A Moment with Karuna Prison Yoga

A Moment with Karuna Prison Yoga

For Angela Still, freedom is an essential state of mind.

After growing up in a restrictive conservative environment, she discovered yoga and her life changed. The practice’s transformative powers allowed her to open her mind and discover her passion for teaching others to heal themselves.

Over the years, Still became an English teacher for at-risk youth, a Master of Rehabilitation Counseling and a yoga teacher for everyone from cancer patients to students, ultimately finding her calling through a course with James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project. That experience—and a desire to expand on the concept—inspired her to start Karuna Prison Yoga, her own prison-specific nonprofit to teach yoga to inmates of all kinds.

Here, the South Carolina-based single mother explains why it’s so freeing to respond instead of react: 

Live The Process: When did you first discover and come to embrace yoga’s transformative powers?

Angela Still: I first discovered yoga around fourteen years ago, when I walked into an all-levels yoga class at Gold’s Gym. After the first 30 mins, I walked out.  I’m not sure when or why, but I ended back in the class a few months later after being promised the long and lean LA look. To be honest,  I initially began yoga to transform myself into a specific body type, but later discovered the mental and spiritual aspects and the yogic lifestyle were just as rewarding.

Yoga has helped me learn to respond versus react to stressful situations. Growing up, my parents modeled reactive and judgmental behaviors to stressors, so I only knew anger as a coping mechanism. Over time, I began to see that this wasn’t healthy, and I found that using yogic breathing really worked off the mat, as well. I work two jobs and run my own nonprofit, so it is important that I live in the present moment, and that is what yoga teaches us to do. As a high school English instructor at an at-risk alternative school, I work with students who have addictions and anger issues. The worst thing an adult can do is lose his or her composure with them. I teach my students Ujjayi breathing techniques to help them learn to react. If they have a go-to method of calming themselves down, they can respond more calmly to difficult situations.

Yoga also teaches us to be nonjudgmental. In a world that imposes constant judgment based on skin color, sexual orientation, religion and physical appearance, I no longer compare myself to or judge others by who they are.  Growing up in the Bible Belt, I was  taught that the only way was Christianity. It’s hard growing up in an environment where fundamentalism oppresses anyone who is different. Breaking out of this mindset was very difficult; yoga helped me with this breakthrough. I learned to be more open and accepting and let judgment go.

LTP: Why is teaching yoga to prisoners so valuable?

AS: I began teaching yoga to prisoners after taking the Prison Yoga Project training with James Fox in June 2014. Initially, I attended because I wanted to learn how yoga could benefit at-risk youth. I walked out of the training with the intention of teaching inmates; I was in a prison teaching by September of 2014.

Teaching yoga to inmates is rewarding on an emotional and spiritual level. All my time is volunteer and I take no financial compensation. The prison population I teach is so diverse—from men transitioning out of solitary confinement to women serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses. Most of the time, inmates are locked away and forgotten with few true rehabilitative programs. The truth is that inmates are often good people who made poor choices, and there is hope for them. Many of them have suffered cyclical trauma in life: incarcerated parents, domestic violence, witnessing violent crime and even sexual or physical abuse. We are dealing with individuals who need to find a way to overcome trauma. Yoga can help them do that. Chances are that we all have committed some act that could have landed us behind bars, but we didn’t get caught. By restoring faith in the human connection and the power of the mind and body, I give them a technique to help reconnect with and maybe even heal themselves—or, at the very least, become more emotionally intelligent.

I have a couple of significant success stories: One man, who spent over 20 years in solitary confinement, has been practicing yoga for the last year. He is now transitioning out and is even going to participate in the YTT (or yoga teacher training) this summer. The progress he has made in his practice over the last year is more than some people have progressed over a ten-year period. Another success story is that one female inmate who took my classes at Leath was released in December 2015, continued her practice and is now seeking a yoga teacher training certification. She even comes to classes that I teach at my home studio.

LTP: How can people help to support your organization’s mandate?

AS: I am very new as a 501(c)3, although I have been volunteering through the Prison Yoga Project for the last three years. I realized that, if I wanted to be able to expand our mission, I had no choice but to create my own nonprofit. There are several ways that people can help support what we do: Monetary donations are always appreciated, but I’ve found that yoga supply and clothing companies have been very generous in donating items for me to use as prizes at donation classes.  Jade Yoga and Gaiam have both been generous in their mat donations. There are so many great companies that I don’t have room to list all their remarkable donations! Well-known yoga teachers Jason Crandell and David Swenson have donated books, DVDs and manuals for us to use. Michael Johnson of Asheville Yoga Center kindly donated his original yoga music for me to sell to raise money. (Of course, all donations are tax deductible.) I am busy filling out applications for grants in hopes that I will secure funding that way too, and I am discovering that running a nonprofit is a very intense job.  I’m always brainstorming ways to fund projects.

This summer, I will be conducting the first 100-hour YTT for male inmates in South Carolina. I will spend 100 contact hours with them, so that they can safely and effectively teach other inmates yoga classes. This is my first YTT for anyone, let alone inmates. If it is successful, I want to use this model in other prisons in the state and allow the inmates to take ownership of their practice. The idea is to empower the powerless. In the future, I would like to expand to bring yoga to children of inmates, at-risk youth and prison employees. One project I would love to see implemented through my organization is stand up paddle boarding yoga for at-risk youth. I think giving them alternatives to drugs and alcohol and a healthier way to relieve stress is the first step.

LTP: What wellness rituals or activities do you personally do to keep yourself feeling balanced and healthy?

AS: I try to balance teaching with practicing yoga. Sometimes I practice at home alone or with a Bryan Kest online class, or I will go into the local studios and practice. My favorite is hot yoga. I feel like it is very effective in detoxing the body. I also eat a Sattvic diet, based on Ayurvedic principles, so that my mind and body are balanced. I absolutely love herbal teas. I try and reward myself a couple times a year with travel. This year, I attended the Krishna Das Yoga of Chant Retreat in the Bahamas and plan on going back to the same location this July. In September, I am attending yoga training in Bermuda. I reward myself when I can with the rare massage and love to take my paddle board out on Lake Murray. I’m at my best in the hot Southern summers.

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

AS: Happiness is freedom and freedom is self-defined. I am happiest when I connect with and know that I have contributed something significant to empower another person. I think every person, even a prisoner, can feel this freedom. Despite our circumstances, we have to find what makes us happy even though we may not be in the place we want to be in our lives. I have found that even people who seem to have everything in life are often unhappy because they are slaves to materialism. Happiness is also about taking risks and walking away from circumstances that bind us, even when we know that others may not approve.

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?

AS: To me, “living the process” is about living in the present moment and allowing our lives to evolve as a greater power intends them to. Every choice we have made, make currently and will make will come together and our karmic duty will come to fruition. Life is a beautiful, unplanned process and a work of art in progress. Each day reveals new opportunities that we can either ignore or embrace with passion. I believe that it means trusting ourselves enough and surrendering so that a greater purpose will emerge for each and every one of us.

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