Inmates at the Nevada County jail say yoga classes have made a positive difference in their lives
June 4, 2018
The stresses inside the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City can be moment to moment, say some female inmates.
"By the time most of us get in here we have experienced some kind of trauma in our lives," said inmate Raelynn Amour. "Now we live in a room with 20 other women and many of us are looking for threats, even if there are none. We're quick to become defensive. It's a pattern we learned on the outside to protect ourselves."
Having to be on alert 24 hours a day in an unpredictable environment can take a profound toll on one's nervous system, say inmates, and there are very few opportunities for feelings of safety, peace and ever- elusive silence.
That's where Schuyler Bright comes in. As director of the Holistic Trauma Recovery Institute, Bright's goal as a trauma-informed yoga instructor is to reach out to those who may never have attended a yoga class during the course of their everyday lives — especially those who may never have actively engaged in self healing or self care.
Bright is part of a team of instructors who regularly come into the county jail to teach yoga and mindfulness to inmates.
"It's the highlight of my week," she said. "I feel a true sense of purpose. There aren't many people who actively reach out to this population, and they need it."
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An 'ability to feel at peace'
Bright talks openly about the time she herself spent time behind bars after relapsing and accidentally driving her car down a 50-foot embankment off Highway 49.
"I had been sober for two years, but it was the perfect storm of issues in my personal life," she said. "I was drunk and I should have died. It was about five years ago — I made the cover of The Union."
Bright now attributes yoga, meditation and Ayurveda practices to her success in healing and recovery. She is now pregnant with her second child.
"Some people don't want to come to class because they're afraid of being judged," said inmate Ruth Kellner. "But I always feel better when I come. And as I learn more, I also share how it's changed me — especially when it comes to acceptance and the ability to feel at peace, which is huge. I notice a difference between people who practice and those who don't."
As part of a 2017 University of San Francisco study, female inmates at two correctional facilities in South Carolina participated the Yoga Prison Project, in a 10-week trauma-focused yoga program where subjects were divided up into control groups. Inmates in the yoga group reported "significant decreases in depression and stress and improved self-awareness." Researchers noted that the results "suggest that yoga is a relatively inexpensive intervention that could benefit both inmates and prison staff by reducing some negative behaviors and possibly mental health problems."
But that's old news to many of the inmates at Wayne Brown.
Planting a seed
"I do a 180 every time I come in here," said Debbie Hunt. "I come in tense and I leave very peaceful. I practice on my own every day."
"I come in to stretch and get out of the box for a little bit," echoed inmate Michelle-Hertz-Chapman. "It gives me a chance to -exercise, breathe and remember I'm human."
Bright and her team of teachers say they see a profound benefit in the inmates who choose to participate. They often receive positive feedback, such as an increase in impulse control among those who say they might have been tempted to "mouth off" in the past. Some report more carefully considering the consequences of their actions. As a result, instructors are actively seeking grants to bolster their program.
"I have compassion for people who end up in a bad place and are brought to their knees — that place is often jail," said Bright. "Some might initially come to class because they have nothing better to do, but I like to think I've planted a seed when they start to feel better. Jail is the time to provide resources, when they are reachable. To not invest in rehabilitation practices like this would be a huge loss to our society."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.