In June of 2012, yoga instructor Ginny Kuhn, founder of Prison Yoga, began an enlightening journey into the darkness of Santa Barbara’s correctional institutions system. Her odyssey began with teaching yoga at Santa Barbara County Jail Honor Farm (medium security). Two years later, she was invited to teach in the high-security section of Santa Barbara County’s main jail.
“I was really scared, but I said yes,” she recalls.
Kuhn was escorted by a security guard as they rolled a huge securely locked plastic trash bin filled with yoga mats into the outdoor exercise area of Santa Barbara County’s main jail—a courtyard with high cement walls encircled by a barbed wire fence. Then, as her new pupils gathered, she instructed the inmates to bring their attention inward as she began their first yoga lesson. The environment was less than conducive to such a task.
“There was lots of noise. Inmates were humming and screaming, and guards in the tower were talking on intercoms!”
That first day of class, the noise did subside, and despite the setting, Kuhn encouraged the women to focus on their breath while introducing the concept of being “present with” and “aware of” their thoughts and emotions.
“Being outdoors in the sunshine invited a healing environment,” says Kuhn.
Inspired by her University of Santa Monica’s graduate school question, “How would she use her masters degree to make a heartfelt contribution to the world?” the yogini decided then and there that she would teach yoga to a population that might not otherwise have access to the practice. Consequently, she created the nonprofit to follow her bliss.
“My passion is to work with incarcerated (people) and work on re-entry,” says the married mother of two young adults.
Prison Yoga classes are also taught at Los Prietos Boys Camp, and Kuhn worked with Michael Morgan’s Odyssey Project there. Both men and women are taught at the honor farm, main jail and, recently, Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.
“Yoga is a great healing tool and modality for the inmates to not only connect with their bodies, but see what’s going on in their heads and their hearts and really process it. It affords them the opportunity to express themselves at a soul level. Often, they are either beating themselves up or not taking ownership, feeling terrible and guilty. This allows them to see themselves beyond their choices and behavior,” Kuhn notes.
Prison Yoga’s stated mission is to train incarcerated individuals in yoga, meditation and mindful practices in order to reduce the impact of trauma and stress of a life of incarceration, as well as build the skills and mindsets that increase successful re-entry and reduce recidivism rates.
Kuhn enthusiastically stresses: “Through these practices, these populations see themselves beyond their choices and behavior. Everyone is worthy of love.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, visit prisonyogaSB.org.
This story was originally published in the spring 2018 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.