teaching here. 


Actually, in the very same room I was in this morning. It was a long time ago. The room had been cut in half, but that was the very first time I was able to join that team of people who were going in at that time. And very quickly, within a month, I was teaching in another facility and then another facility. I started to really realize that this was really important to me and a really important part of my own practice and also something that, for whatever reason, just allowed me to feel like I was doing the work that I needed to be doing in the world in a way that many other things did not so. Yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

That group was the one that Jill and Richard were in? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Yeah. They had been running it for a long time. I was there for a few years. And then, The Prison Mindfulness Institute moved to town. 


Vita Pires: 

Then they merged. They offered us that group to take over because I think Joe was doing something else. And so, then, Rebecca came on board and quickly learned the Path of Freedom Curriculum that we had going. And now she's probably our lead teacher everywhere teaching the Path of Freedom curriculum. 


So, you've been teaching her for a long time. You have a lot of skills working with that mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum. And the thing I would like to talk most to you about is this thing that developed. I don't know how many years ago did it develop that we started training and we got the idea like, "Oh, let's train facilitators inside." 


Rebecca Foster: 

Right. 


Vita Pires: 

Let's train those folks who are inside to teach this themselves. Was that like four or five years ago? 


Rebecca Foster: 

It was like, COVID makes it hard to kind of figure out. It was. Certainly, I would say, at least three years before COVID, because they were actually apprentices in my classes for at least two years after they initially finished the program. So, it's been a while. And you know, two of those guys are going in my class this morning to the original apprentices. And so, I saw a third apprentice who's on the outside, who, on the outside, just this last weekend and in a meditation group. 


Vita Pires: 

You led a meditation group outside of your meditation group, right? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Yeah. So, it was really exciting. And yeah, so that program has meant a lot to me for, obviously, very various reasons. But speaking of COVID, I would say the thing that blew my heart open after COVID was the very first time I was able to get it in. 


Obviously, they were on lockdown for a long time. And then, even when they weren't on lockdown, it took a long time for us to get our program back inside because initially, they were keeping the class sizes super, super small. 


And so, a year ago, almost exactly, we started back in. What I was especially moved by was those apprentices really spoke not only the apprentices actually, but in particular, the apprentices really spoke about the way they were able to show up during the lockdown as beacons of peace, as beacons of meeting, what's arising in a nonreactive way, or in a nonreactive way as possible of self-compassion, compassion for others. 


I did not elicit this. This was sort of what they gave to me the minute I was back in that space. That was really like, "Wow." Not only is this making a personal difference, but it also makes a difference. Who knows how many? But making a difference in the quality of the experience for more than just a handful of people. So, that was really great. 


Vita Pires: 

So, the classes tend to have a very large waiting list, right? 


Rebecca Foster: 

We have over 200 people on our way. 


Vita Pires: 

But the word has gotten out that these classes are happening there. And before COVID, maybe the classes would be the men's class would be like 45 to start or something. 


Rebecca Foster: 

I tried to keep it to 25. I'm actually really grateful that they're letting us have a dozen now. I realize that a dozen makes a lot more sense than having 25 people in the room, especially when there's a range of interests. Because in our program, the participants have a good time. So, they get time off their sentences. So, there's a wide range of reasons why people are there. 


Vita Pires: 

A lot initially come just to get time off their sentence and maybe not interested at all. But then some, usually, get one over a little bit, right? 


Rebecca Foster: 

There are people who would be there regardless, and they're wonderful because they're really so self-motivated. They're great to have in the class. But the people I get most excited about are in the middle. There are the people who are only there for the good time and boy trying to get them over the finish line, and maybe there's some seed that gets planted that, you know, we've all heard the stories of ways in which somebody who doesn't think they got anything suddenly something clicks, or they make a different kind of choice in a moment that matters. 


I know you have some really cool stories about that. I love those people in the middle that are there, "I've just signed up for a good time." And you can see, it's like, "Oh, this actually is making a difference to me. This is making a difference to my family. This is making a difference in how I interact. It makes a difference to the way I walk across the yard." That's really fun to see. 


And then at graduation, at the end of that beginning class, it's like, "I took this only for a good time, but…." Yeah, it turns out to mean something. And now we have the level two class. I have to say those guys are coming from a beginner who is jumping in. Those are the range again. They still get a little bit of good time for taking the second class but not as much. The first class, a couple classes are like, yeah, but I feel like today mail landed, and it was the third class. I felt like everybody was all in at wherever they were. It was really great. 


I have two of these guys who've been one of whom maybe two of them were in the very original class 10 years ago, 15 years ago. Sadly, to say, they're still here. They are both apprentices. They really enabled me to share these things, but I can't share them in a way that comes from deeply embedded experience within corrections and within the system. 


These two men speak so beautifully in really different ways about how the practice changes the way they move through the world and the way they relate to themselves and others. So, to have them blanking is really, really great. I think they garner a lot of respect from the other men. They also know me really well. And you know, I can be a little kooky sometimes. And so, it allows a sense of playfulness to emerge at the same time as a real deep-hearted presence and an interest in making this like a part of everybody's lives. 


Vita Pires: 

That seems like a really valuable program to try to develop and sustain. How many people have we actually had in that class in those apprentice programs? 


Rebecca Foster: 

In the apprentice program? I think a total of seven, maybe, six or seven. One of the challenges was that one of the younger men was really all in and was really excited. He was a newer person and then got transferred to a minimum. And so, something like that happens. As apprentices, because they show up in the other classes, sometimes they deliver things in ways that are like, oh, that's not how I delivered it. 


So, there's always the challenge of handing over some measure of the curriculum and then having a go in a way that you really were like, that's how I wanted to go, and then the flip side of that is having their voices speaking, leading meditations. And you know, maybe explaining concepts. Over time, I got to know the strengths of each of the apprentices. So yeah. 


There was one apprentice who, if you gave him a moment to speak about his practice, was like some kind of channel to deep wisdom, the deep, deep, vulnerable heart opened wisdom that was so available to everybody in the room. 


Explaining concepts wasn't his forte, and he would often feel jumbled up and lose his way, but when he was speaking from the present moment, he had personal experience and vice versa. There are some people who are much better at explaining concepts and then, in their personal life, get a little more muddled, so it's a range. So, that's a piece of it. 


And then, the other piece of it is when you get out, I think the original idea was these men would get out and stay connected and connect with the Path of Freedom Program on the outside and become voices with the experience of the inside too, you know, a variety of populations on the outside who might really benefit from hearing their voice. And so far, that link hasn't fully been made, but I have faith. 


Yeah, there are so many challenges. I think of one of our lifers who are in the program who has said to me once, "No matter how much work you do on the outside when you leave, you have to kind of start where you came in. You exit where you came in." There's a certain measure of just having to revisit. 


And so, I see that and so little by little, and I think also have a little bit of numbers, like the more people you move through, the more you might get a few who are able to really take the next step once they're out and bring everything, all of their experience, in a way that is of service to people, both who are incarcerated and not. 


Vita Pires: 

To their communities when they get out. Yeah. So, you've worked in maximum, minimum, and women's facilities, right? 


Rebecca Foster: 

I've never worked at maximum. I've worked in minimum and both medium minimum. 


Vita Pires: 

Medium and minimum, and women. So, what are the differences just from your experience? It's not like this is a universal thing you're talking about. 


Rebecca Foster: 

I don't like working in men's minimum so much in part. Like, I just feel like there's too much coming and going and coming and going. The population is younger, in general. And so, there's plenty of no sorts of things we can say are wrong on the outside. But most of those things, we don't have a lot of say about moment to moment. And so, say, the average minimum guy who's serving minimum time is still very much oriented to the problem that is out there. I just need to get out. 


I feel like in the medium facility where you have both men who've been around this cycle a lot come in and out, come in and out, and they're serving longer sentences, there's more space for, okay, there may be a lot of problems on the outside, but I'm starting to see that maybe there's something I can do about how I relate to everything. 


My problems on the inside as well as my problems on the outside. And so, both the stability of those populations, they're less chaotic, which really also speaks a little bit to women because that's a big problem. There's just so much turnover that no one ever feels stable, even the long-timers, whereas I feel at medium, there's a fair amount of stability. 


And so, that plus the kind of maturity, not to say that young men can't be. I have a couple of young men in my current class that are really into books, and they're very excited about the work they're doing. But yeah, in general, the maturity of the men is there, I feel, and there's quite a number of older guys in there that they've been around the literal block a lot of times. 


Vita Pires: 

Do you feel there are different skill sets required in a facilitator to perhaps work in the men's population, in the men's population that you have to employ? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Well, the women's is a whole other kettle of fish, I feel like. I had my journeys. I'm actually not there right now in part because I just needed a little bit of a break from it. I just feel like in the women's facility, you've just got so many layers of trauma that are right on the surface, the mountain of the traumas a little bit further back into those broad brushstrokes, and so you're able to kind of work gently in whereas in the women's facility, the traumas all right there, so the container has to be a little bit different. 


In the last few years, I've been at women's both pre-COVID and post-COVID. I mean, I like working on a mat so that we can be a little bit more in the body moving as we are working with all the same material. And just, it feels kinder actually to not ask a very, you know, super traumatized person, I think, you know, this is just going back to the trauma-based thing, but it just feels kinder to work very gently and lovingly with the body in this kind of way. Yeah, so that's just, it's a totally different environment. 


Vita Pires: 

You taught dance for a while to the women. How did that go? 


Rebecca Foster: 

I love teaching dance in the women's facility. I sort of have a feeling like, you know. We'll see. I don't know what the trajectory there will be, but I feel like that's a place where most women have a very kind of core joy experience with dance as a child. Like, dancing together with their girlfriends. Like, that's universal, not universal. I don't know how universal. But in my experience, pretty universal experience of the women that I experienced. 


If you play a song, they are like [dancing]. A song that has any kind of resonance, either culturally or rhythmically, there's like an immediate presence that pops in. And, to me, that's really a beautiful way to dive into the trauma of living in the body. It's like because you have the resilience and resource of something that there's already a deep connection to the joy around. And so, diving in from that place, especially in connection with others, is very sweet and powerful. So, yeah. 


And I like, you know, giving up five-second, or like, a one-minute opportunity for the men to dance because they have it in them too. It's very funny. That's a way of shifting and enlivening the group together to get them to move into some kind of rhythm together or move into a sense of play together. It's also really fun for me. It's always a little bit surprising for them. 


Vita Pires: 

You told me something about how you turn some of the topics in the Path of Freedom into sort of movement exercises or something for the men and Drama Triangle or something. Did you do that? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Way back, I did a Drama Triangle dance in the women's facility. In which, you know, we played with the sort of dancing of our inner victim, inner state versus our empowered state, and how those in men played back and forth between the two states. But I do that in the men's facility, too, just in terms of moving around this space in that sort of bottom of the drama triangle state or moving around the space in which the persecutor plays or moving around the space and the rescuer space. And then moving into what it feels like in the body. 


I think the more people have a sense of what it feels like in the body to be moving from a place of courage. You know, it's like that space of open-hearted, clear, present courage and creativity that can have the quality of the functional child and the quality of the functional, the nourishing, and supportive quality of the functional parent ego states, both of those ego states, and coming from a really a place of how I can meet this next moment as creatively as possible. Yeah. 


I like to give them opportunities to embody that and play with that too. And we spend a fair amount of time sitting on our cushions or chairs, too. But yeah, I like to weave it all together because it feels enlivening for me, and it seems to be enlivening. 


Vita Pires: 

Even the laughter yoga, too, somewhat. 


Rebecca Foster: 

I don't do that much of it, but they all know that it's available. So yeah, the fellow who's been with me the longest actually had the privilege of actually being in a full laughter yoga class I did once way, way way back. He once said, you know, at that point, he had sat many weekend retreats inside, and afterward, he said, "You know Rebecca, nothing I've ever done was as heart-opening as the hour I spent with you doing a laughter yoga class." 


Vita Pires: 

Wow. That can have an opposite effect too, but yeah, it does. 


Rebecca Foster: 

I mean, he has a very, very full personal practice, but there's something really sweet about it, like really full surrender. Full surrender. I mean, to me, that moment, I'm having this opportunity to witness a whole group of very large "scary" fully tattooed or whatever guys lying on the floor holding their bellies with tears dropping out of their eyes, laughing so hard. That was very precious. I will go to my grave with that embedded in my heart. I also like just seeing some of the openings that happen and the simplicity of presence that can happen in the space of our little; right now, we have seven. That's beautiful, too. 


Vita Pires: 

You introduced the practice that I introduced you to that was from Vince Horn, and Kenneth Folk called Social Meditation. I don't think you did a big, long training in it or anything like that, right? I just told you, "Okay, this is what you do." That's how simple this practice is. It seems kind of funny. I think Vince says it seems kind of funny that somebody invented this because it's so obvious. Social meditation, maybe you could just describe how you teach that to the folks inside? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Well, I actually was a little resistance initially, I have to say. I was like, "Ah, I don't really like this." Then, the first time I tried it out inside, I was like, "Ah, this is a really beautiful, important practice." And now my meditation group on the outside also does it. I feel like it's a really important, beautiful practice, but it took me actually really stepping fully in, in real-time, with real people, real bodies. I realize some people have really beautiful experiences of it online. But for me, the first time I did it in embodied space with other people was the first time I realized how important it is. 


Essentially, it's just speaking. There are different ways. There are all kinds of different prompts, but the easiest and simplest is, you know, hearing is like this. Tasting is like this. I often keep it to just the senses and thinking. Thinking is like this. And people will speak one at a time. It just goes around in a circle like so. And people can say pass, or people can opt out altogether and just bear witness to it. 


I love the practice now. I feel like I've gotten quite a bit of feedback from both the men and the women. It takes away that struggle of the mind running away and then coming back. So, it's like, there's not so much struggle when every moment there's another person speaking out loud their experience. Sometimes I ring the bell, and I know three-quarters of the room just went off to Tahiti or wherever. I don't know. 


And so, as a teacher, being able to kind of like iteratively to see what's happening in people's experience because they are speaking to it is very helpful. And the other side of social meditation is that we are humans. We are social creatures. As those speaking of personal experience goes round and around and around, it's that round and around and around becomes a sort of like a web across the circle. 


Somebody will say something, and another person will experience it in some way. As I said, the prompts can be really different, but the experience, whether it's an experience of compassion for the other person's pain that they're just speaking to at that moment, or if you're doing like a social meditation Metta and someone's having a loving wish for a loved one and being able to kind of join in that wish. So, this is sort of like the weaving of connective tissue amongst human beings that is incredibly beautiful that that container creates. 


I do really like it for both of those reasons. I've enjoyed just exploring different ways to offer. It seems to be like there are many ways to operate, and so just like there are many ways to offer all kinds of different meditative practices, but that one, in particular, has been fun for me. I feel very worthwhile. So, I thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

I really enjoyed the insights that I heard afterward about people saying things like, "Oh, I really notice how fast things change for me and everybody else because just as it goes around the circle, you could be anxious one moment, and then you come back to you, and you feel relaxed. And then, people go to another thing. All of a sudden, like, this is some kind of insight. I realized everybody has so much going on in them. I thought it was just me that had so much going on. 


Or if you're doing it in a meditative way, it's like, well, I get it that I thought meditation was about being completely silent, and no thought, and now I get it, that everybody's having these thoughts, just like I am. So, it's this kind of really connected thing, too, like you said, with people. So, I think it's a beautiful practice. 


We're coming up on the end of time, but what is it that really inspires you about this work or that you've learned about yourself, and your own practice, by doing this? 


Rebecca Foster: 

Well, I feel like relative to my own practice, I know that I have no business walking into a space of people who are facing a level of a lack of freedom and a level of discomfort and powerlessness, I would say. That was a theme that really came up this morning around powerlessness, the felt sense of powerlessness. 


And so, I have no business walking into those environments, particularly where many, many of those people have walked very, very different lives than the one I walked. If I am not living, breathing, like my way through this practice, in every moment on the outside, I have to walk with full integrity and also vulnerability. I think that's something that I've learned along my journey is there are limits on how vulnerable you can be within that space, but there's also a real gift of, you know, I'm not a perfect practitioner, I haven't figured it all out. And so, there's that vulnerability piece that is there. But also, it's like, I know that if I'm going to walk in and ask people to practice outside of this class, I darn well need to have as much fire under my butt and also compassion all around.


And so, anything that I'm speaking in that space, it has to be coming from the truest, truest core of me. And so, it's absolutely a beautiful inspiration to practice. They often will say things that are also important to my own practice. I remember years ago, there was somebody. Whenever he opened his mouth, I knew I was going to get my dharma teaching for the day. Always. There's that. 


There's the curriculum to be covered. There are practices to dive into. And, yeah, the most important thing when I walk in that door is to meet every single person with as holding who they are up and meeting that with respect, loving-kindness, and that practice for me of like just showing up, but a person who also works in prisons recently, he told me, like, when I walk in the door, I tell those guys, like you're going to be loved three times more than you've ever been loved before. I love that. I really want them to have an experience, especially in a place where there's so little of that respect and love and kindness, that that that's my most important job is to show up with those three qualities and then invite different ways into a personal embodiment of those experiences as they relate to themselves and each other on the outside. 


You asked me, how's that inspiring to me? That's inspiring to me because I often forget outside, right? I can show up for you guys with three times as much love, but boy, do I do that with every person in my life? That's actually been like a recent challenge. What does it mean for me to be actually showing up with that same intention with everybody on the outside too? So incredibly, like that's the heart of the practice, right? It's like how we move through the world. And yeah, that's deeply moving for me. 


Vita Pires: 

Well, I really want to thank you so much, Rebecca. As a person who has co-taught with you and witnessed you teach many times, I'm here to testify that you do have a really strong impact on people. I'm sure you've helped change their lives and touched them deeply. So, thank you so much for being there. 


Rebecca Foster: 

Thank you so much, Vita, for all the work that you do. This summit is a tiny little pinky nail of the huge amount of effort and dedication work that goes into making all this happen around the globe. Thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

Thank you. Bye.

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