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“They’re here for the yoga,” William calls out when he spots a woman walking toward him wearing harem pants. He darts down the hall, his voice trailing off. “I’m going to go put my shorts on so I don’t rip my pants.”
Moments later William rolls out his yoga mat, eager to begin practice. Save for the guard at the door, the blinding orange outfits, and the basketball hoop on one side of the room, it’s hard to tell the class is being taught inside D.C.’s Central Detention Facility (CDF).
The new program is an outreach initiative funded and organized by Yoga District and its nonprofit division Yoga Activist. Instructors selected from the pool of applicants began bringing yoga classes to incarcerated populations in both CDF and the adjacent Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) in October.
William and three other male inmates in their 50s or 60s move through sun salutations, spinal twists, balance exercises, and of course the final resting pose—shavasana—where you lie on the floor and attempt to quiet your racing mind. One other inmate watches, unable to join because of a shoulder injury. Class starts and ends with the humming sound of ohm. “As we make the sound, we imagine ourselves anywhere,” says the instructor, Simone Jacobson.
The inmates are dialed in the entire hour, never losing focus, though a few of them laugh when they try a new pose and fail in dramatic fashion. And William makes the sound of a grown man being tickled when he finds a position that rewards him with a great stretch.
After class, William tells City Paper, “I was stressed out, but yoga got me better.” Another inmate named Phillip chimes in. He says yoga relaxes him and has helped him sleep better. “I was suffering from a pinched nerve and it’s working for me.” He adds that yoga class “is the first time I’ve kind of enjoyed being here—having this makes the day go by.”
The class is an hour of unmitigated contentment for people living behind bars.
“They show a good impact in terms of sleeping and decreased anxiety and those are two very important issues in terms of life in general, but especially in an incarcerated setting,” says Dr. Beth J. Mynett, the medical director and health services administrator for the D.C. Department of Corrections. “Postures and breathing help us metabolize our emotions.”
CDF inmates are particularly prone to anxiety, according to Mynett, because while some are serving definitive sentences, others are in the pre-trial stage, and therefore staring down uncertainty about the future. They don’t yet know how long they’ll be imprisoned. “Yoga is one more tool for stress management,” she says.
The class that City Paper observed took place in a new unit created about a year and a half ago called the Mental Health Step-Down Unit (SDU). Unlike those housed in the Mental Health Unit who have acute and severe manifestations of mental health conditions, those in the SDU have stabilized after spending time in the Mental Health Unit. Before moving to a general population housing unit, however, they reside in the SDU. “We wanted to build a unit where people could transition more easily,” Mynett explains. “We thought it would be an appropriate time for them to focus on movement, breathing, and mindfulness via the yoga program.”
Yoga District founder Jasmine Chehrazi informally taught yoga at the jail years ago, but she recently felt called to bring yoga back there on a regular basis. Yoga District provides the yoga mats to CTF and CDF and pays Jacobson and one other teacher, Emily Moore, to teach there.
“When one of our staff members Tricia McCauley died, I had a reaction,” Chehrazi says. “I wanted to get really involved with incarcerated populations again.” McCauley was murdered on Christmas Day last year. After a long search, the 46-year-old’s body was found in her car. Duane Adrian Johnson later pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder.
“It was my wake up call that we have a mental health care crisis,” Chehrazi continues. “People are on the street who need self-soothing and coping skills. [Yoga] wouldn’t have prevented what happened to Tricia, but we have these tools and they’re helpful.”
After McCauley’s death, Chehrazi penned a Facebook post vowing to get yoga into all of D.C.’s detention facilities by the end of the year. “We’re just in this one, but it might be the major one,” she says referring to CTF and CDF. “We have two other teachers ready to join the program and do the training on trauma-sensitive yoga instruction, but we don’t have the money.”
Jacobson was the ideal candidate to kick off classes at CDF and CTF. She’s led inclusivity lectures within Yoga District’s teacher training and has written about the prison industrial complex. “I have always felt really passionate about doing something to change what I think is one of the most detrimental institutions in the country,” she says, speaking of jails and prisons broadly, not D.C.’s facilities alone.
Before she could begin, Jacobson had to attend two all-day trainings at the jail. They screened her for tuberculosis and drug tested her. “There are just so many steps before you get in that a lot of teachers fell off in the process,” she explains. Cutting through the red tape was worth it. “I can’t even tell you how grateful I am to be doing this,” she says, calling her first class “the most transformative experience.”
Jacobson teaches three classes every Tuesday—the one at CDF’s Mental Step-Down Unit and two at CTF (one for women and one for men). She firmly believes anyone can benefit from yoga, even those with limited mobility. Whenever someone says they’re not flexible enough to do yoga she recites a quote: “Saying you can’t do yoga because you’re not flexible is like saying you can’t take a bath because you’re dirty.”
“If you are moving in coordination with your breath, you’re doing yoga,” she says. “If you are being kind, you’re doing yoga. Yoga in its purest form is a way for people to live better, kinder, gentler lives.”
Jacobson recounts one of her first classes at the jail. “There was one guy who just laid there for the entire hour and afterwards he came up to me and said, ‘Thank you.’ Hearing and sensing other people in the room gave him a sense of serenity.”
One thing Mynett hopes to explore is making yoga part of the continuing care the jail offers. When inmates are released they’re given access to 30 clinics in the D.C. community staffed by the same providers that took care of them on the inside through Unity Healthcare.
Chehrazi says students from their various community outreach programs can come to Yoga District’s many studios for free, so long as the outreach teacher recommends them. “You never know what you’re going to get, and that’s been demonstrated,” she says. “When it was open to anybody, there were a couple of incidents.”
Yoga District’s community outreach programs also reach those with active or past service in the military, individuals experiencing homelessness, survivors of human trafficking, resettling refugees, and more. Outreach classes are effectively studio-funded.
“When people understand that by coming to Yoga District and paying $12 a class they’re not funding someone buying another pair of yoga pants—they’re funding someone doing yoga that otherwise wouldn’t have access,” Chehrazi says. “That’s not why people come, but it’s icing on the cake.”