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Inmates at Chesterfield Jail Talk about Their Yoga Practice

Drug addiction, specifically to opioids, has increased dramatically in the last decade. Virginia alone has seen a 500% increase in drug-related deaths over the last seven years. In fact, hundreds of people find themselves incarcerated at Chesterfield County Jail as a result of addiction. 

The staff and administration there recognize that addiction is a disease and not a crime, so they created the “Helping Addicts Recover Progressively” (HARP) program in 2016. They’ve had great success evidenced by a significant reduction in recidivism. Some inmates have even asked to continue their participation in the program after their release.

At Project Yoga Richmond we believe in the power of yoga as a public health tool. So we seized the unique opportunity to offer classes under the HARP program. Since 2017, PYR Ambassador Billie Carroll has led a weekly Yoga of 12 Step Recovery (Y12SR) class at Chesterfield County Jail. Y12SR is a relapse prevention program developed by Nikki Myers that combines a 12-step discussion meeting with an intentional yoga therapeutic practice for those with addictions or affected by the addictions of others.

Elysha Kim, Program Coordinator at the jail, explains how yoga fits naturally into the HARP program, “The physical body and mental health are tied so closely. Yoga is one of the few programs we offer that combines both.” Elysha suspects that the vast majority of those incarcerated at Chesterfield are facing drug-related charges. 

When we come to class it’s like a relief,” reflects Regina, a Y12SR participant. “We can talk about recovery, get peace and meditate. We feel better all weekend because we do yoga on Fridays. We leave…ourselves.” 

As a yogi who has been in recovery for 17 years, Billie appreciates the opportunity to serve the community in this way. 

She relates to us as an addict,” explains Joy, another student. “Our issues are in our tissues. That’s what Billie always says. We don’t realize how much our stress and trauma remains in our bodies. The way she taught us to process that has been amazing.”

Students apply the therapeutic yoga techniques they learn in PYR’s Y12SR program to their lives outside of the community room where they meet. “Instead of being so angry all the time we learn how to think differently. How to act differently,” says Nari, whose first experience with yoga was in jail. “You can take on so much more after class.” 

Ron, a student in the men’s class, says he uses a breathing technique called 4/3/7 (inhale for four counts, hold it for three, exhale for seven) to help him fall asleep. The women apply soothing techniques they learned in class, such as a butterfly hug and tapping methods, to calm down when they feel anxious. 

Recently, a few of PYR’s male students began an inmate-led book club to deepen their practice. PYR donated copies of Meditations on the Mat by Rolf Gates and the men study it together on their own. “That was the biggest compliment to me,” says Billie. The participants’ enthusiasm for the program was evident in their willingness to share their experience when offered the opportunity.

When asked to reflect on his teacher, Dominic, a participant in the men’s class, says, “She pays attention to what we have to say.” He pauses, “I think she gets a lot out of it too.” 

Dominic is right. Billie’s relationship with her students is symbiotic, reciprocal, spiritual and transcends the walls of the jail to include all of us at PYR. You support your programs like Y12SR each time you contribute for your studio class or make a donation. Your practice is their practice. We are all Project Yoga Richmond.

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