Bridge Over Troubled Water: Bringing Yoga to Prisons

December 17, 2014    BY Sarah Kent

Toby Lafferty never expected to find herself volunteering at a medium security prison, but that’s exactly what happened about six years ago. After reading San Quentin inmate Jarvis Masters’s Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, Lafferty was so taken with his story that she decided to contact his organization. “A man with a difficult past goes to prison when he’s about 19 and spends many years in solitary confinement. He finds meditation and learns to put Buddhist principles into practice. He’s not only survived, he’s survived consciously in a way that’s incredibly motivating,” Lafferty says. Over the years, Masters has “developed warmth, humanness, openness, and deep insights,” in spite of his predicament.

Lafferty agreed to get Masters’s book into the hands of as many people as she could—inmates, prison guards, youth groups—in hopes that its message would inspire them. One of the places she contacted was the Utah State Prison, whose librarian, to Lafferty’s amazement, requested seven copies. When Lafferty dropped off the books, she met library director Officer Christie Jensen, and on an impulse asked about volunteering in the library. Six weeks later, she found herself shelving books. As Jensen found grants for new books, Lafferty sought out sources for used books, reaching out to the Assistance League, the Rotary Club, and local businesses. Through her contacts, Lafferty went on to create Books Inside, a nonprofit that collects and distributes about 1,000 books a month to jails and prisons in Utah and California.

At one point, one of the inmates asked her for tips about yoga. Lafferty, a longtime teacher who started studying yoga as a teen, was only too happy to comply. As word spread, more people approached her with questions, leading to impromptu yoga tutorials on the library floor. A number of inmates already had a practice. “Some had picked it up from reading yoga books and magazines in prison. One guy practiced asana in his cell, while his neighbor learned by imitating him,” says Lafferty. “I became a resource for them.”

Beginning January 2011, with the support of the prison staff, Lafferty started teaching an hour-long class to about 20 students every other week. She didn’t know quite what to expect, but she figured that the guys would probably keep to themselves. Instead, they amazed her with their enthusiasm, humor, and camaraderie—an openness grounded in their mutual interest in yoga. When one tips over in headstand, for example, they laugh and help him up. “They might struggle with a pose, but there’s a lightness and natural tendency toward exploration and sharing of ideas,” she says. Overall, Lafferty describes them as delightful students who are serious about using yoga as a tool to transform their lives. “Working with them,” she says, “is a great privilege.”

Out of that sense of privilege comes a sense of responsibility, too. Lafferty, who sees their transformation unfolding at many levels, says, “For a long time after I had stopped teaching (in the ’80s), my practice was just for me. But now, I have a responsibility to teach these guys, which has dramatically deepened my practice.”

After working in the prison, Lafferty sees yoga as a much greater force. “It’s incredible how immense the potential for transformation there is.” She sees how her students and Books Inside have helped her transform as well, slowly teaching her gratitude and patience. Although she isn’t a hard-charging overachiever, Lafferty has always been a planner—focused and organized—admitting that she goes “blinders on to the objective.” There’s no real reason for that sense of urgency because, as one of her students explained, “we have plenty of time.” “We may be limited in the time we have each class,” she says, “but we do have plenty of time, maybe years. Maybe a lifetime.”

Because her class—and Books Inside—have unfolded, falling into place with very little planning, the process has opened her up to a new way to live her life. “I’m not as caught up in a plan, and I think that’s what’s made it smooth. It feels like it has its own life now. It’s a lot of work, but it’s magical, joyful, and effortless!”

Prison Book and Yoga Projects

  • Visit booksinside.org to learn how you can help cofounders Toby Lafferty and Susan Raycraft expand to other facilities across the United States.
  • Get involved with nonprofit organizations in your own community. The DC Books to Prisons Project and the Seattle-based Books to Prisons donate books to inmates. The Prison-Ashram Project, an arm of the Human Kindness Foundation, distributes materials on spiritual practice, including Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time.
  • Bring yoga to local prisons through organizations such as San Quentin’s Insight Prison Project or the Prison Dharma Network, which reaches out to Colorado and Rhode Island inmates.

Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent is the former managing editor of Yoga International.

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