Mike Huggins and Matthew Engler are bringing yoga to incarcerated people in Pennsylvania, a state that has struggled with prison overpopulation, and in recent years, an increase in the number of inmate suicides.
Huggins started Transformation Yoga Project (TYP), a nonprofit that offers yoga and meditation programs in the PA Department of Corrections and recovery centers in the greater Philadelphia area. Engler became a yoga teacher and co-facilitator in TYP’s program during his twenty-one year sentence, which began when he was 26 years old. He plans to co-facilitate a yoga teacher training with TYP in 2020. Here’s the story behind TYP, followed by my interview with Engler, who was released from prison on July 2, 2019.
After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, Mike Huggins, author of Going OM: A CEO’s Journey from a Prison Facility to Spiritual Tranquility and founder of TYP, served a nine-month sentence in 2011 at Lewisburg Federal Prison Camp in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he began teaching grassroots yoga classes. They were such a success that they eventually evolved into a full-scale yoga program, including multiple weekly classes and yoga teacher training.
Huggins had been practicing yoga for several years prior to serving time, but dove in more deeply in 2009 while he was waiting to be sentenced—an ordeal that spanned two and a half years. He attended trauma-oriented workshops during that period, spent time in a Buddhist monastery, and trained to become a yoga instructor.
Prior to his sentence, Huggins had taught at two yoga studios and for two outreach programs with the Police Athletic League in Phoenixville and Chester, Pennsylvania. The programs offered valuable benefits, including impulse control and strategies to help participants cope with anger and issues related to substance abuse—problems that are also common among incarcerated populations.
Upon his release in 2012, Huggins founded TYP, a nonprofit that uses trauma-sensitive, mindfulness-based yoga programs to serve people impacted by trauma, addiction, and incarceration. TYP has programs in numerous facilities, including addiction treatment centers and VA hospitals, as well as community programs hosted by yoga studios and community centers. TYP also provides special training for yoga teachers and committed yoga practitioners interested in working with people who have been impacted by trauma.
To date, they have facilitated three 200-hour yoga teacher trainings and one 50-hour training. According to Brianne Murphy, TYP’s director of Justice and Reentry Services, their next objective is to partner with State Correctional Institution (SCI) Chester (a medium-security, all-male facility in the Philadelphia metropolitan area) as a training site, where people who are serving time in various men’s prisons in Pennsylvania can transfer temporarily for yoga teacher training, increasing access to certification. This model is inspired by Washington State’s Department of Corrections program with Yoga Behind Bars.
I was introduced to Matthew Engler on August 17 of last year, just six weeks after he was released from SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. On that humid but clear morning, I had the pleasure of participating in a meditation he led in a small outdoor tented area for museum members of the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site (a former prison that was hailed as a model of prison reform when it opened in 1829).
My subsequent conversations with Engler took place on the phone and by email. Email, he admitted, was sometimes challenging, as technology has changed so much since he began his sentence in 1998.
How are you feeling now, four months after your release? What role has meditation and yoga played in your adjustment to life outside of prison?
I feel great. It has been unbelievable—I’m living and making my dreams happen, and every day seems to get better and better.
Meditation and yoga have been the key to it all. My monkey mind has slowed down to such a degree that I am able to act deliberately instead of react thoughtlessly. Being able to accept “what is” has made all the difference. I see guys both in and out of prison who have done lengthy stays and are having difficulty because they’re not able to accept certain changes that have taken place in the world.
Your city has changed; you have to accept it. Your neighborhood has changed; accept it. Schools get knocked down. McDonalds go up. For me, technology has moved by leaps and bounds. I’m having some difficulty with that, but I’m getting through it because I’ve accepted that there has been a change, so resistance isn't blocking me from being able to receive whatever information I need. I get this headspace from meditation and yoga.
Can you tell me about what your life was like before you were incarcerated?
I was involved in crime ever since I was young. I wrote graffiti, then I started selling pot, then other drugs. I booked sports bets and was involved in pretty much any petty street crime. At a certain point I did a robbery, and I loved it. I liked it all—plotting it out, then doing it. It was like a drug for me. Going to prison was inevitable.
How did you discover meditation and yoga in prison?
I was in the hole [solitary confinement] in 2005 and I read a book called We're All Doing Time, by Bo Lozoff. Initially, I wanted to learn to focus better.
All you do is read in the hole, and I couldn't get through a page. What got me in the hole was that I was still doing all the things I was doing on the street. I was running a gambling organization in prison, and I was violent. The book was recommended by another prisoner in 1998, when I began my prison sentence. It was 2005 when I finally decided to read it. Things just blossomed from there. It was the first time I did a breath-focused meditation and that became my practice for many years.
What impact did your practice have on your day-to-day life in prison?
My daily practice changed every degree of my life in prison. When my mind began to slow down it was probably two years after I began practicing. Around that time, I learned about positive attraction from The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. The idea is that the energy you put out comes back to you in a positive way.
But the biggest piece of the puzzle was being present—that changed everything for me. And it was Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now that kind of glued it all together. Things only happen in the present?! Nothing happens in the past?! Nothing happens in the future?!
This concept was like a bomb for me and revolutionized the way I thought. Eventually, I learned my past didn’t have to affect my present view of the world, and I could see things how they really were, rather than how my past life experiences colored them.
I imagine that in prison, the past and the future are big topics for people.
Prison is mostly about what has happened. Crime, sentence, and whatever bullshit led you to them. And the rest of the time is spent on what we might do if we got out, or what will happen.
Most of my friends were doing life, which means they’re not getting out, ever. Some of those guys are trying to overturn their convictions, which can take you away from the present to such an extent that your life gets really out of balance, so everyone in there—and maybe out here, too—is constantly in the past or future.
When I began to slow my mind down and practice being present through meditation and yoga, my whole world changed. I realized I had choices—everything is a choice, and choices are real freedom.
The freedom to choose and create my existence made me feel a degree of freedom I’d never felt before. I had never really understood it before. I believed that if I could stay present and not dwell on things in prison, I’d be able to do it outside. And it’s been amazing. It's almost like I have superpowers or the world is moving in super-speed, but I’m able to slow it down and create what I need and want.
How did you become a yoga and meditation teacher in prison?
I began to change from my practice, and people began to see it. They'd notice and ask what I was doing. Most would laugh when I told them meditation, but some didn’t, and a few asked if I could show them what to do, so I did.
Then I took my first asana class with TYP. Up until then I’d been doing some asanas and pranayama I learned from We’re All Doing Time. I quickly learned that yoga is not meant to be learned from a book, some instruction is needed. It was perfect. I learned I could move and meditate at the same time.
Well, if I can do that, what else can I do? I thought. I can do whatever I want. Then TYP offered the teacher training. I remember thinking to myself, This will never work. They wanted yoga to flower in Graterford Prison, where I was at the time. I didn’t see how that could happen, but it did. The first training was eight guys, the second training was 24.
I really didn’t have an outside view about what I was doing. It’s kind of like the proverbial cave—go practice in this cave and come out when you're done. I understand that concept now. I had no [meditation] teacher, no expectations, and was able to discover on my own. Then, when I found TYP, I had another perspective. Turns out, what I was doing was pretty unique.
By then I’d begun to see myself as a prison monk. I live amongst all men, we all wear the same clothes, eat communally, and bathe communally. I had no romantic relationships, no possessions. All I did was work out, do yoga, meditate, study, and reflect—that was my life. And I began to realize I had cultivated something pretty valuable and that if I didn’t teach it to others I’d be wasting it.
Who did you start teaching? Did you stick to one population within the prison?
I began teaching yoga classes to the general population in prison, then to the medium-security residential mental health treatment, then to maximum-security mental health treatment, which was scary for me. Then the drug and alcohol unit wanted asana, and after I met the director of the drug and alcohol program, she asked me to teach meditation in her unit as well.
I also taught meditation on the side to guys who asked me in private. There’s a stigma around that stuff in there, so sometimes discretion is needed.
How did that go?
The guys I taught came to me out of desperation. Many had cancer and had difficulty dealing with things, so helping them felt really good. The look on their faces the next time we saw each other—there would be big smiles—that’s how I knew it helped. It was very gratifying.
Going back to the TYP teacher training, were there any difficult moments for you as a co-facilitator?
In the second training I co-facilitated, there were some moments when guys shared really personal stuff about the nature of their abuse, addiction, and the misery they caused in the world. It was all very uncomfortable for me.
What specifically was uncomfortable?
Sensing their discomfort made me really uncomfortable. They shared very personal things, and I’d be betraying their trust if I were to repeat them, even if I didn’t use their names.
The most uncomfortable thing about the recent teacher training was the end of it, because I was set to leave a couple of days after it ended. Most of the guys in it are doing life, and several were good friends of mine. They knew I was getting out. No one else really knew I was leaving. In the last class, one guy shared about how we kind of grew up together in there and how grateful he was to know me, and they all kind of gave me credit for creating/recruiting that training. That was extremely uncomfortable for me. I didn’t want to be praised for this stuff. Looking around the room, the fact that they were all staying for life was very upsetting.
I bet. Were there rewarding moments as well?
There were very gratifying moments when other guys chimed in to offer support to each other or shared their similar experiences.
Tell us a bit about your current teaching. You're teaching at a studio in Philadelphia? What’s on the horizon?
Right now, I’m teaching yoga at the Twisted Monkey and meditation at Zen Betty Yoga here in the Philadelphia area. I really like it; they have a cool little family vibe there, and they’ve welcomed me with open arms. I’m teaching meditation and yoga privately. I’m starting a training for primordial sound meditation, and I hope to co-facilitate TYP teacher trainings at SCI Chester and SCI Phoenix in 2020.
I’ve been dreaming of this for 21 years and now I’m living it, so now I’ll figure out some new dreams.