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Yoga spreading mindfulness inside Niantic prison

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East Lyme — The slash marks that 41-year-old Michelle routinely cut into her forearms to get herself through the long, sad days inside the Janet S. York Correctional Institution are barely visible now, having healed over into thin white lines.

Yoga, which she discovered near the end of a 10-year sentence, is her new way of dealing with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said it also has helped her begin to forgive herself for the mistakes she's made.

"Throughout my time here, I cut myself as a way of coping," she said Friday during an interview in a gymnasium on the edge of the Niantic women's prison. "I made a promise to my kids that I'd quit cutting. Yoga and meditation really helped me do that."

A yoga program that head instructor Elizabeth Johnstone, founder of Recovery Yoga, began as a volunteer effort a decade ago has expanded into a 200-hour course that enables inmates to become certified yoga teachers. The first class of five women has graduated, and 15 more are starting the training.

On Friday morning, the new teachers in training placed their mats on the floor in the East Gym and, under the instruction of Yogi Ken Law of Mystic, practiced breathing, lunges and stretches to quiet their minds and strengthen their bodies. They struck poses such as Warrior and Goddess and ended by lying on their backs in the Savasana, or corpse position.

The certification enables the women to teach yoga upon their release from prison, and in the meantime, they are sharing their newfound skills with other inmates. Most of the participants live in the prison's Keys to Success Reintegration Unit, which opened under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's Second Chance Society initiative to prepare women near the end of their sentences to successfully re-enter the community.

Johnstone said yoga is a vital tool for healing and growth, that anyone can practice it and that there are no side-effects. She said most people think of yoga as just the postures, but the breathing exercises are equally important. For those who have suffered trauma, which includes just about every prisoner, it's a miracle, she said.

"Through the mindfulness and the tools of yoga, it's a process to practice being comfortable with discomfort," she said.

Inmate Deborah Ranger, 51, who received her teaching certification three weeks ago, said she was "a tough nut" at first. She started doing yoga with a friend, but didn't appreciate it until she began to practice the relaxation and focused breathing required for the Savasana pose.

"There's where yoga hit me," she said. "My life is always so chaotic and busy, I didn't have time to do that."

Now, she incorporates the breathing and stretches into her daily life and turns to the techniques she has learned if she begins to feel anxious.

"I've learned this and now I can go home and begin my day and do a little meditation or a Down Dog," she said. "I can take the Goddess pose or the Warrior. Even the language is empowering."

Deputy Warden Pamela Senerth said the prison received a small amount of grant money to pay for equipment and give the instructors a small stipend. She said other prisons have yoga programs, but she thinks York is the first to have graduates of the teacher certification program.

Like many, Senerth was skeptical about the benefits of yoga, but changed her mind after reading the research and seeing the progress of the women at York.

"There's evidence it really works with people who are victims of trauma," she said. "You have that fight or flight reaction. It helps them to just regulate and be in that moment."

At the request of the Department of Correction, some of the women interviewed Friday are identified only by their first names.

Sarina, 39, said yoga has helped her to not react right away when something bothers her and to find peace and quiet within herself.

"It's very loud in here, and just being able to sit and listen and let it float by began to help," she said. She is hoping to get a degree in addiction counseling upon her release, but said she also would like to teach yoga.

Volunteer Kristin Vaughn, an architect by day, presented a certificate to a woman named Yadira, telling her she had enjoyed watching her put down her notes and let her own personality shine as she taught her first class.

"What you have to do to teach yoga is to stand and speak your own truth," Vaughn told Yadira as she presented her with her certificate.

Yadira, 35, said her 12-year-old daughter has a yoga mat and is excited to have yoga lessons when her mother comes home. Like many others, Yadira took up yoga for exercise purposes but found it helped her stay calm and listen.

"If you put in the work, you'll get back what you put into it," she said.

Marjorie, 44, said going to prison was shocking, and yoga is helping her learn to calm herself and heal. She hopes to teach children upon her release, starting with "the poorest kids in the neighborhood," and perhaps use her language skills to reach a Spanish-speaking audience.

The instructors, many of whom work full-time jobs in other fields and teach yoga part-time, said volunteering at York and in other settings has been a gift for them.

Sue MacClain of Groton, who works in advertising, said she usually teaches in a studio and didn't know what to expect at York. With her focus on meditation, she said she is thrilled to be able to help the women get grounded.

"I was grateful to have them be so thankful for me to come in," she said.

Robin LeVine, a longtime volunteer who works as a job-development coach in the East Lyme school district, said she started teaching yoga on the asphalt in the maximum security portion of the prison years before the formal program began.

"I get so much more back than I give," she said.


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