By SAM RAPPAPORT
As criminal justice reform continues to push its way to the forefront of this nation’s political dialogue, some activists are touting yoga as a remedy to the physical and psychological confines of incarceration. On Saturday, March 5, the Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN) hosted a panel discussion at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness, 1525 E. 55th St., in which various yogis spoke on their experiences of teaching yoga in prisons and jails.
The event was part of a larger effort by SEYN to encourage inclusivity within the world of yoga. Carol Horton, a founding member of SEYN, said that the cost associated with practicing yoga has limited the exercise’s reach.
“It has traditionally very much been a white women’s movement,” Horton said. “But there’s such a human benefit to it, anyone who wants it should be able to do it.”
Marshawn Feltus, a member of Saturday’s panel and an ex-offender, said that he now finds comfort within jail walls while teaching yoga to inmates.
“I think sometimes that free people don’t appreciate it or get it,” Feltus said. “Maybe it’s because their sanity is not on the line.”
Panelist Rishi Sharma, who teaches yoga and meditation to Cook County Jail inmates, echoed Feltus’s comments.
“Incarcerated folks are so appreciative of the community they have around yoga,” Sharma said.
Kerry Wright, Deputy Director of Inmate Programs within the Cook County Jail, explained on Saturday that consistent yoga practice amongst inmates significantly reduces incidents of violence.
“This is true even among people who will never be released,” Wright commented.
While the benefits of yoga on inmates are seemingly clear as day, some of the panelists said that they continue to struggle with the wariness of many institutions.
“It is a constant battle with prison employees who don’t think inmates deserve the programs,” Wright said. “There are also a lot of logistical challenges.”
Sharma continued on this topic, saying that, contrary to popular belief, much of the hostility he’s experienced within jails has come from the employees.
“There’s a lot of difficulty in working with the officers at Cook County Jail,” Sharma said. “A lot of times, they’re openly or subtly hostile to the programs.”
Nevertheless, the panelists all seemed to agree that the benefits of yoga, especially to inmates, would soon outweigh and make null any lingering skepticism.
Tameka Walton, one of Saturday’s panelists who teaches yoga in juvenile detention centers, commented on the exercise’s effects on her own well being.
“I am angry most of the time with how the world is,” Walton said. “However, yoga has taught me how to feel my triggers.”
For more information on SEYN visit seynchicago.org.