Yoga: How We Serve Women in Maximum Security Prisons

This is an interview with Rikki Donahoe, who has been teaching yoga at the Camille Griffin Graham maximum security prison for women in Columbia, S.C. since May 2008. In July 2008 she added four classes per week teaching Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. She didn’t expect to be doing this; indeed, she had no intention to ever teach yoga. For fun, she started practicing yoga in 2003 and in 2007 decided to attend a teacher training to deepen her practice. During this training she noticed inmates cleaning alongside the interstate and thought they would probably benefit from yoga. She graduated in February 2008; the thought of the inmates hadn’t left her. She went and met the prison chaplain… and here we are today.

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My first inspiration came from Trace Sahaja Bonner, the director/owner of Holy Cow Yoga Teacher Training School in Charleston, S.C. In a class she talked about different places to teach, including prison. She mentioned that Swami Satchidananda, her teacher, had a Prison Yoga Project. I forgot about this for a while, until I started noticing the inmates on the side of the highway. It was almost as if a voice kept saying “bring the gift of yoga to them.”

The inmates keep me motivated. Their eagerness and desire to learn is second to none. Some of the women are serving life sentences. They tell me that yoga helps them cope on many different levels.

Is there a standout moment from your work with prisoners?

What stands out all the time is how much these women care for each other. One of the women had an injured foot; during her healing process the others would put a chair by her mat so she could hold on. I never even got the opportunity to suggest a chair or offer seated yoga to her. The others just did it. There are many stories like this.

What did you know about the prison population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if at all, have those assumptions changed?

I knew nothing about inmates. I assumed they’d be like those portrayed in the movies. What I now know for sure is: If most of them had had some positive influences in their early lives, they would have developed a healthier self-image or stood a chance to fight their way out of poverty. As a result, most of them would not be incarcerated.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

Touching is discouraged in prison, so I don’t make physical adjustments. If someone needs help, I get on the floor next to them and encourage them to do the pose alongside me. Or, I hold my hand out and encourage them to press their foot or hand into my hand. We always do “high five” after class. Because they are so deprived of human touch, we simply find a way to touch. So many of the women were molested as children and experienced sexual trauma throughout their lives. I am mindful of that and do not want to trigger them. I have never introduced “happy baby pose,” for example. For “wide legged forward fold,” I never mention opening the legs. Instead, I say “separate your feet.” And I never use the word “relax,” not even at the end during final relaxation.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

A big challenge, even after 4.5 years, is getting started on time. The mats are locked in a closet and we have to wait for a guard to unlock it. We do Q&A during that time. Another big challenge is teaching meditation. There are so many excuses why meditation is not possible. One day I decided to be blunt and direct. I asked the question: “Is it that you guys just don’t want to go inside yourselves, or look at yourselves, or even forgive yourselves? If you can’t come to grips with yourself, or forgive yourself, how do you expect anyone else to?” It got better after that, but meditation continues to be a struggle.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the prisons where you teach?
• Be patient! Be patient with yourself, with the inmates, and with the prison system itself.
• Prison time is slow time. Be prepared to wait a long time for answers to requests.
• Be respectful and courteous to the staff.
• Be accepting of the rules.
• Be flexible — the rules change often and without notice.
• Be consistent, live your yoga, and have a support system in place.
• Finally, it would be very helpful to have some specialty training beyond the 200-hour teacher training.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My hope is that yoga will be more readily received by institutions such as prisons, that yoga studios come to allow newly-released people to attend a class a week for little or no cost, and that teacher training schools offer a scholarship every now and then to someone who has been incarcerated so that he or she can become a yoga teacher.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Service, while sometimes really difficult, is always rewarding. It isn’t just giving. I have received so much from the inmates; I literally had to learn how to receive. Yoga is a way of reaching people we would otherwise never come into contact with. And insofar as my own practice goes, I compete with no one, not even with myself.

What other organizations do you admire?
Satchidananda Prison Project: 
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga/David Emerson:
Expedition Balance:
Integrative Restoration Institute: 
Hidden Wounds:

Reprinted with Author’s permission.

The Prison Yoga Project,, in collaboration with the Give Back Yoga Foundation,, has sent at no cost James Fox’s ‘Yoga A Path for Healing and Recovery’ to more than 6,000 prisoners around the country. Send a prisoner a book, buy one for yourself, or do both.

Join the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9,

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