Teaching Yoga in Prisons

I met Meg O’Leary one rainy December in Seattle — thirteen years ago — when she and five other women gathered at my house for our first book group.

Lovely Ladies Book Group Retreat Whidbey Island 2009

Lovely Ladies Book Group Retreat Whidbey Island 2009

Whenever Meg emailed us, she would start her greeting with, “Hello Lovely Ladies!”, which forever stuck as the name of our group.

Meg lives with her husband, Cary, in Olympia, WA, just an hour and 15 minutes south of Seattle (yes, she does make the commute almost every month to our meetings!). She works for the State Energy Office in Olympia, coordinating a multi-stakeholder advisory process related to renewable energy and conservation.

In 2009, she started her business FigureGround, where she offers business strategy and right livelihood coaching for small businesses. “I’m passionate about untapping creativity and promoting 360-degree awareness — of self, others, and the larger systems that sustain us,” she said.

Meg is also finishing up her MBA at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) and will be graduating in June. “My focus has been on systems thinking, coaching, organizational leadership and impact investing. I’m a nimble generalist and lifelong learner who values interpersonal growth, emotional intelligence, and plenty of time in the mountains,” she said.

Meg on Orcas Island 2013 Photography by J. Napolitano

Meg on Orcas Island 2013
Photography by J. Napolitano

But what’s really cool about Meg is her dedication to her favorite activity, which has been volunteering for the last four years at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), a maximum security prison, in Gig Harbor. Meg taught weekly classes at WCCW for two years, but had to stop when she began graduate school. Wanting to remain connected to the women in the prison, she initiated ongoing monthly workshops, inviting yoga teachers from Olympia and Seattle to share their expertise and unique perspectives.  She collaborates with the Seattle-based Yoga Behind Bars which provides teachers for the workshops.

About seven years ago, when Meg was volunteering at two community radio stations in Olympia, she interviewed Sarahjoy Marsh, a mentor based in Portland, about her yoga program–Living Yoga. She was so inspired by Sarahjoy’s work — “Sarahjoy was my original spark” — and that’s how she ended up volunteering at WCCW.

Yoga has been a wonderful practice for me and I can’t get enough of it.  Each week when I go, it restores me in a way that is indescribable. Ok, I’ll try to describe it. When I show up at class, my body is a complete mess — I am sore in various places in my back, my stomach is usually tensed up, and my mind is noisy. We sit for a few minutes in meditative silence… sometimes we chant… sometimes we just focus on our breathing. And by the end, 1 hour and 15 minutes of rhythmic and predictable poses later, I’m a new person. I’m calmer, more present, and the cricks in my body have all but disappeared. What remains is a slight, but welcome soreness, meaning that I have stretched myself to new heights. And I am definitely more relaxed and attuned to my body. (Read Claire Dederer’s “Poser” if you want some real humor about yoga!)

Because I understand the tremendous benefits of yoga, it’s been great watching Meg take her yoga practice deeper, first as a student learning from her mentors, and then as an instructor.

“Yoga has been an important part of my life for the past 13 years and continues to sustain me. I feel more resilient physically and it has deepened my awareness of intuition. It has improved my relationships and challenges me to remain present to my life. I love the endless layers of yoga; it’s comforting to know I’ll never reach the end,” she explained.

It’s a little surreal for Meg, walking past the WCCW security guards, into the somber-looking building, but once she gets into the room where she teaches the yoga class, it feels like any other class, where she is gifting her talents to people who deserve and crave them.

The inmates from WCCW come from all ethnicities and all ages (20’s-50’s). Usually there are eight women per class and a core group of four students who come every time.  It’s quite popular and there is even a waiting list to get into the class, which is 45 minutes long. Some students have practiced for years, while others are new to yoga.

“I feel it’s important to help provide access to resources that the inmates wouldn’t otherwise have—especially in their restricted environment. Sharing yoga with these women—and learning alongside them—is incredibly fulfilling.  Plus, the willingness of other teachers to share in this teaching community is terrific as well, because the women are able to experience a variety of teaching styles and yoga philosophies far beyond what I could offer on my own,” said Meg.

She continued, “The women are dedicated and incredibly open to learning. They’ve said they value the connection with the outside world and the tools we offer to help them cope with the world inside.”

For Meg, teaching yoga in prison “is really the only place in my life that I feel useful and that I am doing real work.”

What you can do: 

– Support Yoga Behind Bars.

– Check out a yoga studio in your community or nearby. You’ll be amazed by the benefits.

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