Doing time and the Downward Dog: Yoga adds stability to lives of Philadelphia inmates

The peace and serenity inmates feel after doing yoga is contagious.

Pat Loeb
October 07, 2018 - 10:32 pm
The Transformation Yoga Project offers yoga classes to inmates.

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Yoga classes have been popping up everywhere in Philadelphia — in parks, on piers, outside City Hall. 

But perhaps the most unusual spot is inside the city's prison system, though given the mental, as well as physical, benefits attributed to yoga, there may be no place where the need for it is greater. 

The Transformation Yoga Project (TYP) understood that need because its executive director, Mike Huggins, used to be incarcerated. His yoga practice helped him get through it, and upon release, he developed a trauma-informed practice.

"When TYP started, it was pretty small," said instructor Katy Kopnitsky ahead of a class she led in the Philadelphia Detention Center. "It was mostly recovery centers and gradually we expanded into the criminal justice system. So there's a lot of people here who've experienced trauma, and yoga can be particularly healing and helpful. It's a space for people to explore a path to healing on an individual level but also in community with others."

Kopnitsky moved chairs in the Detention Center to create a space for 16 men and their mats, which has become a routine activity for some.

"The idea that I'm doing something positive is one of the big things, to come down and be with the brothers and experience something like this is a definite change in what's going on — the monotony of prison — so it's like a breakaway type thing," said Edward Blake, who added that the class is also helping him with a back issue.

The Transformation Yoga Project offers yoga classes to inmates.
Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

For others, it's a new experience.

"This is my first experience in prison doing anything. I usually just mind my business," admitted Khalil Amaker. 

Amaker's wife does yoga, and he hopes learning it will be a benefit he takes away from being incarcerated. 

"It would be a good way to connect more. I've been married for 13 years and I think it would be just a better way to connect, to understand my wife more," he said. "You know what they say, 'Happy wife, happy life.' I made my mistakes in the past. ... I don't want to return home with the same mindset." 

Philadelphia Department of Prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said the classes are always full and, as a yoga practitioner herself, she believes in the benefits.

"The same type of serenity and peace that I felt, you can see the same reaction on their faces as they struggle through the poses and discover they're not in competition with anybody else. It's just about relaxing and personal accomplishment," she explained. "They go back to their units with a better outlook on their day. They're more centered and they have a better perspective."

That peace and serenity, she added, is contagious, "kind of spread through the housing units and kind of calmed everyone."

The men moved through various poses, urged by Kopnitsky to focus on their breathing, and ended with a guided relaxation and meditation.

"I don't know what it is but after I get finished a yoga session and we just have a moment to lay out on our mat, I drift off sometimes. I just fall asleep cause it's so soothing and relaxing," said Maurice, who practiced yoga at a YMCA before he entered the Detention Center. "It's very enlightening, helps me out a lot, keeps me mentally free."