Yoga teachers typically dedicate themselves to helping others. They do this in a variety of settings, including gyms, offices, and yoga studios. Some teachers go outside of the box a bit, putting together yoga groups in chiropractors’ offices, at churches, or at senior centers. Then there are teachers like Denise Nobile, who bring their teaching into an environment that few yoga teachers are either willing or prepared to enter.
Twice a month, Denise parks her car in a lower level parking lot of the Taconic Correctional Facility, and sits there awhile to quiet her mind. She then continues the drive up to the main lot of that medium security prison for women in Bedford Hills, New York, where she teaches yoga. She rings the buzzer, shows her ID, and waits with others who volunteer their time and services at the prison. When all the volunteers have arrived, they leave their personal belongings with an officer, walk through a metal detector, and are scanned by a security wand to make sure they are not entering the facility with anything unapproved by the administration. This requires that Denise leave behind even her personal yoga mat. She is escorted into the visitors’ room, which she soon transforms into a yoga space. The guard unlocks a cabinet containing mats Denise has gathered from donations, which she then arranges into a circle before her class arrives to practice.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Denise to learn more about her, her passion for reaching out to this often-forgotten community through Liberation Prison Yoga, and the opportunities for involvement by other teachers who are interested but feel unprepared or intimidated at the thought of teaching yoga in a prison setting.
Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get started with yoga and teaching?
I discovered yoga in the mid ’90s when I returned to college (in the hope of changing careers), and I instantly become a fan of savasana (corpse pose), discovering savasana was life changing. Yoga helped me through some difficult and stressful times, but I lost touch with the practice.Then about 10 years ago, I came back to it and tried different styles until I found Yoga Culture Studio, where I began a regular practice and went on to do teacher training. Becoming a yoga teacher wasn’t my intention at all. I’ve had body-image issues, and I had this view of what a teacher should look like. So for me, I thought, I can’t do this. But a friend of mine kept encouraging me to do the yoga teacher training. I’m so glad I did because I learned so much about yoga and myself, and it helped me to shift my thoughts and to learn to feel good about my body. Body positivity, that’s what I try to present—in all of my classes, in school as a teacher, in my kids’ yoga classes, in my adult yoga classes. I believe strongly in being the best version of yourself, rather than attempting to get into the best version of the pose.
Can you take me back to the moment where you decided to teach yoga in prisons? How did you know this would be a good fit for you as a teacher and individual?
Another friend of mine was involved in prisons as a social work intern, and in 2014 she asked me if I was interested in teaching a New Year’s Day yoga class. I said “sure,” and she gave me a book about trauma and teaching yoga in prisons. After doing some research, I decided to go to a training to learn more about teaching yoga in prisons. After the training, I realized, Wow, I need to be part of this work, because I really connected to this approach of teaching yoga from a trauma perspective. There is a cycle of trauma that pervades the prison environment. It is often the case that the actions which landed an inmate in prison have roots in a previous trauma. And then being imprisoned is another form of trauma, which perpetuates the cycle of trauma. Yoga can be used as a tool to help the body to feel whole again.
There is a cycle of trauma that pervades the prison environment. It is often the case that the actions which landed an inmate in prison have roots in a previous trauma. And then being imprisoned is another form of trauma.
A lot of things connected for me in that initial training with Anneka Lucas, founder of Liberation Prison Yoga. We went through a whole practice led by Anneka, and at one point we were journaling (which was part of the practice), and I started really letting my emotions out. I was touched by the experience of the practice, and I remember writing and feeling connected. I felt the necessity to share what I wrote and felt in the training, as well as what I’ve learned in life, because I suddenly realized there really wasn’t a major difference between the students I teach and myself. This urge to share is uncharacteristic for me. We were talking about the power of words, and I recall saying “I know the power of words and the power of positivity. Because I can remember saying ‘I hate my life,’ and what saying that did to me, not just emotionally but physically.” I realized how shifting my thinking and moving my body could change my perspective and change my life. That was a powerful realization that drew me to this type of practice and teaching. I wanted to share that message with others. And once I started teaching, I didn’t feel a major difference between my students and me. The only difference was that I had made better decisions in my life. For some of the women I’ve met, their circumstances didn’t allow them to make the same decisions. That’s how I knew this path of teaching was right for me.
Why is it important to bring yoga to people who are in prison?
The purpose is to provide yoga and mindfulness in response to trauma. Yoga can provide some peace, in what could be a chaotic situation. The women I work with are not incarcerated for life, so eventually they will be released. It’s my intention that they can use yoga and mindfulness to make better decisions in life and give them some peace while in their present situation. You know, after leading them through a restorative practice, some of my students told me that they’d had their best sleep since arriving there. That was powerful to hear.
Some yoga teachers might feel apprehensive about teaching yoga in prisons. Have you ever felt scared or threatened?
No, I’ve never felt scared or intimidated by the women I work with.
What’s a typical class like?
We just have mats, no blocks or straps. I don’t use the wall because there are tables and chairs stacked up and a large cabinet against the wall, but we do use chairs. We set up in a circle, enabling everyone to see each other and me. Moving to the wall would also break up our circle, so working with the chairs fits nicely with the format of the class. Instead of viparita karani (legs up the wall), we do legs up the chair. When they come in I say “Hola, what’s going on?”—I’m very casual. Some students I know, and sometimes I have new students.
The classes are 90 minutes. I begin class offering them the option to sit or lie down—whatever feels safest for them. We start with a mindful body exercise, something I draw from Little Flower Yoga and Mindful Schools—it’s similar to a body scan. Then we do breath work, like dirgha pranayama (three-part breath), and then we explore the anger spot. The anger spot is a point of focus used when we feel anger, or when the mind wanders, bringing our attention to this place in our body where we physically feel the anger. I have them touch their anger spot as they visualize letting go of that anger, and breathing to find peace in themselves. I will have them place their hands in front of their face, over the belly, or chest. I explain to them that there is no right or wrong. Then we talk about the experience.
In a typical class, there is a lot of discussion and inquiry. Sometimes journaling. I speak a lot about the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve of twelve which assists regulating major bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, and the heart rate). And we do an exercise reciting the vowels to regulate and balance the vagus nerve, which can also create confidence by using the voice. Then we lie on our backs for a warm-up exercise. It is an imitation style practice, which means that I practice with them and speak in the first person. I would say something like “I’m going to turn my front foot out 90 degrees, and next I’m going to pick up my other foot and turn it in 45 degrees.” So the idea is that I'm not telling them what to do, but rather extending an invitation to practice with me.
Next, we stand up and do the ha kriya, a high-intensity kundalini breathing technique where the arms lift and lower actively over the head, with the mantra or sound “ha” recited on the exhalation. It boosts confidence and helps manage stress and anxiety. I got in trouble once with the COs (correctional officers) because we were being too loud—but it was okay, we weren’t in any real trouble or banned from doing it again. My students have fun doing it, and everyone deserves to have fun in life. Then we go into sun salutations. Afterward, we come into warrior postures to make the practice even more dynamic and loud. I encourage them to say, “I am strong, I am brave, I am fierce,” or whatever they want while we practice. I’ll say, “You can join me if you want,” and then ask my students what else warriors represent to them. There is value in vocalizing these statements, going back to the power of words, because who couldn’t use positive affirmation in their life? I like to make class fun, lively, and engaging—more than just physical.
How can a curious yoga teacher get involved? Are there specific trainings or requirements to teach yoga in prisons?
Liberation Prison Yoga offers two-day workshops throughout the year. Anyone can participate in the workshops, but prior yoga teaching knowledge is helpful. To teach in the prisons, you need to be 200-hour certified and complete the two-day workshop. They are always looking for teachers, and the placement in my case was pretty informal. Anneka knew I lived in the area where she was setting up a program, and she asked me if I wanted to teach. I gladly accepted.
Do you have any advice for teachers who would like to get involved but are timid about doing so?
Go to the workshop, do your research. I would suggest David Emerson’s book Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming your Body to learn more about trauma, what it does to your body, and how yoga can help. Then check out a Liberation Prison Yoga workshop and see if it is for you. Also take a look at yourself and recognize what trauma you have experienced, because this work can be triggering. Another thing to consider is that the inmates want yoga and they sign up voluntarily for the class, so they look forward to coming to class. Working with them, you’re encouraging them to feel empowered, and to discover a sense of liberation in their lives.
If you are interested in learning more about teaching yoga in prisons, please check out:
Liberation Prison Yoga
Liberation Prison Project
Prison Yoga Project
Satchidananda Prison Project
Hawai’i Prison Yoga Project