DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Helping Clallam inmates breathe a little easier

SHOWING MY RED badge — which permits me to go without escort — I pass through six gates and under the guard tower. Concertina wire, a series of stone-faced guards, slamming doors and metal detectors: They’re all at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, the state prison for some 900 men.

Since January 2016, I’ve been part of a small cadre of Port Angeles women who go in — one at a time — to teach weekly yoga classes.

Our students come in all shapes and colors. In T-shirts, sweatpants and socks — not the ideal yoga apparel, but they don’t let that stop them — they carefully follow the instructions in my two-hour class — everything from child’s pose and mountain pose to dancer, warrior one, warrior two and exalted warrior.

I received specialized training from Yoga Behind Bars, a statewide nonprofit organization (yogabehindbars.org), to volunteer at the prison.

The men in my classes are dedicated to the practice. With their focus and grace, they calm me. There are times, though, when I can hardly believe that I, a 110-pound woman, am in a prison teaching 10 or 20 burly, tattooed men how to relax.

This is exactly where I want to be. Ann Carlson, one of my sister yoga teachers at Clallam Bay, explains it well.

It’s about service — and determination.

“Every time I walk into the prison, I am putting my little lizard-mind aside,” she said.

“I am getting out of my own way and walking straight into my fears … and damn, it feels good” to rise above the fear and doubt.

Jenny Houston, another yoga sister, is the one who worked with Yoga Behind Bars to get the Clallam Bay program going back in 2015.

“I really do feel that yoga is for everyone,” she said, “even those who are incarcerated. They can’t come to us, so we go to them.”

We are all born innocent, Jenny added.

“For whatever reasons, our students at CBCC made poor choices and must live with that for the rest of their lives … In a way, I feel like I owe it to them to be there. I had all the potential in the world: great role models, I came from a stable home with parents who kept me safe, I got a good education and I felt loved every single day of my life.”

The men at Clallam Bay may not have had any of this. Yet Jenny, who like Ann is a classically trained yoga teacher, believes in the practice’s powers to heal.

Recidivism rates are lower among those who attended yoga classes in prison, according to YogaBehindBars.org.

Inside or outside, yoga isn’t just about whatever pose we’re doing; it is about breathing deeply, moving through stressful situations — poses and otherwise — on one’s own inhale and exhale.

Ann recalled the day T.C., one of her students, asked for more breathing instruction.

“He said that until yoga, he felt like he’d never really breathed; like he’d been holding his breath his whole life.”

NowThisNews sent a production crew to Clallam Bay earlier this year. The resulting video, in its few minutes, gives the men back their voices.

Yoga “takes me outside these walls,” said Willie, one of our students. “It helps me so much.”

After we lengthened our classes from one hour to two — allowing more time for relaxation and conversation about the pose sequence — another student said something to me I won’t forget.

This man is a yoga teacher in his own right, having completed Yoga Behind Bars’ training for inmates last year.

“We had real yoga today,” our student — and teacher — said.

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Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Angeles.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Oct. 4.

Reach her at Creodepaz@yahoo.com.