Teaching Yoga in Jail: Bittersweet Magic Behind the Barbed Wire Fence

Creative Commons License photo credit: geezaweezer

I taught yoga in jail for the first time yesterday. Or, more accurately, I got my first intro to teaching there by assisting the beautiful Jenny Boeder, who teaches at Yogaview, one of the best studios in Chicago.

I met Jenny through Yoga for Recovery (YFR), which is expanding into a full-fledged nonprofit from a small core of volunteers who’ve been teaching yoga in the Cook Country Women’s Detention Center for three years. I connected with YFR through Street Yoga, whose excellent training I took earlier this year.

“How was it?,” my husband asked when I came home. Good question.


Savasana Under Lock-Down

The first word that came to mind was “bittersweet.”

Both of the two back-to-back classes that Jenny and I taught went exceptionally well. They were at capacity (10) and the students were really engaged. By the time everyone was lying in Savasana, I sensed that same palpable magic that I always feel at the end of a really good yoga class.  As I closed my eyes and breathed together with everyone else, I surfed the powerful wave of peace and spaciousness that we’d created.

But then, the students left – as a group, under guard. Jenny and I collected our I.D.s and walked outside. Through the thicket of security guards, many of whom seemed slightly startled, pleased, and curious to see the two of us – who looked like we’d dropped in from a parallel universe (which, effectively, we had) – passing by.

We walked through a bleak courtyard with high walls topped with menacing spirals of barbed wire cyclone fencing.


And it cut my psyche, just a bit.

I got just a little, tiny glimpse of the reality of incarceration. And that was painful enough. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have that be my everyday world.

During the break between classes, Jenny and I had talked about how most of these women were likely in jail because of nonviolent offenses like drug possession. (And statistically, it’s true: about 80% of women in Cook County Jail have been charged with non-violent crimes.) “Like nothing that we didn’t do in high school,” said Jenny intently, wearily, indignantly. “I mean, did you feel like any of those women seemed like they needed to be locked up?”

Risk and Hope

No – I didn’t. There’d been no vibe that felt threatening whatsoever. Quite the contrary: Instead, what I’d felt was a degree of openness to the deeper dimensions of yoga that far exceeded what I’d experienced teaching most of my studio classes.

Which didn’t surprise me. It was very much the same as when I’d taught yoga at Sarah’s Circle, a drop-in center for homeless women, last year. In part, I think this is true because these women are willing to take a risk. They’re stepping out of their usual routines and doing something that for them is radically new (not surprisingly, most have never done yoga before). And they’re taking that risk in the hope that it’ll prove worthwhile – who knows, maybe even bring them something positive.

As an over-educated white girl from the suburbs who’s never been in serious trouble with the law, never been homeless, and never had any close friends or family imprisoned, I feel like I’m making something of a parallel move from the other side when I teach in a jail or homeless shelter. Because I, too, am choosing to step out of my usual world and into a radically different one in the hopes it’ll prove worthwhile – and, who knows, maybe even be really positive.

And I can honestly say that in my experience, it is.

To me, teaching yoga to under-served, socially marginalized populations such as women in homeless centers or jails feels very worthwhile. And, in a weird, bittersweet, and paradoxical way, it also makes me feel more peaceful and centered, and less fearful and anxious.

Experiencing Yoga


Of course, it’s important not to romanticize “serving the poor.” We also need to be thoughtful about where we can truly be helpful. A certain amount of training and life experience is necessary to work sensitively with groups of students that will undoubtedly have much higher levels of trauma than those of us from more privileged backgrounds are used to.

At the same time, however, I think it’s important to celebrate the fact that teaching yoga in a jail or homeless shelter can be positive and uplifting.

“Really, you’ll see, it’s fun,” Jenny and the other experienced teachers told us newbies at our first Yoga for Recovery meeting. “While there’s always issues, the students are great.”

And it’s true. Though for me, “fun” and “great” are just placeholders for an experience that’s much more meaningful.

That bittersweet experience of feeling embedded in a collectively generated magic of positivity and peace, and then walking out through that barbed wire fence back to the reality of a society in which those same women and I are radically divided by race, class, education, and culture – that, for me, is yoga.

Much as I wish that it were not the case, it’s simply true that there’s a huge social chasm separating me from the women in Chicago’s jails and homeless centers.

At the same time, it’s also true that when we both step out of our everyday worlds and meet in the neutral space of a yoga class, we can co-create an experience that transcends those differences, generating an energy that I believe – or at least hope – is healing and energizing for us all.

Yoga for Recovery is looking for volunteers! If you’re a female yoga teacher in the Chicago area, please contact Lisa Duncan at lduncanvh [at] aol.com. If you don’t live in the area but are interested in learning more about this type of work, a list of good resources can be found here.

Posted by:

- who has written 8 posts on Yoga Modern.

Carol is a Contributing Editor to Yoga Modern. A Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher, she teaches yoga to incarcerated women at the Cook County Women’s Detention Facility with the non-profit group, Yoga for Recovery. Author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), she’s currently finishing a new book entitled 21st Century Yoga: Paradoxes of Contemporary Practice. Carol holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and taught American Politics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since leaving academia to be with her husband in Chicago and start a family, she’s worked as a research consultant to nonprofit organizations, specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. In addition to Yoga Modern, her online activities include blogging at Think Body Electric and Elephant Journal, maintaining a Facebook Page dedicated to news and discussion about yoga and meditation, and mixing it up on Twitter. Carol lives in Chicago with her husband, two sons, and two krazy catz.

13 Responses

  • Carole Gibbs says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing and inspiring other yogis to take teaching outside of the studio!

  • roseanne says:

    wonderful, carol! love this analysis of service and privilege. i teach a weekly class at a community mission in my neighbourhood, and it's so enriching. the students are appreciative and so interested in yoga. they want to learn how to relax and cope with the stress in their lives, but they also ask about chakras, meditation and mantra. they're curious and interested in the whole spectrum of yoga.

  • Great article, Carol! So glad you were able to share yoga with those women!

  • veloyogi says:

    So wonderful to have your voice here, now, Carol…
    Much to ponder, but would you believe, the first thing that just jumped out at me was:
    the word "jail" looks an awful lot like the word "Jai!"

  • I haven't yet gotten a chance to teach yoga in a prison, but did volunteer to teach college English to prisoners for a couple of years. The prisoners I was teaching were not in for things I did in high school–the prison was double max, and those few who weren't in for murder were mostly there for rape or manslaughter (one guy was in for "sodomy"–which, in most places and times, would probably mean something people shouldn't be in jail for in the first place. But, as this was New York state in 2005, it most likely involved children; another was doing 25 to life for a weapons violation, which seemed strange, until I figured out that he was manufacturing machine guns and working, apparently, as an inner city arms dealer). Without absolving them of their crimes (I think the "victim of capitalism" argument is valid up to a point, but only up to a point), though, I really didn't have any trouble seeing that there was more to these people than their worst actions, just as there's more to me than mine. As such, it was a profound experience for me, but also a proundly difficult one.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jay. Yes, serving a population like that is definitely taking it to a whole different level – one that I don't feel ready for myself.

      It's important to remember that while the majority of people are in prison for non-violent offenses (mostly thanks to the "war on drugs,") there are also seriously scary criminals out there who have committed horrible crimes, too. Personally, I'd like to see them all have access to things like yoga. But I don't think that it's all one and the same, either.

      These women were talking about how long it's been since they seen their kids . . . and quite a few looked like kids themselves. Plus, it's jail, not prison.

  • Susi Costello says:

    Good article. Great work.

  • missmiapark says:

    thanks for writing this, carol. i'm also a volunteer in this program and share your concerns with these women…many of them are so YOUNG, aren't they? what i realize when i teach in jail (or jai! for barbra), is the power of karma and dharma. we each have challenges that we need to face in order to evolve and i believe that we chose to come into the bodies and situations we're in. the spark of purusha in each of us is eternal and is strong enough process and transcend whatever shadow side we find ourselves with. i think these thoughts teaching especially the women in lock down, who don't get to go home on the weekends. i'm glad we can help these women along the path. they also help me along mine.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Mia, thanks for reading and commenting, and thanks for your teaching and service. I do feel that when there's that sense of mutually helping each other, then things are working as best they can.

  • Marcus says:

    I went to a yoga conference last year at Warwick University in England and the fear emanating from so many of those ridiculously privileged women and various pseudo-hippy guys skulking around from the Chakra Rebalancing workshops and Yoga And The Pelvic Floor seminars or whatever it was going on that afternoon, it was so stifling I felt so nauseous and had to leave, to put this into some context, I have also been thrown up against the wall by drug squad officers, kicked around on the floor by a crazed druggie, had my toes cut off in an agricultural accident, been chased by a gang, come within an inch of electrocuting myself on an 10,000 volt electrified railway line, been knocked down by a truck, had my balls lacerated so severely by a Labrador they swelled to twice their normal size from the infection, threatened into carrying large amounts of what can only have been class A drugs by anarcho-hippies in Liverpool, passed kidney stones (women who have had them and have also had children say hat kidney stones are much mo painful) been shot in the leg with an air rifle, been attacked around the neck by a 100lb German Shepherd guard dog, overdosed on LSD to such an extent that I woke up in the middle of free flowing urban traffic at midnight and all of that has never ended up with me having some new perverse privilege (as Jay boy wants it) which is to see the inside of a jail, or prison. All of this taught me much more about yoga and generally left me with far less psycho-somatic trauma than the yoga conference. trust me, if you have been to a yoga conference and survived all those sinister prana pricks with so much kundalini in their heads they speak fluently to each other in Sanskritized parseltongue you an handle anything Carol – maybe it's you just don't know it yet.

  • Lara says:

    Carol – I felt many of the same emotions when I taught pre-natal yoga with the same program last week. Bittersweet indeed. The experienced highlighted for me our similarities as women and mothers regardless of the different journeys that brought us to that moment. It also made me ache when I realized our program was one of the few providing access to anything recreational or educational in that prison; the implications of the budget cuts in the system are downright terrifying.
    Thanks for capturing the essence of the program and experience so beautifully.