Prison Yoga Teachers 

I have recently been honored to serve on the board of the Daya Foundation a small non-profit in Portland Oregon founded by visionary yoga teacher and tireless advocate for justice Sarahjoy Marsh. DAYA stands for Devoloping Accessible Yoga Alternatives. Daya offers therapeutic yoga for individuals with a variety of physical and emotional issues in their studio in SW Portland and in a variety of other settings beyond the studio. 

Daya’s most amazing program is the Yoga teacher training program for inmates of the men’s correctional facility near Salem.  Please take a minute to watch this powerful short documentary. 

Yoga Teacher Training in Oregon Prisons
In Sarahjoy’s own words: 

Oregon prisons have asked for our help transforming the communities on the inside! We are the DAYA Foundation, and we have 20 years of experience teaching yoga in prisons.

In August of 2015 we launched the first 200-hour Yoga Alliance Registered yoga teacher training program inside a prison. With 200-hours of rigorous study in yoga philosophy, mindfulness, neuroscience, teaching skills, classroom management techniques, and interpersonal neurobiology, our newest yoga teachers inside graduated from this training in March of 2015.


We now have twelve certified yoga teachers, more than half of them have life sentences, at Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) teaching yoga classes. And, we have 3 more prisons requesting a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program for their community: Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI), Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), and Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). We are enthused to do so! However, we are also seeking funding support to create and sustain these projects.


This is not your average yoga teacher training for more than one reason: yes, it’s a training on the inside. For adults in custody, many of whom have life sentences. And, this is also a training that prepares these teachers to teach yoga to the community of other inmates who live with developmental delays (DD1 – DD3), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and mental illnesses (MI). This training program creates jobs on the inside. And, for those who will re-enter the community, it creates potential for them to seek jobs within the yoga field or working with the developmentally delayed population.         


We developed this training program, in tandem with the Department of Corrections, so that these more marginalized and all too easily exploited populations (DD1 – DD3, TBI, MI) would have yoga classes that meet their needs, cognitively, neurologically, with respect to their sensori-motor challenges, and as well mentally and emotionally. Though these adults in custody are biologically adults their cognitive function is on average about 7 – 12 years old, the ages in which our brains develop an orientation to our interpersonal world – wherein self and other become more distinct via the processes of differentiation. As this primarily doesn’t happen for these populations, understanding relational dynamics and associating with healthy friends becomes challenging if resources, guidance, and mentorship are not available. They’ve struggled in our educational system, been bullied in school and in their homes, and, if they’ve been fortunate to find a job, were challenged to maintain a job if interpersonal complexity was required.


With our direct supervision and mentoring, these students progressed through our yoga teacher training program as students of our trainees (who were becoming their yoga teachers). We observed improvements in their esteem, self-awareness, and reduction of their anxiety. Pro-social relationships between our trainees and these students developed into safer experiences for the DD1 – DD3, TBI, and MI inmates for going to the dining room, spending time out in the yard, and performing their prison work duties. An example we are fond of: they became capable of helping with the prison vegetable garden, many eating ripe tomatoes off of the vine for the first time in their lives. (While they can’t yet operate a weed-wacker skillfully, they do learn other gardening skills, such as picking ripe vegetables!)


Two communities that directly benefit from this program:


the long-term residents of these institutions who are able to become yoga teachers and support their communities on the inside, where they have been living for up to 35 years already, many of them entered the system as adolescents committing violent crimes when they were 15-17 years old; and the residents of these institutions who have shorter sentences yet whose time in prison is directly the result of their DD, TBI, MI and whose experience of being in prison has a great likelihood of being more self-diminishing, not more therapeutic (these populations are easily exploited by more aggressive institution residents negatively influencing their trauma histories, cognitive function, self-esteem, and relational capacity). 


When such populations return to the community on the outside, we (and their new yoga teachers on the inside) would like to see them return withincreased capacity to care for their physical well-being (basic self-care issues are highly under-developed upon arriving in prison and often made worse by their time on the inside), with increased awareness of their emotions and tools to use for positively regulating their affective states, and with increased self-esteem, impulse control, and interpersonal respect. Yoga and mindfulness practices are tools that have proven to enable these outcomes.


A third community is benefited by these programs: the communities to which these residents return, communities in which they will seek jobs, raise their families, and become contributing members of society.

DAYA Foundation was founded by Sarahjoy Marsh: 

Sarahjoy Marsh, MA, E-RYT-500 yoga teacher, therapist and author, is a vibrant, compassionate catalyst for transformation to those that suffer from addictions – in particular disordered eating patterns/emotional eating. 

This entry was posted in compassion, health care, meditation, mindfulness, neuroscience, Uncategorized, yoga and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Prison Yoga Teachers 

  1. Pingback: Prison Yoga Teachers  | downwardfacingdoc

  2. Kurt says:

    Hari Om!

    As one that has studied the prison system at the graduate level, I am always happy to see anyone spreading advocacy for prisoner rights and well-being. These institutions are a direct reflection of the society that creates them, and thus we see similar structure and mental health issues in our public school system. If you are in the DC area, there is an amazing community three hours south called Yogaville. The founder, Sri Swami Satchidananda, did extensive work with prisoners and the program he began continues 15 years after leaving his body. Having lived in the community for over a year, I can testify to the good work they do. May you continue to do yours.


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