By Jeff Sistruck for the Lehigh Valley Live Express Times, February 27, 2012
Five men lie on yoga mats in a rectangular pattern, eyes closed, while a sixth man sitting cross-legged nearby implores them to engage in deep thought.
“Here, maybe we can find some clarity in the stillness,” said the instructor, Scott Slingerland. “We’re opening our awareness, for each of us to figure out what’s the most important thing in life.”
It’s Sunday afternoon on the B-4 Unit at Northampton County Prison, and a quintet of inmates have just completed their weekly yoga session in a room up the hall from the unit’s main community center.
Under the guidance of Slingerland, the inmates, who are enrolled in the prison’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, cycled through warrior, downward dog, cobra and other iconic yoga poses, in what Slingerland described as a “journey” of the body.
“I’m here to help with washing away the old habits and bringing in new habits,” said one of the inmates, Joshua Klemka, 31. “All I’ve known for so long is the addict’s life.”
Klemka’s fellow inmates and yoga students, Charles Stimmel, 23, Evan Radice, 22, Kenny Runyan, 31, and Dave Senick, 36, all agreed yoga provides an escape from day-to-day prison life, as well as a vessel for stress relief and self-reflection.
“I come back here to feel free,” Radice said.
The weekly class behind bars taught by Slingerland and a rotating cast of other volunteer instructors is part of the Shanthi Project, a registered nonprofit organization founded in 2010 that provides yoga classes to local at-risk populations — prison inmates and juvenile offenders — as well as youth involved in the Boys & Girls Club of Easton.
The program — the name is derived from the Sanskrit word for “peace” — is the brainchild of yoga teacher and clinical research scientist Denise Veres.
About two years ago, when Veres realized one of her yoga students, Sue Burnside, was the deputy director for treatment at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center, she expressed interest in bringing yoga to the children at the center.
For Veres, it was an opportunity to combine her passions for yoga and research.
“I had read about yoga in prison settings, but there wasn’t a lot of data out there,” she said. “I wanted to see what kind of impact yoga could have on these individuals.”