Cultivating Freedom Within

“Have you ever thought about teaching inmates to be yoga teachers?” the prison superintendent asked.

For more than three years, Sue Julian and Barbara Steinke of Laotong Yoga had been leading yoga classes for inmates at several West Virginia prisons. They’d come for a check in with the superintendent at the Lakin Correctional Center, the state’s only prison dedicated exclusively to women. The question took them by surprise.

“I think she thought we could put it together in a weekend,” Barbara recalls. The women knew better, and were deeply uncertain.

Creating Real Change in the World

Sue and Barbara have been friends for years. Sue is a certified Kripalu Yoga teacher, Barbara is a certified Barefoot Yoga teacher, and both are certified Kripalu YogaDance® teachers. Yoga has helped both women through tough times. As they approached retirement, they knew they wanted to do something together, and they wanted it to involve yoga.

Inspired by James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project, they approached the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and were invited to lead classes for the inmates. Prison life is stressful, and inmates were amazed to discover how helpful their breath could be in anxious moments.

But starting a 200-hour yoga teaching training program in a prison? 

“We were asked to do something that could create real change in the world,” Sue says now. “We took the plunge.”

From Life Sentence to Lifelong Practice

Sue and Barbara applied to the Yoga Alliance to make Laotong a Registered School of Yoga, and started teacher training at Lakin with 10 students in June 2017. The following May, eight women, including several serving life sentences, graduated as certified yoga teachers. Today, several of these recent graduates are leading yoga practice for fellow inmates. 

In January 2020, Laotong Yoga started its second certification course. Kripalu donors, through their gifts to the Jonathan P. Schwartz Teaching for Diversity program, have provided a small grant to help make the program possible. 

“Even inmates who may never be released can’t help focusing on the outside,” Sue says. “Yoga helps them to be present in the moment, to see that the people with whom they are incarcerated noware their community—not outside. Yoga helps them break through their loneliness and isolation.”