Trauma-based yoga: Healing inmates through movement

National and World

Inmates are finding peace through movement

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The language you hear inside yoga studios around the world is now being heard at the Columbia River Correctional Institute.

When you think about prison — yoga is probably is the last thing to come to mind. But, prisoners are using the age-old practice in a new way.

“I never thought that I would consider myself as being a yogi,” laughed Robert Gonzales. Gonzales is in the middle of a 19-month sentence. “It feels good to just not think about the stress — of being in prison, the stress of dealing with everyone around, just focusing on me and what I want.”

Robert Gonzales has found peace in movement with the Living Yoga program. (KOIN)

After already spending 1.5 years at another prison, he’s now finding peace in movement.

“When I was out there, I was an angry person. I was always stressed and my biggest stress reliever out there was to commit crime,” he said. “Doing things like this — there are different avenues, different ways I can take the stress and tension out that are pro-social.”

Gonzales is 1 of the dozens of men who are learning that stretching the body has a way of transforming the mind.

“Someone can be doing downward dog pose in front of another murderer and it’s like none of that matters when you’re in class,” said Program Manager James Hanley. “When they’re in class, it’s just guys taking a yoga class together. It transports them out of their everyday reality into a yoga studio across the country.”

Hanley manages all the prison’s programs. With 2 packed classes a week, yoga is one of his most popular — giving those behind bars the tools to succeed once released.

“It’s there that their own healing begins,” said Hanley.

This type of class is called trauma-informed yoga.

“People who have experienced that kind of trauma have a disconnect with their emotions and their body,” said Glenn Montgomery of Living Yoga. “By trying to get them to connect with their breath, we are getting to the root of that once involuntary activity that happens in our body.”

Living Yoga has been teaching inmates to find their breath for 2 decades. Their website states that with teams of dedicated volunteers, they bring trauma-informed yoga to over 600 students each month in corrections and reentry, addiction treatment and recovery as well as community health programs.

“We try to make it a simple way and invite them to try something that maybe they have never done before and to experience success,” said Glenn.

But, Living Yoga is not only trying — it’s succeeding.

“That’s my favorite part [of the day],” said inmate Logan Windborn. “It feels like I have hit the reset button and just the calmness — I can carry that with me.”

Nearly 20,000 people have participated in the program. Once released, while there are many different factors, most men who take Living Yoga classes don’t re-offend, with only a 25% re-entry rate.

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