Reflection on a Practice Feminist Research Study: Exploring the Benefits of Yoga for Incarcerated Teen Girls
Reflection on a practice Feminist Research Study: Exploring the Benefits of Yoga for Incarcerated Teen Girls
Jennifer C. Ater
RSH 612 Womens Ways of Knowing
Antioch University Midwest
This is a practice feminist research study that explores the benefits of yoga for incarcerated teen girls specifically. There are several models of successful yoga programs for incarcerated youth and statistics show the cost effective benefits that alternative programming provide in an effort to reduce recidivism among youth offenders. Based on the research and the findings in this study, incarcerated teens face staggering obstacles to overcome in order to rehabilitate and move in a more positive direction. Yoga proves to be a positive influence on teens during this valuable and crucial transition. Yoga programs that work in partnership with other effective treatment programs could prove to be a missing link in the rehabilitative process that can help youth develop self-awareness, self-respect, and self-control among other valuable tools on their journey toward transformation and a better life.
“As girls enter the juvenile justice system, they stand on the precipice of a lifelong cycle of crime and incarceration, yet still have the opportunity to turn toward healing and rehabilitation” (Harris & Fitton, 2010). Most of the teen girls involved in this study stated during an interview that they were glad that they ended up at the Miami Valley Juvenile Rehabilitation Center (MVJRC) as it at has offered them a second chance and provided them an opportunity to see themselves through a new lens and perceive a new way of being in the world. Based on my work with incarcerated teens and my review of the literature available on the subject of yoga and incarcerated youth, I’ve come to a recognition that almost all of the youth in the juvenile justice system are dealing with issues of abandonment, neglect, trauma, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, personal or parental exposure to drug and alcohol addiction, as well as exposure to violence in their homes and communities. These negative influences effect teens in a number of adverse ways including self-destructive behavior, violence, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Based on my own experiences as a researcher and teacher, it is evident that incarcerated youth are overwhelmed with multidirectional and multidimensional stress. It is therefore very easy to draw a correlation between the need for healing and the recognition that fostering healing that involves the mind and the body such as yoga postures, breath work, mindfulness, and meditation is integral in the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth, and offers the potential for a new perspective on being in a complex and changing world.
Many yoga programs have been implemented with much success at juvenile justice facilities across the country. Several articles advocating for intervention programs for at-risk and incarcerated youth have been published showing positive research results that conclude that yoga offers countless benefits to teens that have been exposed to trauma, abuse, addiction, and violence. The Niroga institute, a non-profit agency in California published a study in 2010 showing that incarcerated youth at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center who were exposed to yoga two to five hours per week showed significant improvement on the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10) and Tangney’s Self-Control Scale (TSCS-13). The Niroga program is designed to facilitate stress management and healing from trauma, with the following physical, emotional, intellectual, and social benefits in mind: strength, flexibility, balance, relaxation, self-regulation, coping skills, empathy, focus, attention, engagement, decision-making skills, healthy lifestyle choices, interconnectedness and interdependence. According to Ramadoss and Bose (2010), “Statistical analyses indicate a significant improvement in stress resilience, self-control, and self-awareness among the youth exposed to Niroga’s Transformative Life Skills, consisting of yoga postures, breathing techniques and meditation. These results have substantial relevance to education and community-wide violence prevention.” (Bose & Ramadoss, 2010)
Ramadoss and Bose also offer staggering statistics about the potential negative effects of being incarcerated and the rate of recidivism among youth that have been in jail already and assert that incarceration alone may not be the most effective way of reducing repeat offenses and that it may actually cause higher crime rates by aggravating recidivism. “According to a report published by the Justice Policy Institute, youth incarceration harms emotional, mental, and social development and has counterproductive effects on communities. In 1999, Wisconsin state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee conducted an evaluation of four counties and reported that 70% of youth held in secure detention were arrested or returned to secure detention within one year of release. The separation from family and community, and the congregation of offenders, make previous incarceration the leading indicator for a repeat offense among young offenders.” In further support of alternative programming for incarcerated youth, they discuss an important cost benefit analysis conducted in Washington State in 2002 which showed that for every $1 spent on juvenile detention systems, the cost-benefit return was about $2 in terms of reduced crime and cost of crime to taxpayers. The cost-benefit returns were much higher for a series of alternative programming such as cognitive behavioral treatment. These studies indicate the positive social and economic benefits of reducing the amount of youth that are incarcerated and investing in alternative programs that enhance their ability to heal and make positive choices in improving their lives and the lives of others. (Bose & Ramadoss, 2010)
According to Mary Lynn Fitton, a nurse practitioner and founder of the Art of Yoga Project: A Gender-Responsive Yoga and Creative Arts Curriculum for Girls in the California Juvenile Justice System, there is a vast need for gender based programming for at-risk and incarcerated teen girls. She asserts that the numbers of girls in juvenile correctional institutions are rising and that they encounter gender-bias and have to fit into programming and institutions that were designed for and primarily run by an adult male population. Statistics report that there are high numbers of young teen girls forced to cope with adult issues like pregnancy without positive female role models and support systems and that teen girls are more likely to look to outside sources for self-esteem and are more susceptible to media influences. Fitton and Harris (2010) also include statistics that report teen girls tend to experience psychological, sexual, or emotional abuse from caregivers, acquaintances, or family members, while boys are more likely to be abused physically by enemies or strangers. In addition, young women are developmentally and socially at different stages than teen boys and therefore need more gender specific programming that supports their unique perspectives. (Harris & Fitton, 2010)
The goal of the Art of Yoga curriculum is to foster self-awareness, self-respect, and self-control by joining the healing and grounding practices that yoga offers with the opportunity for self expression through visual art and creative writing. The yoga is grounding and centering while the art activity offers a safe environment for positive and creative self-expression, rather than expression through violence or at-risk behaviors. Fitton and Harris (2010) report positive results for incarcerated teen girls and praise for their integrative program, “We have found that girls feel better both emotionally and physically after participating in the program. They learn to self-regulate, using their breathing to create an important pause in which to make better decisions. We also found that Yoga helps the girls open up and speak to their therapists with more awareness. This curriculum has been referred to as the “missing link” in a girl’s rehabilitation by those working within the juvenile justice system. ” (Harris & Fitton, 2010)
Because trauma is found to be so prevalent in the histories of incarcerated youth, there may be a direct relationship with unhealed trauma and criminal activity. Yoga Therapists and Somatic Psychologists acknowledge the phenomenon that trauma related memories are stored in the tissues of the body and that body/mind oriented therapies like yoga have the potential to offer valuable tools and resources to move beyond the nervous system’s fight or flight and freeze responses to a place of equilibrium where healing from trauma can occur. Many studies also show yoga’s success as an integrative therapy for post traumatic stress disorder, especially with veterans. The self-awareness that yoga offers helps to support self-regulation mechanisms in the body and mind. The movement through physical postures, connected with breath awareness helps release tension and stored trauma from the tissues, while activating a parasympathetic nervous system response that is relaxing and reduces heart rate. The practice of focusing and creating mindfulness helps alleviate tension in the mind. The integration of positive themes can help build more positive attitudes and emotions like forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, self-acceptance, positive intentions, and self-efficacy or belief in one’s ability. Systematic relaxation and breathing techniques provide tools to reduce stress, let go, and experience calm and peace.
Background and Research Methods
Last fall, I approached the Miami Valley Juvenile Rehabilitation Center with a desire to explore bringing the tools and benefits of yoga to at-risk youth. I was inspired by Hala Khouri, a yoga teacher in California who created a curriculum for at-risk youth for her Master’s thesis in Somatic Psychology. I was invited to work with the boys and I conducted a pilot study looking to prove positive benefits for at-risk teenagers. I asked them to fill out pre and post yoga surveys and I analyzed the results after 8 weeks. The pilot study showed a significant increase in agreement with statements like “I feel calm and peaceful” and “I feel more focused and in control of my actions” from before to after the yoga practice. Because the boys offered such positive feedback for the yoga program and the girls at MVJRC showed interest and asked for yoga, I was asked to return to teach the girls this past September.
In an effort to practice feminist research, I decided to take a more non-linear approach to my work with the girls and tried to allow my research to evolve from my experience of interacting with the girls through teaching them yoga. I decided to implement more qualitative research modalities in my yoga project with the teen girls group and to focus on my observations, journals, and one on one interviews with the original eight girls that I started with in September. I taught a few weeks of classes and then started conducting interviews with the girls who had finished and were getting ready to leave the program, and I started noting my observations in field notes and exchanging journals with the girls. My research questions formed loosely by the time I got to the interview stage where I explained that my agenda was to try to development a deeper understanding of the girl’s experiences: what challenges did they face from their past or presently? How did they respond to my yoga teaching? If they felt yoga helped them and how? And if they had any suggestions for ways that I could improve the yoga program to better meet their needs?
My focus falls within the category of feminist research because I am working to develop a deeper understanding of the unique perspective and background of teen girls in order to offer them more self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-respect, self-control and potentially more freedom through introducing them to the yogic and feminist research process. My method is reflexive in that my research is informed and evolves from my own perspective of being a female yoga practitioner who has found inspiration, healing, and transformation from my own yoga practice and from sharing it with others. Furthermore, I tried to allow the girls to direct the research process as much as possible, inviting them to ask questions, make suggestions, and express themselves during class discussions, journaling, and the interviews.
The timeline of this practice research lasted from September through November 2011. The yoga classes were taught once per week and were an hour in length. Approximately 8 teenage girls ranging in age between 15-19 years old participated. After a few weeks, the girls started to talk about their home visits and going home soon. Then each week over the course of the ten weeks that I worked with them, girls started going home and new girls started arriving. Most of the girls who were in the original group of eight that I interviewed were able to experience at least 6-8 classes before leaving the program. I interviewed most of them within two weeks of them leaving the program.
In order to offer some background information about the center, the following quote from MVJRC”s website explains the approach of the treatment program. “MVJRC offers a cognitive-behavioral and social skills development program in which problem solving strategies are modeled, practiced, and reinforced. Youth are encouraged to re-define themselves in socially responsible and personally fulfilling ways. The program targets criminal thinking as well as the effects of trauma and victimization by challenging cognitive distortions, pro-criminal attitudes/values, negative peer associations, substance abuse, and unhealthy expressions of anger.” According to the director of the program, cognitive-behavioral therapy takes the approach that changing one’s thoughts will lead to a change in behavior. Yoga principles and practices directly support this concept because yoga has the potential to help teens develop the self-awareness and clarity it takes to shift thoughts and behaviors toward a more positive direction.
The format of the classes was fairly informal. In the beginning I talked about the importance of respect of themselves and each other and that the focus of yoga was internal. I tried to follow a ritual of ringing a bell before yoga and leaving space at the end of practice for the girls to reflect or ask me questions through journaling. I taught the girls a style of yoga called Vinyasa Yoga that combines flowing postures, linked with breath awareness. Postures and certain sequences were repeated for retention, while I also made an effort to offer a variety of postures with various energetic or physiological effects such as backbends, forward bends, twists, standing poses, balancing postures, arm balances, and inversions. Each class involved a time of checking in where we might discuss a specific theme as well as checking in for the day. This was a time when girls could express what was going on with them that day or week and it was a way for me to read their energy levels and attitude before class. I incorporated breathing techniques and systematic relaxation techniques at the beginning and always tried to leave time for relaxation, rest, and meditation at the end. I played music at times for them, sometimes offering more upbeat and energetic music with positive lyrics. Mostly we listened to calming and relaxing music during practice. After a few weeks, each girl had her own mat to use in the gym during class and a personally decorated yoga journal to record her practice or any thoughts or questions in. Themes for classes included learning about using the ground as a resource for strength, creating positive intentions, learning self-care, letting go, and gratitude. My intention was to offer them a foundation of understanding basic yoga principals and poses and then after a while, I offered them space within and outside of the framework of the postures, encouraging them to explore and practice finding their own yoga practice. During many classes, we focused on trying to release tension in the body, allowing breath to create space in the body, and all the while trying to be with whatever comes up in a compassionate way. Throughout each class, I made an effort to create a safe and authentic environment for them to explore and hopefully unfold.
Observations and Results
My observations and results come from 4 sources: my own experience as a researcher and yoga class facilitator and teacher, my observations of the experience in the classroom, the journals that I collected each week from the girls, and the one on one interviews.
As I had been exposed to some concepts in feminist research through the Womens Ways of Knowing course, I was acutely aware of my identity as a researcher from the beginning and that I did not want to be perceived as an outsider even though at times I felt like one coming into an institution with a certain degree of unfamiliarity. My role as a possible subject as a researcher was also in my periphery as I tried to create a safe environment where the girls might open to an authentic experience of peace, joy, or relief from physical or emotional pain, I was also aware of my own relationship to being a teenager, or my perceived ability or inability to relate to their situation. As a facilitator and researcher, part of the results may be or have been influenced by my perceptions, how I taught, what I taught. However, I tried to maintain an underlying trust in the yogic process and the proven efficacy of the techniques taught.
Most of the girls seemed to have a positive attitude about the yoga from the very first class and over time all seemed to appreciate it and show proficiency and expressed benefits that they received from class. Several of them shared that they had tried it before and seemed excited to get started. It was obvious to me that a few seemed agitated and were not totally on board with the idea. However, for the most part, they all participated from the very beginning. Some of the girls complained that certain postures made their bodies hurt, I responded that this was normal and not to push themselves to the point of pain. It was challenging for them to close their eyes during relaxation and breathing and I also observed a lot of fidgeting. I tried ignoring the fidgeting, but it was more effective when I addressed the fidgeting more directly, telling them I knew it was hard to be still and maybe making eye contact. It was obvious to me from the start that when I was able to be more calm and non-reactive, that classes went more smoothly. During the check in time at the beginning, girls at times shared genuine emotion about stressors that were affecting their lives in that moment like difficulty with home visits or family members, they often shared a lot of positives during that time as well. Issues with family and boyfriends came up often as well as gratitude and positive feedback for the yoga that I teaching. I observed that many of the girls especially like challenging poses like backbends, arm balances, and inversions like head stand and handstand were the favorites. While they seemed to be focused on the physical during class, they often expressed feelings of relaxation and appreciation for the relaxing music. They outwardly thanked me for coming from the very beginning and over time, even the girls that seemed skeptical at first seemed to appreciate the time of practicing all together in a girls yoga circle. As time went by, some girls left and new girls arrived so I did my best to create continuity. The experienced girls helped to set the tone as leaders in the class as new girls were introduced to the practice and that was really rewarding to observe.
After a few classes we made journals and I was able to start to develop a more personal relationship with them. Some of them were more expressive than others. I tried to respond to each girl’s journal each week, in order to build trust and communication. My sense is that my personal responses in their journals helped build the trust of some of the more skeptical girls that were initially uncertain about whether they wanted to do yoga. It was obvious that a lot of the girls liked communicating with me in this way and most immediately started thanking me for teaching them and letting me know that they liked it. Some took it as an opportunity to let me know of any challenges they were facing physically and emotional and I tried to respond in a supportive way. Here are some examples of what they wrote about in their journals:
“I feel really good and it seems like all my stress is gone. Also like I’ve got a more clear mind.”
“Doing the stretches today felt really good and seemed to take a lot of feelings off my chest”
“I really liked the sun salutation. I feel like it opened me up a lot and relaxed me a lot. It was a really weird, yet awesome feeling.”
“Yoga was a little difficult because I was sore from gym, it did help me relax and think clearly”
“I’m more at peace with myself and very happy with how I feel. I feel relaxed and better. I enjoy yoga and look forward to it”
“I felt like I was letting all the stress out of my body and at peace with myself”
“My body feels more energized which is weird, I was not expecting that. I feel really relaxed and almost carefree, if you will.”
“I feel relaxed, yet energized. My spirits are higher (happy)!”
“I think it can help make me stronger. It was fun and energizing. Thank you!”
“I’m excited I can do firefly now. I feel a lot better/whole”
“My back was already sore when we came in, it feels a little better now. I want to be more flexible”
“I love music, art, and psychology, I’m interested in yoga to become more flexible and to practice being at peace.” “My back feels stretched”
“Before I was very tired and cold and thinking about negative things going on in my life. Now, I’m warmer and awake and in a better mood. More at peace. My drawing represents my life at the moment. There are clouds but the sun will shine through” (with a nice drawing of a sun and clouds parting)
“I’ve found out a lot of stressful stuff and now I feel calm and relaxed.”
“When we were doing the hip openers, I was surprised with how good my legs felt afterwards. I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings today since my boyfriend got six months”
“I liked doing the inversions. I think I’m actually quite good at them and my body feels better as well. I wish you had more time with us here though!”
After a few weeks of teaching the girls yoga, I started interviewing the ones that were going to be leaving soon. We sat after class in a semi-private lounge and hallway area after the yoga practice, and while the girls were eating dinner. The interviews varied in length depending on the flow of conversation or the girls schedule that evening. They ranged in length between fifteen and forty five minutes, averaging about thirty minutes in length. Some girls were more shy or reserved but most were very open about their life experiences.
I began the interviews with a short explanation of feminist research theory and that I did not have any set questions but wanted to have a more open style conversation with them and I encouraged them to ask questions. All of the girls gave me permission to record the interviews and to use their names, however, I chose to only use their initials to distinguish them. I asked them to please talk about their experiences in order for me to better understand the perspective of teenage girls that are at MVJRC. I explained my objective for the interview was to find out information from them so that I could create better yoga programming to fit the needs of the girls at MVJRC and other girls their age dealing with similar circumstances. Most of the girls had no problem being totally open with me about their past mistakes and choices that had led them to coming to MVJRC. Many of them talked candidly about their past life experiences that included trauma, abuse, rape, neglect, and drug and alcohol abuse that they had been exposed to or endured. Several of them had been in foster care or were estranged or had very challenging relationships with their families. 75% of the girls talked about drugs, alcohol, abandonment, and neglect being part of their history with their families and caregivers. Several of the girls had been abandoned or sent to foster care by drug addicted parents. 50% of the girls shared that their past involved physical and psychological abuse by parents and other male authority figures or acquaintances. Several of the girls talked to me about drug and alcohol addiction in their past. There was a definite under-current of negative male influence in many of their lives and most committed crimes not only under the influence of drugs but under the influence of older male companions or friends. The overriding theme was that these girls had had to endure very rough lives and they were not taken care of the way children are supposed to be cared for. They had all been exposed to major traumatic events, negative environmental influences, and overwhelming stress. Despite all that they had endured, those young women were incredibly strong, self-aware, and courageous. I saw the potential for them to be amazing role models for other girls struggling with similar circumstances and I felt grateful and truly honored to be able to share space and conversation with them about such a meaningful subject as personal adversity and transformation. In addition, during all of the interviews, the girls expressed gratitude for the yoga, included personal accounts of it helping them to feel relaxed during stressful times, communicating that yoga helped them with clarity and focus, and most all expressed a desire to keep practicing, asking information about area studios.
Because this is a practice research project and I did not have the time to transcribe the interviews completely, I chose to focus on two girls that seemed to have especially rich stories and interview dialogue. In some cases, I chose to quote verbatim what is said, at other times I summarize the main points of our dialogue.
After I explained my reasons for wanting to talk with her and learn more about her unique experience, S naturally started describing her story without hesitation:
“I’ve had a really rough life, I guess that’s fair to say. And I’ve had to grow up a lot faster than most kids. I was robbed of my childhood. I had to take care of my little sisters and practically be their Mom. My Mom was an alcoholic and all she did was drink and it wasn’t safe for my sisters to be with her. She would just pawn them off to me while she would go off to the bar or sit in the front room and drink. She has been an alcoholic all my life, but she’s clean now. It started when I was 9, that’s when I started taking care of myself and my little sisters.”
As we talked further, she said that her mom started calling the cops on her for being an unruly kid when she was 7 and for part of her childhood, she lived with her father and stepmother, who was mentally and physically abusive behind her father’s back. When she was 13, her father divorced her stepmother and she went back to live with her mother and it was at this time that she says both her mother and father “got into drugs really bad.”Both her parents got on heroin. Her dad is clean now and her mom is too. During an interview she states, “I don’t know if it’s the truth, but I’m just hopin and prayin for the best because I don’t want to think negatively about that. I still feel like our roles are reversed, like I have to be the mom and she is the daughter and I have to do everything. That puts a lot of stress on me.”
Her boyfriend is in jail right now and she has been with him since she was 13. He is 3 years older than her and she has been with him for 3 years. Part of that time, her mother allowed him to live with them. To add to her stress, her boyfriend cheated on her while she was in jail. She talked about how she felt the pain of finding out about his cheating in her body as not being able to breath and feeling like she needed to throw up. It was then that she brought up that she used to be a “cutter” and that the desire to cut herself came back when she felt the emotional pain of knowing her boyfriend had been with someone else. She explained her reasons for cutting herself and then went into talking about how yoga helps her: “When things get so stressful for me, I felt like when I used to cut myself, any pain I ever felt I never had control over, but that, I had control over. I felt like I was the one in control, like nobody else could tell me how deep I could cut, how big I could cut, how long I could bleed or whatever, like I was the one in control of it. So I think yoga, if I continue to do it, which I do in my room sometimes, I’ve been trying to do the breathing techniques, I feel like it does, like it is a stress reliever, it just kind of makes me forget for that moment all the things that I have going on in my life, and that are so stressful and hectic to deal with. So I definitely don’t think about yoga how I used to think about it, like it is for weirdos and stuff, I honestly don’t think about it like that anymore. It calms me down and I like it.”
As the interview proceeded, she continued to talk about her difficult and traumatic experiences. She spoke about the trauma that her little sisters have been exposed to like being hospitalized for being beaten by a stepfather, witnessing their mother’s attempted suicide, or being raped by a male babysitter. I was touched by her strength when she said that she wished that she could have endured what her little sisters had to go through so that they would not have had to live their own experiences. She talked about a poem that she wrote and dedicated to her sisters during some arts programming that she planned to read during a program for parents.
When asked about any other challenges she faces, she talked about her boyfriend cheating on her as a major trauma as he has been her only support system for the last 3 years. She mentioned her mom’s mistakes as continuing to cause stress for her as well as being away from her sisters contributing to her depression. She described crying often in her room and I suggested that the crying was a good way to let go of emotion and allow it to be released. She also spoke of her relationship with substance abuse, weed and alcohol and how hard it was initially to cope with letting go of them when she came to the rehab center.
We eventually arrived at talking about why she was charged and incarcerated. She was involved in a robbery with two older adult male offenders in an effort to get money for marijuana. She was charged with 6 months, while they are in prison for five years because they are adults and were also charged with corrupting a minor. Then the subject shifted to her talking about being thankful for the program for offering her a second chance and she talked about another place called the Department of Youth Services or DYS that was much worse, she described it as a rough teenage prison.
When we circled back around to the discussion of yoga and if she had any suggestions for me in developing a yoga program for girls at MVJRC. She responded by saying: “Well I think you are a really good teacher and most people ain’t as calm as you are with us.” “I like the way you interact with us and how you don’t yell at us, but I think you’re very nice, and that you’re not always on-edge and going off on people like the other staff around here, they get really tired of us.” She went on to say that she really likes the inverted postures that we practiced on the wall and that she had been practicing them in her room. She let me know that she really appreciated the journals and that she thought it was helpful to be able to express herself after practice through writing. When asked about specific postures and sequencing she said that she liked the repetition of the warming up sun salutations, but that she also liked to be taught a variety of challenging and relaxing postures. She specifically liked the hip-openers and said her body felt more open and better after doing the postures that focus on opening the hip joints.
We ended the interview with me reviewing some specific information about the yoga postures and sequencing that S.F. asked about. I encouraged her to keep practicing and to learn the postures in order to be able to eventually find her own practice. I reminded her that the form was not as important as connecting with her own body and finding her own function within each posture. We ended by thanking each other for the important work that we were both doing.
“I come from a really rough childhood. My mom was on really big drugs and my dad, he has been in and out of prison for gang related stuff and everything. So I was the one who defended myself and took care of the whole household. When I was 6, that’s when I started learning how to grow up because I had to make sure my mom would stay alive. I’ve always been in and out of jail and I was really violent.” Her mom left her with her grandpa when she was 9 because she “went back to drugs really bad”. She went on to describe a very violent history that she attributes to her family background of her grandfather being a very violent person and her uncles being in gangs. She said that she had 10 assault charges and 6 domestic charges before she came to MVJRC. But through the program she described how she felt that she could control her anger much better and had learned to express her feelings in different ways, other than violence.
She said that she wanted to be a role model for others in her neighborhood that are already getting locked up. She believes that she can be an example for others with a violent past. “It’s my goal when I get out of here to help as many people as I can to get their lives straight” she said.
When asked about yoga, she said that it has helped her a lot. Especially after coming back from her visit, because her house is really tough and she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about her feelings there. She said, “just today, being in yoga for a little bit of time, helped me calm down and be more relaxed and stuff.” She said she had been crying and it really helped her change her mood and feel more relaxed.
When asked about how she thinks yoga helps, she said, “a lot of it is the breathing and the music, it’s all calm and stuff” She went on to say that her home life is really chaotic, always screaming and yelling, so yoga helped her find a calm place inside today where she could let some of the drama go and she could feel more relaxed and comfortable.
When asked if she thought she could create calm inside of her with yoga when she goes out into the real world, she said yeah, that she had been practicing some on her visit and she showed her mom on her home visit. Her mom said she was proud and smiled.
At that point, we paused and I told her some about my story and how much I admired her strength and how I was in awe of how she can move in a positive direction after the violence that she has been exposed to and created herself. She went onto say that she was worried about her biggest challenges being fighting and drugs and that she could be easily triggered because she liked the power and control she feels when she acts out in violent ways. We again talked about her drive to work on herself so that she can be an example to empower others to change from violent ways toward more peaceful ways of being. So we talked about the tool of pausing and breathing, and I shared how breathing helps me pause and not react when I’m angry with my son. She said that music is helpful and soothing to her and I encouraged her to remember her resources of music, drawing, and breathing and healthy ways to express ourselves. She talked about loving drawing and I shared with her my experience of using artwork as a way to express anger therapeutically when I was an art student in college. She agreed that she would try to draw as a healthy creative outlet and she shared a story of drawing a rose when she was really mad at her mom as a way to deal with her feelings and her mom ended up falling in love with the drawing and getting it permanently tattooed on her. This was an awesome example of how she had used her art as a way to heal and this was reinforced by her mom praising her for her work.
Discussion and Conclusion
After reading over the two interviews included in depth, I am in awe at the beautiful work that these girls are doing in their own lives as they heal from past trauma and navigate new ways of being in the world. They exhibited such intelligence both mentally and emotionally in their discussions of their experiences in their lives and in their hope for yoga potentially helping them in the future. They seemed so mature in their way of talking so candidly about difficult life struggles and their discussions and feedback about yoga were so insightful and filled with feminine strength. Like the others, both of their stories involved drug addicted parents, neglect, violence, and the witness of abuse. Both had done significant work to transform their old ways of being and expressed feelings of benefit from the yoga classes such as deeper relaxation and calm. I feel honored to get to work with this population of amazing young women and am hopeful that yoga programs such as the one I’m developing and the other models discussed in the introduction will continue to offer healing and transformation for many more young women. The statistics as well as these personal accounts outline the fact that incarcerated teen girls are a growing population in great need of intervention programs that support gender based healing. The girls testimonies and the review of literature support gender based yoga programming that offers an art or writing expressive outlet at the end of a grounded and inspiring yoga practice. In support of the therapy already offered at MVJRC, these girls also seemed to be in an excellent place to take the foundations of yoga in. Near completion with the program, they were self reflective and it was natural to integrate the yoga into the weekly routine at the center. Hopefully the program will continue to develop and grow. The process of working with these girls and the research and fieldwork was invaluable. It reconnected me with the recognition that yoga has the potential to transform lives by offering many benefits and tools to at-risk youth that truly appreciate and integrate the work into their own healing stories. It was an honor to work with these young women, full of hope, vitality, and strength.
Suggestions for future research and projects
It would have been nice to have had a chance to interview staff at MVJRC in order to gain more awareness and insight into their perceptions and experiences with seeing youth move through the program over time. Integrating more of the yoga themes with the therapeutic themes already present in the programming at MVJRC would also have been helpful. An opportunity to expose the staff to the tools and benefits of yoga at MVJRC would also be helpful in order to ensure the sustainability of the yoga program as well as allowing the techniques to be reinforced in individual or group therapy. With more time and resources, it would be helpful to perhaps provide more evidence to support yoga programming for incarcerated youth, if youth could be provided with continued exposure to yoga after they leave MVJRC or research could involve following up with youth in order to see the potential long-lasting effects that yoga can provide them after they leave.
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