Classes help inmates find peace
When Chris Trani began teaching classes on yoga and mindfulness at the Clackamas County Jail, attendees completed the stretches on chairs because there were no yoga mats available.
But not long after the program began, an employee at the jail facilitated the purchase of yoga mats for the class.
"Every time I go there my heart opens up, not only to them but to (giving them) the tools they need to manage their lives while incarcerated and out of jail," Trani said.
In October, Trani began teaching the classes at the Clackamas County Jail in Oregon City twice a month. The classes started out as hour long events and were recently extended to an hour and a half.
Trani, who has a background in nursing and counseling and now works as a coach and facilitator, has launched yoga classes in jails for the past decade.
In a mission statement, Trani stated that the courses are "offered as an enhancement program aiming to address psychological and physical well-being and to improve functioning while incarcerated and after release."
She added that each class features "simple, accessible exercises done in movement and in stillness to increase awareness, manage attention (and) foster acceptance."
While yoga "is the union of mind, body and breath," mindfulness centers upon paying attention to the direction one's thoughts are taking, Trani said.
"(Mindfulness) not a magic skill. It's about how you focus your attention, and staying aware of where your attention is in the moment," she explained. "When our attention feels pulled in many places and is moving quickly, that can lead to overwhelm."
She added that repeatedly practicing these skills can result in many beneficial outcomes.
"You get mentally stronger," Trani said. "You can concentrate better, and discern where your attention is being pulled, and not get pulled quickly into certain things. If you're feeling upset, you can learn the skills to bring yourself back to the center."
Since many participants will only attend one class because of short stays at the jail, Trani strives to equip them with the knowledge they'll need during a single session. Each meeting begins with a discussion of what yoga and mindfulness are, and attendees receive an index card with definitions and typical yoga postures. Next, the group applies what they've learned while completing yoga stretches and breathing exercises.
"Rather than teaching a traditional class, I wanted them to have something to take away and have access at their fingertips," Trani said.
Trani isn't alone in seeing the benefits of bringing yoga into jails. In 2017, a study of an eight week yoga program at a jail in Australia found that prisoners showed decreased levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Prisoners also reported increased self-esteem and an improved ability to accept their emotional responses and engage in goal-directed behavior.
In the Pacific Northwest, groups like the Prison Yoga Project and Yoga Behind Bars bring yoga courses to jails.
Feedback from participants of the Clackamas County Jail's classes has been positive.
"This is a great idea to offer this. It helps manage anger, anxiety, feelings and promotes positive feelings," one participant wrote on a response card.
"Want to pursue more yoga. Didn't know until today that my body needed it," another participant wrote.
Trani has enjoyed connecting inmates with yoga since the first class she taught.
"Like many people, I was afraid and had pre-conceptions. But when I went there, there weren't really any differences between them and me besides a decision they made," she said. "Some of them spoke openly about how they wouldn't have gone to a local yoga studio, and that yoga was this unreachable thing to them."
She added that she leaves every class inspired.
"(I appreciate) how open they are to learning, and how grateful they are someone would choose to come spend time with them," she said.
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