Jailhouse bliss-out: Teaching yoga to prisoners

Laura Sygrove teaches downward dogs to downtrodden kids. The 33-year-old yoga instructor, certified in 2005 for clocking 800-plus hours of pretzelled enlightenment, is executive director of the New Leaf Yoga Foundation, which brings yoga and meditation to youth detention centres throughout southern Ontario. Ms. Sygrove spoke to the Post’s Nick Aveling about teaching young offenders to take a deep breath.

Q So you go to prison and teach kids yoga?

A Yeah, New Leaf goes into youth custody facilities. We also run a couple projects for youth outside of custody who have been identified as at-risk. It was founded by a group of us who are all yoga practitioners and teachers who ourselves have been profoundly impacted by yoga. Based on that personal experience we feel really strongly that yoga can be an amazing tool to help youth with the difficulties they’re going through, and incarceration is a difficult experience.

Q Yoga, I would imagine, is rarely practised by young offenders. Is it really such a novelty?

A I understand that it’s difficult to imagine. I remember looking up in my first month of teaching and seeing these five boys in meditation with their eyes closed. In jail, closing your eyes is a big step for a lot of people. They looked really calm, sitting totally still, and I thought, I wish someone could walk by and see this; I get to see this, but nobody’s going to believe me. I feel like that’s a small part of my mission: to help people understand that a lot of these kids have the capacity to be more peaceful.

Q Surviving high school, let alone prison, is often based on projecting toughness. Yoga’s not always perceived as the most masculine pursuit. Has that been a roadblock?

A Sometimes, but something that we really emphasize is meeting youth where they’re at and making yoga really accessible. That could mean leading a really active class to challenge assumptions that yoga is all about stretching, or just meant for girls.

Q How do you avoid coming across as a kickin’-it-to-the-youth caricature?

A We basically just try to be ourselves. If you come across as preachy you’re going to be met with a lot of resistance, so this isn’t about telling youth we have some kind of solution for them. It’s about saying, “This is something that helped me in my life and maybe it’ll help you, but you never know until you give it a shot.” It’s an approach that I think tends to be empowering for them. Kids are used to people trying to force answers on them.

Q Is it working?

A Youth are telling us they notice a difference in their ability to concentrate and deal with anger. They’ll use breathing techniques instead of fighting. We also hear a lot from the staff, especially the social workers, who say they’ve noticed a difference. I often think of one youth I’ve worked with for quite a long time–he’s in on some quite serious charges, and I only know that because of the length of his sentence –who told me he thought the first two classes were “mostly bulls—“. Fast-track a year-and-a-half and he credits yoga with being one of the things that have really helped him change. Another youth told me it’s the only time he feels like he’s not in jail. And we have waiting lists, both in terms of youth who want to take classes and facilities who want us to go in. We need more funding.

Q Do you think the involvement of svelte, yoga-sculpted instructors could help explain the program’s popularity?

A I’m not naive about the fact that youth might be coming for lots of different reasons. For some of them that could be part of the initial curiosity. But, first of all, our female teachers are very modestly dressed when they’re teaching the classes–there are no tight yoga outfits going on. Second of all, yoga is really hard work, and if they’re only coming for that reason they won’t last very long. Also, our teachers are all different shapes and sizes–by all means they don’t fit into that cliche–and some of them are male as well.

Q Is it possible you’re asking too much of yoga?

A Again, it’s naive to say I think yoga’s going to solve all the problems these kids are facing. That’s not realistic, because these kids are facing complex, long-term issues. But what I see with yoga is that it works well in conjunction with other things. So we’re not saying, “Do yoga! Quit therapy!” In fact, doing yoga can help people in therapy because they’re able to deal with emotions that might get dug up. And it can help people in school because it teaches them to concentrate.

[Nick Aveling, National Post]

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