After falling in love with yoga, I enrolled in Dharma Yoga’s teacher training to deepen my practice. I had so many friends and acquaintances that needed access to yoga who found a regular yoga practice to be cost prohibitive, so I decided to teach yoga for free. After surveying different groups that had little to no access to yoga, I noticed that many people want to help troubled youths, first time felons, the homeless, veterans, etc. but NO ONE wants to help those already incarcerated, those that may never be free because of the crimes they committed. I happened to have a dear friend who brought yoga to Garner Betts, and over dinner one night, he said “You know Jim, you have to get to these kids early before they are lost forever…” That statement broke my heart. I mean, is ANYONE really lost forever?
I began calling the area prisons and no one was interested in me teaching yoga to the inmates, or to the “offenders”, the moniker they are saddled with once convicted. I soon learned that all volunteer services are through religious channels or 12 step recovery groups. I was told that there was simply no place for yoga, no category to put me in. And the western conception of yoga as a “workout” definitely didn’t help matters. I began searching the internet for others who were trying to bring yoga to the incarcerated. I learned of the Prison Yoga Project in San Francisco who had been teaching yoga in San Quentin for years! I sought them out, took a seminar, and followed his model; upon return to Texas with my new “credentials”, still no one would touch me with a ten foot pole! Several months later, James Fox, the PYP founder and I were on the phone, with me lamenting how no one wanted anything to do with me, when he remembered that a man from Dallas had contacted him some time ago, wanting someone to teach yoga to the inmates through his contemplative prayer group. He asked if I wanted him to contact the Dallas gentleman and I jumped at the chance. i was later contacted by Dennis McCain (the Dallas guy) and after getting approved as a volunteer, began traveling to Tennessee Colony, Texas, to teach in the Coffield Unit.
My first class was a dozen or so men, with no mats, doing yoga on the laminated tile floor. All we could really do was a standing asana practice. Man these guys were stiff! We had several onlookers, some of who started joining us. The next week, the group grew to 15, then 20. I asked the chaplain if I could have a separate yoga class, and he just scratched his head, having no idea how to classify me.
My big break came when Dennis asked me if I was willing to go into a prison in Gatesville as the “Eastern Religions” volunteer. I agreed and contacted the chaplain of the Hughes Unit. I began teaching a meditation class with four men in attendance. When i asked them if they were interested in learning some yoga along with meditation, they reluctantly decided to try it. After some mat-less sun salutations on the linoleum floor, they were hooked! The group grew from 4, to 8, to 12. We had to start meeting in the large room of the chapel and the class kept growing. We hit the big time when we got the warden to approve me donating yoga mats to the chapel.
I soon learned that as the “Eastern Religions” volunteer, the chaplains couldn’t tell me no, under the right to religious access. Before long, I added 2 more prisons to my Tennessee Colony trip and then added a prison in Huntsville.
An acquaintance from a meditation group learned that I was an attorney and that I had closed my practice to pursue teaching yoga in the prisons full time. She worked for Texas Lawyer, an attorney interest paper, and she told me that lawyers who find something better to do are always big news! She interviewed me and ran a short article describing what I was trying to do. Here is a link to the article:
In a completely independent set of circumstances, Brandi Grissom with the Texas Tribune called Huntsville, asking if anyone had started a yoga program in any of the prisons. Brandi found out about my project, called me, and made arrangements with Huntsville to attend one of my classes. Her article in the Texas Tribune was picked up by the New York Times! Here is a link to the both newspaper articles:
The publicity was wonderful for Conviction Yoga, and I started receiving inquiries from yoga teachers who wanted to help. This was all very exciting because it was becoming obvious that with driving 1,000 miles a week to teach in only five prisons, my doing CY all by myself was not sustainable. Several of the potential teachers were turned off by the amount of red tape that one must navigate to become an approved volunteer and eventually fell by the wayside. Other teachers took it all the way to the finish line and even went into the prison with me, only to lose heart when presented with the magnitude of what is required. It became increasingly obvious that my goal of having a yoga program in every unit in Texas was not going to happen depending on outside volunteers: the prisons are simply too remote and just teaching in one prison a week is more than most yoga teachers could commit to.
So the idea came to me: why not teach the inmates how to teach and populate the system with inmate led yoga programs? I bounced the idea of a few chaplains and they assured me that would never happen. They explained that the system had a long history of gang violence, most of which had been eradicated with a policy of not allowing any inmate to have any semblance of authority over another inmate. I did not lose hope; all along the way, I have received no, after no, after no, and persistence had eventually resulted in a yes. So I kept discussing it with anyone who would listen and the more I talked about it, the more it started to make sense. So, on an act of faith that setting the intention would get it done, I started to do advanced yoga trainings to become certified to train the men how to teach.
In order to train teachers and give them Yoga Alliance certification, one must accumulate 500 hours of training: the 200 hours of training to get your certification to teach publicly and another 300 hours of advanced studies. The advanced classes were going to require a few years worth of study in addition to teaching in my five prisons. But I looked at it through the lens of the old adage of Rome not being built in a day, and I started to do my advanced trainings.
I began with taking the kundalini teacher training, thinking that it would count for 200 hours towards my 500 - well, I soon learned that is not how it works! I learned that I needed to essentially start over, get my 200 teacher certification from a Yoga Alliance school (my original training, although very good, was not Yoga Alliance approved) and then do 300 hours of advanced trainings! I was terribly disappointed, realizing that teaching the inmates how to teach was going to be a long road. More disappointment arose when an old back injury reared its ugly head, requiring me to stop all the driving and cut my prison visits down to one prison a week.
I submitted a proposal to Huntsville to allow me to start a teacher training inside the prison system (I did not want to submit my idea until I knew I could pull it off). A few months go by, and I was asked to travel to Huntsville to discuss the proposal. I met with the New Programs Director and the Rehabilitation Director, both of whom were excited about our proposal but they recognized that the proposal needed to be modified in order to get it approved.
The first and most problematic issue was calling the program a “teacher training”: calling an inmate a “teacher” is a negative buzz word that I learned would never fly. They were also strongly against my ideas of giving inmates Yoga Alliance certification and having inmates transfer to a unit to get trained and then return to their home unit to start a yoga program. Although it was not exactly what I wanted, I agreed to their revisions and we now call the program “Conviction Yoga Advanced Yoga Studies”. The training will go essentially just like a teacher training, we just can not call it that! Inmates will be allowed to lead classes but a volunteer must always be present, which, at this point, essentially defeats the purpose: the end goal is to have yoga in the prisons and NOT rely on volunteers being present! But I have learned that getting a NO on inmate lead yoga does not mean that it will always be a no: get the training approved and let the Universe figure out the details.
As of October 2017, we are over half way through the teacher training at the Hughes Unit and have set our sites on replicating the teacher training in one of the female units. Meanwhile, we will continue teaching in all the local prisons that we can service.