Sister Elaine MacInnes

Prison yoga, meditation classes to expand across Canada

For over a decade, Sister Elaine MacInnes has struggled to raise enough funds to keep her small charity, which offers meditation and yoga to inmates, afloat.

Freeing the Human Spirit has faced an uphill battle since MacInnes first started it in 2001, when Ottawa bureaucrats initially told her there was no place for her in the correctional system.

MacInnes didn’t take no for an answer, creating her own spot in the prison system by contacting local prison officials and convincing them of the program’s merits one at a time. She and volunteers are quick to tout the program, saying it’s been able to expand …

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Prisoners look inward to discover personal freedom

Emmanuel Samoglou, A few weeks back, while Stephen Harper was on the hustings selling a tough-on-crime agenda, Sister Elaine MacInnes was in a Brampton prison hugging convicted criminals.

“I hugged them all,” the 87-year-old Catholic nun and Zen master says warmly, recalling her visit with about 50 inmates at the Ontario Correctional Institute, where she conducted a meditation class.

Sister Elaine — as she’s widely known — is the founding director of Freeing the Human Spirit (, a registered charity that provides yoga and meditation programs to inmates in provincial and federal correctional institutions in Southern Ontario. A Zen master of the Sanbo Kyodan, based in Kamakura, Japan, she spent 32 years in the East, studying the ancient spiritual practices of meditation and yoga.

She began working with prisoners in the Philippines in the early 1980s after she was contacted by a political prisoner who wanted to learn techniques to deal with the stress of imprisonment. Then followed a decade in England, as executive director of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charity that offers medication and yoga at more than half the prisons in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In 2001, she became an Officer of the Order of Canada for her work abroad.

After retiring from Phoenix, she returned to Canada and founded Freeing the Human Spirit.

The organization found itself in the spotlight last month after provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak criticized Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government for spending funds on “perks” for prisoners. He described the yoga and meditation program as a “warped priority.”

The Liberals quickly countered that the charity receives no government funding, relying on donations and the efforts of more than 100 volunteers.

One such volunteer is Peter Brother. He has worked with Freeing the Human Spirit for the past six years teaching yoga to inmates at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for women, a federal facility at which a fifth of the inmates are serving life sentences, according to a government website.

He says the salutary effects of his teachings are evident among inmates who attend the weekly classes: “They appear very, very relaxed when they leave our sessions,” says Brother, who has been practicing yoga and meditation for more than 20 years. “A lot of them feel stressed out, and they don’t know how to relax so we try to teach them how.” The prisoner students, he says, welcome the program. “By and large, they really appreciate what were doing. We’ve had some people who’ve come on a very regular basis and they try and recruit other people.”

Workers within the correctional system also regard Freeing the Human Spirit with favour, crediting it with creating a more serene prison environment.

“Correctional staff say that inmates who participate in the program are more relaxed and are able to deal with their stress and anxiety,” says Greg Flood, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. “The program also provides inmates with techniques to control their behaviour in a non-violent matter, which promotes the safety of inmates and ministry staff working in these facilities.”

Flood’s assessment mirrors the experience of similar programs in the U.S. A 2008 study at Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh, N.C., followed 190 inmates who attended yoga, meditation and philosophy classes, accompanied by a vegetarian meal. Those who attended four or more classes had a reincarceration rate of 8.5 per cent compared to a statewide reincarceration rate as high as 41 per cent.

A 2003 study by the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington found that drug use and self-reported levels of depression and hostility were significantly lower among inmates who took a 10-day meditation course.

Linda Myler, the volunteer chair of Freeing the Human Spirit, has been teaching yoga and meditation at the Don Jail for five years. Most prisoners, she observes, are deeply aware that one day they will face the challenges of reintegrating into society.

“Unless you’ve committed some heinous crime and you’re in for life, you’re going to be rejoining the community at some point,” she says. “When people are incarcerated, they have the opportunity to grow and change, to think about the life they want when they rejoin the community.”

Myler, who has been meditating for three decades and has been teaching yoga at a downtown Toronto studio for the past seven years, says she believes the programs offered by Freeing the Human Spirit can make a difference in the reintegration effort — in part because the individuals who attend the courses are motivated to change: “People that join our program are the ones who want something different. They don’t want to keep living the life that they had before.”

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Students learn about healing programs for inmates

Inside Toronto: Prison inmates can find hope and healing through meditation and yoga, students at a local high school found out this week, in a presentation on the work of Sister Elaine MacInnes and her charity, Freeing the Human Spirit.

“Every day, 36,000 Canadians wake up in prison cells,” Cheryl Vanderburg, Freeing the Human Spirit’s program co-ordinator, told her teenage audience at Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School, Wednesday morning, Nov. 10.

“More than half the people in prison are victims of child abuse. The majority have unstable job history. Every day, I go into prisons and I see kids like yourselves. They’ve done something stupid and gotten caught.”

Vanderburg was a guest speaker during the high school’s annual Peace and Justice Week.

For the majority of prisoners, they want to change. They’ve come from difficult circumstances, said Vanderburg, a yoga instructor.

“We carry a lot of stress in our bodies. Our aim is to help prisoners release some of that stress.”

Freeing the Human Spirit is a charity founded in 2004 by MacInnes, a Zen master and Roman Catholic nun. It works in 22 prisons across Canada and receives letters of thanks from inmates regularly.

“Once your spirit is free, you can make better choices and get on with your life,” wrote one in a letter that Vanderburg read to students.

MacInnes was scheduled to visit the school on Wednesday morning, but the 86-year old Toronto resident came down with the flu. Instead, students learned about MacInnes’ quest to bring inner peace to prisoners by teaching them yoga and meditation through the 2005 documentary, The Fires That Burn: The Life and Work of Sister Elaine MacInnes.

Born into a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, MacInnes joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after moving to New York to study violin at Julliard.

MacInness found herself in Japan on her first missionary assignment where she climbed Mount Hiei, met a monk and went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, a place she called home for eight years. There, she practiced “zazen,” sitting meditation.

In 1976, through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila, MacInnes began teaching meditation to political prisoners, including Horacio “Boy” Morales, an esteemed rebel at the helm of the New People’s Army against dictatorship.

It was this work that attracted the attention of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charitable organization in Oxford, England that teaches yoga and meditation to inmates. In 1993, she became its executive director, helping prisoners come to terms with their tremendous stress.

Her work overseas earned her the Order of Canada in 2001. Three years later, upon her return to Canada, she founded Freeing the Human Spirit.

The third day of the Peace and Justice week programming kicked off with the Freeing the Human Spirit presentation in the auditorium, followed by a talk by representatives from the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest effort by men working to end violence against women.

This year’s focus of the 21-year old initiative was healthy relationships, said school Chaplain and Religion Teacher Elaine Orsini.

Representatives from METRAC, which works to prevent and eliminate violence against diverse women, youth and children, were on hand to lead an interactive discussion about relationships with Grade 9 and 11 students on Monday, Nov. 8. The week also included a visit from Free the Children and a showing of Social Justice documentaries.

“The purpose is to make students aware of the need for peace and justice,” said Orsini of the program, spearheaded by the school’s religion department and sponsored by the student council, “to bring people in to motivate students to become more aware so they can move into action.”

Peace, says Orsini, “has to begin within our own hearts, our homes and our own schools – that’s always been my message.”

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See also our review of Sister Elaine MacInnes’s book, The Flowing Bridge.

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“The Flowing Bridge,” by Elaine MacInnes

“The Flowing Bridge,” by Elaine MacInnes

Writer Renée Miller introduces a book on Zen koans written by Elaine Miller, who is both a Catholic nun and a Zen priest.

When we step to the edge of our experience and then have the courage to take yet one more step, we are often surprised to find that the anxiety we felt at taking that “one more step” vanishes in a whole new feeling of expansion. When it comes to religious thinking, we are accustomed to holding fast to our familiar patterns of belief and tradition because what we know or have been taught feels like a protection and security for us. The religion itself may put constraints on our exploration as a way of insuring its own continuance. Yet, when we take that extra step to open up to other faiths and beliefs, we are brought into an open space where we begin to see the oneness that embraces all.

Title: The Flowing Bridge
Author: Elaine MacInnes
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 978-0-8617-1545-9
Available from: Wisdom,, and

Certainly, Elaine MacInnes, a Roman Catholic nun and a Zen teacher in the lineage of Koun Yamada has found this to be true in her own life. A wise bishop once told me that only those over 75 years of age were really capable of dispensing holy wisdom to others. It takes the living of the holy life for a long period of years to bring true wisdom to fruit. Elaine MacInnes fits the bishop’s criteria. MacInnes, herself an octogenarian, has lived the life of Christianity and Buddhism for years and in her book The Flowing Bridge she dispenses the wisdom that is the fruit of faithful practice.

The Flowing Bridge is a book about koans — statements or questions which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition. The book is about the first koans that Zen students are exposed to when they begin their practice, and miscellaneous koans that MacInnes has gathered from various traditional sources — koans that were generally kept only between teacher and student. The beginning Zen disciple is exposed to koan practice because it helps unlock spiritual doors and remove phenomenal obstacles that prevent the Essential Nature from being fully experienced. The fascination with koans, however, goes way beyond the dokusan (private interview between a Zen student and the master) room. Koans make their way into cocktail parties, into Bible studies, into football game conversations. They are perceived by non-Buddhists as puzzles to be solved, conundrums to be volleyed like a ping pong ball between worthy opponents. In many ways, koans are like the paradoxes Jesus was so fond of using though it should be noted that paradoxes don’t seem nearly as captivating in the phenomenal world as koans!

Imagine, however, being given the tools with which to sample the truth nestled inside a koan, and finding there a world of infinity. Imagine it being really, just a sample, not the full meal. MacInnes does just this throughout the entire book. She takes to heart the words she quotes from the verse of Mumonkan Case 33:

If you meet a swordsman, you may present a sword.
You should not offer a poem unless you meet a poet.
When you speak to others, say only three-quarters of it.
You should never give the remaining part.

She gives what feels like a full meal, but it’s really only three-quarters of it, and at the end there is still hunger. It is not fascination with puzzle solving that she seeks to initiate. It is nothing less than the enlightenment that St. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century recluse, experienced when she discovered the entire universe in a hazelnut. MacInnes begins each koan by giving a sneak peek into the koan through a story or piece of reality from the Phenomenal world. She then moves stealthily to the Essential Nature which ends up being as koan-esque as the koan itself. She is so masterful in her teaching that just when we think we’re getting a grasp on the koan — just when we think we’ve “got it!” and just when we think we don’t need to read any further because we’ve ‘got it,’ she stops us dead in our tracks with the incisive word that sounds like a relentlessly focused Zen Master. For example, when writing about the Shogen’s koan, “why is it that a man of great strength does not lift up his leg?” MacInnes comments,

“The next time you see the centipede, look well. It has already cast away its hundred legs, and Mount Mayon walks away happily — quite unaware of its legs.


Take a look. If you want to know — whether it is pure gold or not, you must look at it in the midst of fire. Burn off the legs! Or take out that two-edged sword and cut them off.”

I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the New Testament. If your hand causes you to offend, cut it off. If your eye causes you to offend, pluck it out. It is better to enter heaven maimed than not at all… For both Jesus and MacInnes, hard truth is sometimes the only way to obtain the freedom we seek.

The Flowing Bridge is not always flowing. Because it is based on Zen talks that MacInnes gave to students over a period of years, it can be choppy reading; at once obtuse, then repetitive, then tangential. At times, reading The Flowing Bridge is both an effort and a strain. Then the realization dawns — she’s painting nothing less than real life through her words. Life itself is obtuse, repetitive, tangential. We suffer because we want life to run along smoothly without effort and strain, without distortion or confusion. Only life is not like that. A student asked MacInnes if they could put off reading her teisho (Zen talk) on a particular koan until after they had discussed the koan in their dokusan interview. The student complained that the teiso was confusing. MacInnes writes, “This is the supreme compliment. Teisho are meant to confuse!

The end purpose of the book, for MacInnes, is the proper formation of the human personality which, she writes “is the removal of one’s delusions, so that one’s original nature comes to the fore.” She maintains that to be our own true Tathagata (Buddha), we must rid ourselves of false illusions. We do this, she proposes, through “sitting and allowing our Essential Nature to return to its own spontaneity.” It seems so simple, just two things — as simple as intellectualizing a koan, in order to “understand” it. Yet, it is a work of a lifetime. A work that demands our best effort and no effort at all. A work that asks of us to be right here, now.

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Zen and the art of social justice

William Wolfe-Wylie, In the late 1970s, Horacio Morales founded The National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The organization’s primary goal was to overthrow the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. A few years later, Morales was arrested and taken to a jungle prison near a military rifle range. He was confined to a small concrete cell and, over the din of gunfire, subjected to electro-shock torture.

But each Friday, a kind-hearted Canadian woman ventured to the prison, alone, to visit Morales and the other prisoners, and she taught him the art of Zen meditation.

“They’d been tortured electrically and their bodies would jump,” said Sister Elaine MacInnes, a practicing Catholic nun who discovered Zen meditation while in Japan in 1958. She spent the next couple of decades learning Zen from the monks she had encountered, until she was certified as a teacher. Soon after that, she found herself in the Philippines where she began to visit prisoners, including Morales.

It took time, Sister Elaine recalls over a pot of tea in her Toronto home, but over the four years of his imprisonment, she taught Morales how to turn his prison cell into a monk’s cell. She helped him to deal with his anger and to channel his feelings through Zen meditation.

It was then, she said, working with Morales and his fellow prisoners, that she began to see the importance of teaching Zen to prisoners all over the world.

Earlier this month, twenty-five years after her first meeting with Morales, Sister Elaine held a fundraiser in Toronto to support that ongoing project, through her charitable organization called Freeing the Human Spirit. At 83, Sister Elaine doesn’t meet with prisoners as often as she used to. Instead, she is looking to train as many Zen teachers as she can before she’s no longer able.

Her mission has never been an easy task.

“To bring hope and healing to prisoners is not a popular cause,” she says.

For Sister Elaine, teaching meditation is more than teaching prisoners to deal with their incarceration. It’s about helping them to better reintegrate into society after their time has been served.

Zazen, the act of meditation and clearing the consciousness, does away with “the dust of the mind,” she explains. Inner freedom, coping with stress and understanding of the self leads to acting more appropriately and naturally in the wider world.

Sister Elaine first began to understand the power of Zen shortly after she took her final vows to become a nun in 1961. That fall she moved to Japan and was quickly intrigued by the monks who prayed up high up on a nearby mountain.

“How do you pray?” she was asked by one of the men. What followed was a conversation that lasted for hours that exposed more links between her native Catholicism and Zen meditation than she had thought possible.

The body is used to help empty the mind, she briefly elaborates. Through control of breath, the breath of god and the breath of man become one. The breath of life, she said, transcended religion and became prayer itself.

“The infinite cannot be experienced intellectually,” she notes. “The world we see is just half the story. When you have seen the inner world, it becomes more and more important to you.”

Despite the pain and suffering she has seen in her travels, Sister Elaine’s face betrays none of the sorrow. As a 2005 documentary about her work plays in her living room, she has a soft smile on her face and sips her tea quietly.

Sister Elaine left the Philippines in 1993 and, after ten years in England, bringing group lessons in meditation to the prisoners there, she returned to Canada. Since then, she has established her program in more than twenty prisons across the country.

Nobody is forced to take part in the program when a prison signs on. “They can only teach volunteers,” she said. But it has become so popular in some prisons that separate programs have been set up to help staff and guards at the institutions.

The rewards of her work come in the form of the letters that she receives from prisoners. She can see the impact that meditation is having on their self-esteem and interaction with others.

“Before I practiced meditation I felt a lot of anger,” wrote Scott Kennedy, a prisoner in the UK. “I used all sorts of drugs and alcohol for years, from the age of fifteen til thirty-four, and now I’ve stopped using drugs. I’ve been practicing meditation just over a year and I’ve never felt better for years. I feel calmer, relaxed, happy in myself and towards other human beings. I have been really determined to turn my life around and practicing meditation made me see who I truly am: a kind, loving happy person.”

Her first student is still working with the people of the Philippines, too, though in a slightly different role. Morales was named Agrarian Reform Secretary in the Philippines’ new government in 1998. He is now the country’s Customs Commissioner, a slight deviation from the communist-party affiliated revolutionary group he used to lead.

At the same time as Sister Elaine was speaking on the value of teaching Zen to prisoners in Toronto, Morales was preparing an international crackdown on produce smugglers operating between China and the Philippines. The operation was hailed by farmers throughout the Philippines; their product remained safe from illegal food imports which threatened their markets.

Indeed, as Sister Elaine wrote in 2001, “In my prison experience…the sangha gradually changed their swords into ploughshares.”

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Telling inmates’ inside stories

Stuart Laidlaw, Toronto Star: Even after 27 years working with prisoners to help them find peace through meditation, and countless interviews and speaking engagements to explain the importance of her work, Toronto-based Catholic nun Elaine MacInnes says it’s the letters from the inmates themselves that tell the story best.

And tonight, renowned British actor Jeremy Irons will read some of those letters to an audience at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts as part of his ongoing effort to raise money and awareness for MacInnes’ program.

“The line between being in jail and not being in jail is very thin – and very easy to fall across,” Irons says in an interview.

MacInnes’s work, which has taken her into dozens of Canadian jails, is based on a very successful program she ran for years in Britain, where she visited some of that country’s most notorious jails.

“When people ask me about hardened prisoners, I say I haven’t met one yet,” MacInnes, a Zen roshi, or master, who has been teaching meditation and yoga to prisoners since 1980…

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