Harvey Mai didn’t take his first yoga class in a pristine studio with bamboo floors and lightly burning sage. Instead, he first practiced yoga while serving a three year sentence at the Cleveland Correctional Center for robbing a bar—his fourth arrest before the age of 21. His introduction to yoga was facilitated by a Houston, Texas-based nonprofit called In-Powered, an organization that brings yoga to schools, juvenile justice centers, prisons and homeless facilities in an effort to disrupt the “school to prison pipeline.” Now out of jail, Mai still practices yoga today in addition to running his own food truck business.
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“It seems like [yoga] is for the able bodied, wealthy, white population. That’s what people think it’s for,” said In-Powered Chief Operations Officer, Cristina Houston.” That’s part of our mission. To break what you think you have to wear, what you think it’s supposed to look like and who it’s for.”
In-Powered also works with students at YES Prep, a Houston charter school where there are plenty more yogis who don’t fit the cookie-cutter mold that In-Powered hopes to break. One student in the program had been skipping class and hiding from her family. With the addition of yoga into her routine, she says she feels that she is on the right path.
Of course, In-Powered isn’t the only organization recognizing the power of yoga in prisons and for at-risk populations. Stories of those like Marshawn Feltus at ACT Yoga, and endeavors like the Insight Prison Project, the Siddha Yoga Prison Project, and the Prison Yoga Project (to name a few) have similar aims in rehabilitating prisoners and at-risk populations through the healing practice of yoga.
The Prison Yoga Project is a nonprofit that is invested not only in teaching yoga in prisons across the country but in training more teachers in its methods, so that more yogis will be inspired to bring yoga into the prison setting where it is so desperately needed. “Thanks to yoga, prisoners begin to reconnect more deeply with themselves and others,” says James Fox, founder and director of the Yoga Prison Project. “Where love is so sorely lacking, the transformation is profound. Where suffering is so intense, word spreads.”
Have you or someone close to you discovered yoga during a time of distress or hardship? Please share your comments and experiences below.