Behind Bars and Seeking Truth
On Prison Yoga
When Dawn Dexter opened her mid-day yoga class at the Pitkin County Jail, a calm took over that felt unusual here. The stress and anxiety that come with being locked up turned to breath awareness for the small group seated on mats in a circle. Dawn’s warm invitation to come to stillness was eagerly accepted. I knew then, this class would become an integral part of my life.
Dawn founded the yoga program at the jail in Aspen in 2011. I took over in 2014 after completing a 200-hour yoga training in Carbondale, Colorado. What began as a Karma Yoga project, or service endeavor, became a weekly ritual. At first, my goal with the class was to offer an hour of serene escape and to, admittedly, get in some teaching practice. It quickly became clear that for the students who came regularly, the yoga class stayed with them even after they left the mat.
“I’ve been practicing meditation in my room,” one student told me after class. After explaining the hardships he experienced outside jail, he said, “The breathing is helping me deal with what I’ll encounter when I get released.” Most students only spend a few weeks in jail. Unlike prison, jail is for presentence offenders, or people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. That means I often only have a few classes with my students, many of whom are carrying a lifetime of trauma.
What is psychological trauma? Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, says trauma leaves an imprint from a past experience on the mind, brain, and body. Traumatic events can leave in their wake issues like violence and addiction. Yoga helps us look inside and discover our true selves -- an introspective investigation that’s difficult but can lead to real change. James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project, says yoga can help with behavioral rehabilitation. “Yoga as an embodiment, as a somatic practice, is so compatible with other deep work, such as cognitive behavioral work and emotional intelligence work, for supporting someone in behavioral change.” (from Trauma Informed Yoga Summit)
It’s been almost five years since I shadowed Dawn Dexter’s class. Since then, I’ve heard countless stories of hardship, stress, and a desire to move into the future a more whole person. I think many of us go to the mat for the same reasons. For me, sure my teaching has improved and I’ve become more confident, but I’m also humbled. I’m humbled that my students trust me to help guide them to do the work -- possibly the hardest work there is.
This Friday I’ll pack up my mat and teaching journal and head through heavy locked doors to a facility that’s meant to confine. Hopefully, though, my students will find a kind of personal liberation they can use inside and outside this place. It’s a freedom we’re all seeking, I think, whether we’re behind bars or free from confinement.
About The Author
Marci Krivonen is a certified yoga instructor who began teaching at the Pitkin County Jail in 2014. She’s interested in yoga as a tool for healing for people who have experienced trauma. Marci also works in digital marketing for The Aspen Institute. Prior to that she was a public media journalist who reported on the jail yoga program’s start in Aspen!