By Taylor Bush and Susan Boswell | firstname.lastname@example.org
Prisons, rehabs and juvenile detention centers are not typical classroom settings for the breathing, stretching and meditating of a yoga studio, but a Florida nonprofit is changing that.
Yoga 4 Change in Jacksonville is dedicated to giving hope and self-confidence to veterans, at-risk youth and those serving time in prison.
Kathryn Thomas, the founder and executive director of Yoga 4 Change, is a veteran herself and was a helicopter pilot in the United States Navy. She was forced to retire after suffering a leg injury while on deployment that left her almost unable to move. After dealing with a difficult rehabilitation and the stress of losing a job she loved, Thomas turned to yoga as a way to relax regain strength.
“I really found myself on my mat and I was able to stop worrying. Everything that was happening was going to be OK,” Thomas says.
After her own success with yoga, Thomas wanted to share the impact that yoga can have on individuals dealing with stress and anxiety. While stationed in Hawaii, she began teaching yoga in jails and prisons.
“I saw the same transformational aspects with those guys inside the jail,” she says. “None of them, when they were 6 years old, hoped to grow up to be in jail. So they were trying to deal with what was happening to their lives at that time and yoga allowed them to have some sort of purpose.”
Since Yoga 4 Change was founded in Florida in April 2014, Thomas’ organization has held classes at 65 facilities and has taught nearly 7,500 students.
Thomas credits her program’s success to the community response.
“Our community really latched onto what we’re doing. It’s because we’re helping different communities where somebody knows a brother, or sister, or friend or cousin who was involved in something traumatic and they have started to believe in the idea that ‘Yes, yoga can work and I may not understand why, but I can see the transformation in just one person,’ and that transforms communities.”
Yoga 4 Change offers free community classes and also private classes in prisons, schools and rehabilitation centers. The classes are so popular that many have wait lists.
Spencer Braddock, of Jacksonville, attends the Yoga 4 Change community classes. “I think the program is definitely a benefit to the Jacksonville community. For me personally being able to come here after work and take an hour to myself and really relax and focus on my breathing and be centered after a long day is enormous in my life and I think a lot of people will be able to benefit from Yoga 4 Change.”
In its first year, Yoga 4 Change received a $10,000 grant from Riverside Hospital Foundation and a $5,000 donation from a private donor. Most of the money was used to pay for the group’s participation in One Spark, a three-day crowdfunding festival in Jacksonville that reaches over 200,000 people.
Yoga 4 Change became the most decorated winner at One Spark in April 2015. It was the first creator project to win two awards in the same year, the Juried Award Prize and the Most Votes Award. The awards totaled $34,000, the largest amount a single creator One Spark project has received in awards and prize money.
“We have never before seen a grassroots organization make such change in people’s lives,” the judges said, according to PRNewswire.
Thomas attributes the One Spark winnings to the organization’s success and ability to reach more communities and facilities.
The organization has 24 teachers and they each use a different yoga style that helps facilities and individuals grow in a unique way, she says.
Angela Centers, a Yoga 4 Change instructor, teaches boys ages 12 to 19 in juvenile detention facilities. She says that after the boys warm up to the idea of yoga, they are receptive and excited to learn.
“In the beginning they can be very closed off. They keep their arms tight and legs crossed when they lay down but they open up so much more when they get to know me. They look forward to it and trust me to help them open up little bit and allow the practice to open them up and feel something different,” Centers says.
According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health’s website, “Studies also suggest that practicing yoga might improve quality of life; reduce stress; lower heart rate and blood pressure; help relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and improve overall physical fitness, strength, and flexibility.”
With the help of her teaching staff, Thomas developed a curriculum to prevent the students from experiencing the intimidation that many first-time yoga practitioners face.
Since Yoga 4 Change is aimed at people who have never done yoga, Thomas avoids the chimes, “oms” and Sanskrit.
“We wear high-neck T-shirts and loose yoga pants. We’re not showing up with the stereotypical yoga teacher ‘talk’ or the yoga teacher ‘type.’”
Thomas says that the casual attitude is a key factor in the transformations the teachers hope to see. Each student is dealing with a trauma that is in need of a release, not a distraction.
The curriculum focuses on six universal concepts: Gratitude, self-acceptance, peer pressure, bullying, forgiveness and embracing vulnerability. In the prisons, Yoga 4 Change teachers offer tools to promote self-awareness, body-awareness and a meditative space that the teachers say can be transforming and hopeful during time behind bars.
Aiddee Douglas, marketing director and instructor for Yoga 4 Change, teaches a six-week course at a women’s prison facility.
“I get to go into a jail every week and teach a group of ladies that are strong that are beautiful. That have so much potential,” Douglas says. “They are so open to learning yoga because the way we designed it. We say exactly what they need to hear and exactly what they need to heal.”
According to Douglas, many women in prison have issues with forgiveness and self-esteem. Her class also stresses the importance of anti-bullying. Douglas says anti-bullying practices are not only useful for adolescent students but for adults who often bully themselves.
As teachers, Douglas and Centers recognize that they’re dealing with students who haven’t been exposed to the tools needed to make improvements in their lives.
“All of these people that we’re teaching to, they’re at their lowest and that’s a great place to be to experience this and create change,” Centers says.
Teachers hand out note cards and ask the students to write down their feelings at the beginning and end of classes. Douglas says the cards show the impact that just one class can have on a troubled student.
“The cards show me that with just the one class, the women I teach are able to go from such negative ideas like ‘I hate myself, I hate this place’ to ideas like ‘I need to forgive myself because I’m not with my children, because I made a mistake. They learn to true meaning and idea of forgiveness.”
Yoga 4 Change teaches veterans, many of whom suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as amputees and those suffering other emotional trauma. Douglas says her experiences with the veterans has been life-changing for her. Before teaching veterans, her only experience with military personnel was family members who appeared stoic and quiet. After teaching veterans, she sees the effects PTSD can have on even the strongest soldiers, and realizes they are battling more than she ever knew.
“It’s just such a powerful class because I see the most change in them. I had to be very careful teaching them at first. I couldn’t move from my mat, I couldn’t get close to them at all, which is very hard for me as a yoga teacher. But the more they come, the more they learn on their own and they do the hardest poses. They are excited and then they want to share that with me.”
According to a pilot study by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Center, in Brookline, Massachusetts, “An essential aspect of recovering from trauma is learning ways to calm down, or self-regulate. For thousands of years, yoga has been offered as a practice that helps one calm the mind and body.”
According to Trauma Center studies, meditation, relaxation and physical postures reduce muscle tension and blood pressure. They decrease emotional distress and boost quality of life.
Teachers say they often feel more impact than the students.
“Our teachers are seeing the changes they make every class,” Thomas said. “Our teachers go in and they come it lit up. It doesn’t matter if they had all the kids going nuts and only doing one yoga pose, at the end their changed because they realize that you can give back and get something back.”
Yoga, in its traditional meaning, means “to unite.” Thomas says she hopes by first uniting teacher and student, the students will be regain ties with the communities where they live.
Yoga 4 Change currently teaches to 525 at-risk youth, 55 veterans and 120 inmates in the Jacksonville area and is adding new classes each week. The group is looking to expand and connect surrounding cities to established programs.
“Expansion doesn’t always mean we’ve got to go travel to some indigenous place. There’s neighborhoods that are just 20 miles away from Jacksonville. It’s truly just like all styles of yoga coming together and unifying. We really want to bring together other cities,” Centers says. “It doesn’t have to be a small city, it doesn’t have to be a big city. It’s just people coming together.”