Monroe prisoners use yoga to focus mind, body

MONROE — It’s early morning at the Monroe Correctional Complex. While most inmates are in the weight room, six of them lie on mats on the basketball court. Most are wearing white T-shirts and shorts.

All wait for the instructor to start the one-hour weekly yoga class. Usually about 20 inmates take this class.

Reni Lumey, 33, has been in prison for two years and started yoga a few months ago. He enjoys the class and thinks it’s helped him.

“I am more flexible,” he said. “I can do stuff I could not do, like relax.”

They sit cross-legged and take deep breaths to warm up. They stand and start stretching.

The instructor leads them through breathing exercises where the inmates slowly stretch their arms and legs. She cautions against overextending themselves.

The class is given by Yoga Behind Bars, which teaches the exercise and meditation techniques to incarcerated youths and adults, at-risk youths and people with drug and alcohol dependency.

“Yoga is the inner science of change,” said Natalie Smith, executive director of Yoga Behind Bars.

The men at the Monroe prison range in age from their 20s and 30s to others who have gray hair. As with any yoga class, each works at his own level as the instructor goes through the exercises. But the class isn’t only about flexibility. It aims to change their behavior.

For example, during a balance exercise called the swan dive the instructor tells them to focus on breathing, to be calm and to remember the feeling when they’re in situations where they feel angry or frustrated.

The instructor urges them pay attention to their inner selves. She tells them to think about patterns in their life and which ones they want to break. She tells them to think before they act.

The Seattle nonprofit offers the classes at four prisons, two jails and two youth facilities throughout the state.

The goal is to help teach the convicts how to better adjust to life when they get outside.

There is no study that shows that inmates actually benefits from these classes, but Smith thinks that yoga does change lives. While she does not teach in Monroe, she’s has seen progress from her students in the classes that she teaches in Seattle.

“They come agitated and stressed,” she said. “Afterward, they feel calmer.”

The organization has been asked to expand its services to other facilities but lacks the resources to do so. It is run by volunteers and operates completely on donations, Smith said. There are similar programs in other parts of the country, including one in Portland, Ore.

The program is being run at a time when the state has instituted monthly lockdowns to help the department cut 6 percent of its spending, or about $53 million, by the end of June 2011. Yoga Behind Bars doesn’t charge the department for offering the classes to the inmates.

The nonprofit approached officials at Monroe Correctional Complex in 2008, who were open to the class, Smith said. The only requirement was that volunteers needed to commit to eight months of training.

From the prison’s standpoint, anything that can help inmates relax can only be a good thing.

“Less stress, less problems,” recreational director Bryan Bechler said.

The yoga class is part of the fitness program at the complex, which also includes nutrition classes. Yoga is open to any inmate who passes a medical check up. During one hour, the inmates can focus on something other than the fact they’re behind bars, Bechler said.

That’s the reason why Noel Caldellis takes the class.

Caldellis, 23, practiced yoga even before being convicted. He said the class brings him peace.

“It gives me a needed relaxation, especially in this environment,” he said.

Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; adominguez@

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