How The Transformation Yoga Project is Helping Prisoners Find Peace

How The Transformation Yoga Project is Helping Prisoners Find Peace

Eastern State
Courtesy of Transformation Yoga Project

Transformation Yoga Project leads trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness classes in Philadelphia addiction treatment centers and prisons.BRITTANY RISHER JUL 7, 2019

In 2009, Mike Huggins pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for the off-label promotion of a medical device at a division of the company he worked for. As he awaited sentencing, he turned to his yoga practice—which he’d started years earlier—to mentally prepare for prison. He attended a workshop held by the nonprofit Street Yoga, which teaches trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness practices to youth. “The idea of yoga for trauma was a game-changer for me,” he says. By the end of 2011, when a judge sentenced him to nine months, he was a certified yoga teacher with a new mindset. “I was committed to using prison as an opportunity to explore yoga off the mat,” he says.

At the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia where Huggins was first incarcerated, inmates were periodically allowed to leave their cells and spend time in a common area, where some chose to work out. During those times, Huggins did yoga. Other men noticed and asked him to teach them. That led to guided meditations and talks about violence and the men’s anger, frustration, and shame over the crimes they’d committed.

Inspired by how quickly a yoga community formed, Huggins continued teaching yoga to inmates after being transferred to a minimum-security prison five weeks later. “After our practice, we’d discuss the techniques and tools, such as breathwork and meditation, that could support us in living a full life while incarcerated and navigating the challenges of the reentry process,” he says. He also trained five men to continue his work after his release in 2012.

After being released, Huggins continued to study how yoga can support those dealing with trauma and he started volunteering at an inpatient addiction recovery facility and a VA hospital. In 2013, he founded Transformation Yoga Project (TYP) to build a community of people to teach trauma-informed mindfulness practices to those impacted by violence, incarceration, and addiction.

TYP trains teachers who lead classes in justice centers (prisons and youth detention centers), addiction recovery centers, VA hospitals, and other facilities in the Greater Philadelphia area. These trauma-informed classes always have the elements of safety, predictability, and control. “Unless you feel safe, no inner work can be done,” Huggins explains. Telling participants exactly what is going to happen and how long they’ll hold poses helps them stay calm so they can explore their feelings. Teachers use invitational language such as “Take a breath and see how you feel,” followed by suggestions for how to modify poses to empower students to have control over their bodies and breath.

TYP also holds workshops about every quarter to go deeper into the eight limbs of yoga, and once someone is released from prison or rehab, they can continue to practice at free TYP classes at community centers or at yoga studios that donate space to TYP participants.

“A lot of people really turn their lives around,” Huggins says. “People start to feel at ease with themselves and they’re able to do things they may not have thought they could do. Their yoga practice provides the tools to deal with the inevitable challenges they will face.”