Think of yoga, and the first images that spring to mind may include a colorful yoga mat, trendy workout clothes and a cozy studio. Now picture yoga in jail. Less scenic? Maybe. Less effective? No way.
Just ask Jodi Cole, who has seen yoga’s benefits in myriad forms. Cole, a criminal defense attorney, is also the board president of Community Yoga. The organization, formed in May 2010 by Jyl Kutsche and Alyson Fox, aims to bring yoga—and its many benefits—to areas of the community that would not otherwise have access to classes. That includes jails, veteran’s clinics, schools in low socio-economic communities and shelters.
Cole knows how powerful yoga can be through her own experience. She discovered the practice while studying federal criminal law in California.
“It got me through a bleak period,” Cole said. “It was a difficult time emotionally…and being able to practice just helped me get through that, I’m positive.”
Through Community Yoga, Cole has also seen how beneficial yoga can be for the people on the other side of prison walls.
“With my clients, it’s difficult for people to see them as human beings and have any kind of respect for them as humans,” she said “They often have nothing to do, and when they’re in very small cells they get very depressed… when people are facing legal troubles, it’s the worst times in their life. When they have access to [yoga] classes, with teachers who treat them with respect, as humans, it changes their outlook about themselves. And I think it reduces the violent impulses people have when they’re treated like animals.”
It’s hard to navigate the criminal system, Cole said, and it can also be hard to find advocates willing to give yoga a chance within the criminal justice system. So to her, the fact that the organization has a waiting list within the Travis County Correction Complex and is now teaching the staff of Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, speaks volumes to the organization’s effectiveness in touching people’s lives.
The long wait list in the Travis County jail and in other locations from Family Eldercare to Austin Recovery, has taken Community Yoga’s co-founder, Kutsche, somewhat by surprise.
Kutsche and Fox started Community Yoga after years of conversations about yoga and frustrations about its cost limited access amongst different groups.
“I’d completed teacher certification, but I hadn’t planned to teach,” Kutsche recalled. “I played around with volunteering and worked with middle-school girls and seniors, and I loved it. These people hadn’t been exposed to yoga…and walked away with the same blissful look people at yoga studios get.”
That experience touched her so much that Kutsche made a complete career change. She traveled to New York to study how yoga is practiced in the public school system, mental hospitals and recovery centers.
“It opened my eyes,” Kutsche said of that experience. “I thought ‘Austin needs this.’”
Kutsche and Fox worked with a consultant to help them get the nonprofit status, and within a month they were established as a 501 (c)(3). After what Kutsche describes as a serendipitous meeting with a Travis County Correctional Complex official, she and Fox were teaching their first class to 25 inmates in the jail.
“Alyson and I went in there not knowing what we were getting into,” Kutsche said. “Just to see something as simple as talking about breath, becoming aware of your body. These guys made comments afterwards like ‘If I’d known about this, I might not be in this situation.’”
Community Yoga now teaches four classes a week in the correctional complex, and an average of 35 classes a week around Central Texas. Participants in the classes range from kids in juvenile detention to the elderly.
“If I’d done more research beforehand, I might have thought it was too complicated,” Kutsche admitted. She has recently stepped down as executive director and hand- ed that position over to Blake Hall, while still remaining active in the organization.
Still, Kutsche doesn’t think the organization will try to narrow its focus. Instead, its leaders have made efforts to subcategorize different curriculums to make sure teachers are getting the right training. Community Yoga is planning on reaching out to new organizations, like AIDS Services of Austin. While they don’ t currently do work directly withLGBT organizations, Kutsche said that the LGBT community has crossover with almost all the populations Community Yoga does work with.
“Yoga offers coping mechanisms, things they can take away,” she said. “A lot of kids in transition, for instance, their situations may have been made difficult through coming out.”