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I was recently very honored to spend time discussing mindfulness, consciousness compassion and neuroscience with blogger of “Thinking Clearly” Martina Feyzrakhmanova MD of Dublin, Ireland. Check out the first part our conversation:
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Let fall your shadows on the sundials,upon the fields let loose your winds.
Command the last fruits to be full; give them just two more southern days,
Press them to completion, and chase the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who has no house now – he will never build.
Whoever is alone now, long will so remain; will stay awake, and read, and write long letters and wander the alleys up and down, restless, as the leaves are drifting.
Rainer Maria Rilke (Trsl. C.Z.)
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.
There are more things under heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
W. Shakespeare in “Hamlet”
Even in the modern world among scientists and scientifically oriented physicians, belief systems play a controlling role in our perceptions of the world around us and inside us. For example we believe in science, something that goes beyond belief in the scientific method as a means to test ideas about the world. Ancient practices that purport benefits like meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong but that don’t seem to have an easily explainable mechanism for those benefits often meet with resistance. We are often reluctant to accept what we cannot explain.
A big step in understanding the neuroanatomical basis for regulation of the adrenal medulla – the main effector of the stress response flight or fight reaction was published on August 30th 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Dum et al 2016). Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Neuroscience Institute employed a novel labeling technique using rabies virus to label the innervation of the adrenal medulla, and what they found stands modern assumptions on their head, while confirming the anatomical basis for traditional and ancient practices such as meditation and yoga in controlling stress.
Rabies virus is taken up and transported in retrograde fashion trans-synaptically up to the sixth order neuron, tracing an intricate neural circuit or connectome. In this study the adrenal medulla of Cebus monkeys were injected with rabies virus and the spread of the virus was then plotted into the central nervous system.
What the researchers found was startling. In contrast to previous assumptions that postulated frontal executive centers as the main innervation of the adrenal medulla the main top down control originates in the primary and supplementary motor cortex with additional contribution from the somatosensory cortex. In fact 63% of the innervation is derived from the motor cortex. This innervation is densest from areas that also innervated to proximal musculature including the muscles of respiration.
Our conscious minds – the thinking-planning-worrying-ruminating elephant that we try to train through mindfulness has little to say about this process, it can only interfere with it. As the ancients knew – and as we strive to remember among the phone calls, emails, text alerts and pages – the deepest wisdom lies in the body; the feeling of the breath, the gut, the heart. The ancients had names for these – pranayama, chakras. Now we get a glimpse into that truth from a perspective that makes sense in the context of our modern belief systems.
If we want to tame our response to stress, we must begin with the body.