ISSUE #014 - May 07, 2019

Insights from the Inside: Teaching Yoga at San Quentin State Prison

Chanda Williams

Teaching yoga to incarcerated people is a calling; it is not for the faint of heart. It requires devotion, passion, and willingness to be seen as an advocate for human rights by some and through the lens of scrutiny by others. It requires the ability to see this population through the eyes of compassion and non-judgment. As an instructor of trauma-informed yoga classes at San Quentin State Prison through the Prison Yoga Project (PYP), I share an embodied, contemplative, body-based practice with my students while integrating my growing theoretical knowledge as a somatic depth psychology graduate student. These classes are offered to men sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. San Quentin as a place is at once lovely and disturbing. Located in affluent Marin County, California, San Quentin is a short drive from both Oakland and San Francisco, with breath-taking views of the bay. It evokes a feeling of awe as one witnesses the Spanish design of the vast buildings against the majestic backdrop of Mount Tamalpais. But San Quentin also arouses deep feelings of sadness, horror, and a sense of loss of humanity when one considers the nearly 4,000 men imprisoned there as well as those impacted by violence. The sound of the waves crashing upon the shore at the edge of the prison grounds reminds me to breathe deeply for us all. In this essay, I hope to shed light upon effects of violence, trauma and mass incarceration, and how they can be mitigated through a trauma-informed, mindfulness-based yoga practice.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, I witnessed the effects of poverty, crime, and substance abuse upon my community. The ensuing wars on drugs and gangs targeted the African-American and Hispanic poor, many of whom looked to illegal markets as a means of survival. Despite the fact that African-Americans make up only 12% of the United States population, we account for 33% of the prison population, primarily for non-violent crimes (Gramlich, 2018). Many prisoners are victims of trauma and violence themselves. Research shows that 89% of prisoners surveyed had both experienced and witnessed more than one traumatic event during their lifetime (Adamas, Gleicher, Reichert, Konefal, & Cantrell, 2017). “These early experiences (childhood abuse, for example) can lead to destructive behavior against self and others, learning disabilities, dissociative problems, unexplained physical conditions and distortions in concepts about self and others” (Figley & Reda, 2012). As an African-American woman, I am deeply disheartened by the number of incarcerated people of color and I endeavor to support the community in healing from the effects of disenfranchisement and systemic racism. My work with the Prison Yoga Project is directly influenced by my personal experience and my desire to, in a very small way, ameliorate the trauma and the effects of mass incarceration, through the offering of yoga with the hope that as these men return to their communities, they can do so with a greater sense of empathy, compassion, and interconnectedness with all beings.

In somatic depth psychology, the body is understood holistically, meaning that the body is experienced from within, that the body and mind are not separated, but experienced as a whole. Professionally, my work is oriented towards the alleviation of the psycho-somatic effects of trauma through mindful movement, conscious breathing, intentional awareness, and guided inquiry. I believe that yoga provides a unique solution in how trauma is treated in vulnerable populations. Many prisoners suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), which is defined as chronic interpersonal trauma experienced early in life such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and have witnessed crime — including murder. For these individuals, carrying unaddressed and unresolved trauma has impacted every aspect of their lives, ultimately resulting in their incarceration. However, stigma and other barriers to care prevent many of these individuals from pursuing mental health treatment. Therapeutic yoga has been identified in a number of studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health as a method to improve psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression as well as to increase feelings of gratitude and compassion, relatedness, acceptance, centeredness, and empowerment.

But isn’t prison supposed to punish people to deter them from committing crime and returning to prison? Shouldn’t we lock people up and throw away the key after they’ve committed atrocities like murder?

Punitive justice systems that place the offender at the center of the process is seeking to only to punish the individual for the crime (, 2019). Victims of crime are tangential to the system and the harm they have suffered is often unaddressed. The personal and systemic circumstances that have led to the crime are also unaddressed — the root causes of crime. If the intention is to reduce crime and create safer communities, the failure to address root causes renders our current criminal justice system largely ineffective (2019). Furthermore, incarceration is financially unsustainable. A study from Washington University found that the cost of incarceration in the United States exceeds $1 trillion, or six percent of gross domestic product (Schoenherr, 2016). More than 90% of incarcerated people will eventually be released and returned to our communities. Wouldn’t you prefer that these individuals be provided with the skills needed to cultivate a greater self-awareness to disrupt patterns of violence and aggression to successfully re-integrate and positively contribute to society?

Aligning awareness of the body, internally as well as externally, with the mind can facilitate a better understanding of self. As we increase our knowledge of self, an increase in understanding, empathy and compassion for others will follow. By looking at trauma in this context, we begin to see how developing awareness of body sensations in service to the release of trauma may help a person to feel more secure in their body and correspondingly form healthy attachments in their relationships. There is a greater likelihood that an individual will be open to embracing difference and participating in a society that promotes respect, honest communication and healthy relationships. Through my research and observations from my work with the PYP, I see the value of developing emotional intelligence and somatic awareness practices not only for incarcerated populations but for victims of violence, veterans, C-PTSD sufferers and those who are living through chronic illness.

With this deepening self-awareness, participants begin to facilitate their own rehabilitation and personal transformation. The necessity of in-prison programming, like the Prison Yoga Project, and re-entry support is critical, as many people still do not receive the in-prison or post-release services needed for healing, empowerment and success while in prison and upon release. The traditional punitive approach has created a revolving door of prisoners unable to successfully return to society, resulting in enormous fiscal as well as socio-cultural impacts. Alternatively, the Prison Yoga Project takes the restorative approach by supporting the development of self-awareness, self-worth, empathy, and compassion in our students that leads to constructive personal and pro-social choices. The PYP has chapters throughout the United States and abroad with demonstrated success of our students upon release. With programs like ours, as well as increased public awareness and support for criminal justice reform, we have the opportunity to positively impact outcomes of those incarcerated and reduce rates of recidivism, supporting the healing and well-being of our participants and their communities.


Adamas, S., Gleicher, L., Reichert, J., Konefal, K., & Cantrell, D. (2017, July 25). An Examination of Traumatic Experiences and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among a Sample of Illinois Prisoners. Retrieved December 11, 2018, from

Gramlich, J. (2018, January 12). The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from Philosophy (n.d.). Retrieved from

Reda, O. & Figley, C.R. (2012). Traumatology. In Gale Virtual Reference Library. (pp. 781-782). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference

Schoenherr, N. (2016, September 07). Cost of incarceration in the U.S. more than $1 trillion | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from


ISSUE #014

On Somatic Healing & Social Justice
Image: On Somatic Healing & Social Justice

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