Step into Mandy’s* yoga class and it is instantly clear that this is not your average yoga studio.
Aside from a handful of blue athletic mats attached to the walls, the room is stark, and quiet. Figures in striped uniforms pass by the narrow windows set into white cinderblock walls.
Striped shirts litter the concrete floor and a group of seven men lie in shavasana, or corpse pose, on yoga mats, as Mandy speaks over soft music.
“The head can be its own kind of jail,” she says.
That elicits laughter from some of the men and Mandy herself. After all, they’re in a recreation room in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail.
But this group of men–and later on in the day, a group of women–meet weekly for Mandy’s hour-long yoga class because, to hear inmate Marco Brown put it, it’s better than commissary.
Despite any pre-conceived notions of “it’s just stretching” or “men don’t do yoga”, Brown says the inmates Mandy works with find the classes are helping them heal, one pose at a time.
“It’s not just for women per se, or for people outside the system,” said Brown. “In here, it creates peace.”
The jail began offering classes in January of 2018, when Mandy first reached out to the jail’s superintendent, Russ Gilkison. He admits he wasn’t sold on the idea of the Prison Yoga Project at first. The project, which utilizes trauma-informed yoga to reduce recidivism rates and promote rehabilitation, was founded by James Fox in 2002.
“Really? Yoga in a Jail?” Gilkison recalls asking. “I’m not really sure. I’ve been doing this 20 years and I don’t have any experience in that.”
But he heard her out and realized yoga–a practice that engages the body, mind, and spirit–might help out his inmates. A year into the program and the testimonies from those who have taken the class are compelling.
Inmate Adam Lamma says he had never done yoga before taking Mandy’s class. Now, he says he does yoga every single day and in Wednesday’s class, he shows off shirshasana, or headstand pose, for the other inmates. Lamma appreciates the physical benefits of the practice, but says for him it’s bigger than that.
“Over 70 percent of jail and prison populations are people in due to drug and alcohol charges,” said Lamma. “Addiction is a disease, just like diabetes. And to me, yoga is to me what insulin is to a diabetic.”
While it was his first time in the jail’s class, Michael Meszaros is one of the few male inmates who has done yoga before. He says the jails he’s been in before never offered anything like Mandy’s class.
In an environment with few options, both the choice to take the class and the yoga itself provide a sense of control of Meszaros.
“Controlling the mental, the body, the breathing, the exercising, the unconsciousness, and just, understanding who you are,” he said.
When she first started the program, Mandy admits she was nervous.
“I was afraid, afraid of the stripes. I didn’t know if I would be safe,” she said. But after spending time with the men and women in the program, she’s rooting for them when they are released.
Mandy has seen one of her students, a woman, out “in the streets” as the inmates call it. She says the woman was healthy and glowing, holding down a job. Seeing that re-affirmed her dedication to helping inmates tap into the best versions of themselves.
“Ninety-eight percent of them are going to get out,” she said. “When they get out, I want them to be in better shape than when they came in.”
*By her request, WDVM 25 is withholding Mandy’s real name, instead using the name she goes by during classes.