I was first introduced to yoga in 2014 when I was training for a half marathon. In addition to the many health benefits that yoga provides, I discovered the unity and community it creates when it’s shared with a group of people. I benefited so much from my yoga practice; it brought me stress relief and mental clarity. I thought, something as precious as mindfulness and wellness shouldn’t be a luxury. Yoga should be accessible to everyone. I knew I wanted to share the practice with others. I wasn’t sure at the time what shape that would take.
In 2020, when we were all faced with images of police brutality and social unrest that resulted, on top of the specter of the coronavirus, I could see the mental-health impact in my community. I saw it in myself. But I also observed how my yoga practice helped me maintain physical and mental wellbeing. That empowered me to increase my depth of knowledge about yoga. I began to envision becoming a yoga instructor. I wanted to provide an environment where people who look like me and have similar life experiences could share a safe space. I decided to participate in a teacher training and yoga mentorship program.
Yoga as a Justice Practice
By profession, I’m a professor of criminal justice and data specialist with a passion for social justice and criminal justice reform. I examine disparities within the criminal justice system at the intersection of race, class and gender. I’m especially interested in how children and youth are affected by family and/or parental incarceration. (Children and family members of incarcerated individuals are hidden victims of incarceration.) The system is devastating for families.
Overall, about 200,000 women are incarcerated in Texas, and women of color represent more than 50% of the jailed female population. Many of those women have children. In fact, in 2020, approximately 120 women gave birth in Texas correctional facilities.
Research about parental incarceration has found that many women serving time in county jails and state prisons have painful histories of adverse childhood experiences and continue to experience violence and trauma as adults. This trauma can be handed down over generations. It can impact Black maternal and mental health as well as mental health within families.
My experience working in the criminal justice field made me conscious of the lack of accessibility incarcerated individuals have to programs to improve physical and mental health wellbeing. Incarcerated people are often excluded altogether from the conversation about mental wellbeing and the mindfulness practices that might help them.
Determined to close the health and wellness equity gap, I turned to research and dove into various rabbit holes to gather information about yoga in carceral settings.
Yoga Prison Projects
That’s when I learned about people who were offering trauma-informed yoga in carceral settings through non-profits such as Yoga 4 Change, Prison Yoga Project, and Yoga Behind Bars. I was inspired to find a way to provide wellness programming to incarcerated individuals and the justice-involved community in the Houston area.
I achieved my first step in making yoga accessible to incarcerated individuals in my community with the help of the Prison Yoga Project. In March 2022, with mats donated by Gaiam Yoga and lululemon through Give Back Yoga Foundation, I began teaching yoga to women in “the system.”
My first class, taught through a trauma-informed lens, was with incarcerated pregnant and postpartum women at a residential treatment facility in the Houston area. In July, I added a second class in order to accommodate additional women. Since the implementation of the yoga program, the facility has shared with me that the class “gets the women moving and helps them to breath and be present in the moment.” Each week the sessions vary, and I try to expose them to the various limbs of yoga. During the early part of the summer, we enjoyed a peaceful meditation walk, and for International Day of Yoga this past summer we flowed through half sun salutations on the outdoor gazebo. Since March, I have observed the women share how they have incorporated breathing techniques into some of their daily routines and their excitement when learning tree pose.
Moving Forward in Justice
Moving forward, I want to continue to raise awareness about the importance of yoga for marginalized communities. My goal is to continue to provide free yoga services and donation-based classes to people in my community who would likely never see the inside of a yoga studio.
I plan to continue partnering with non-profit organizations that provide programming to incarcerated or criminal justice impacted individuals. I’d like to collaborate with local yoga studios to raise funds for yoga supplies for incarcerated individuals and vulnerable populations.
I’m ready to take my advocacy for wellness equity on the road, participating in webinars, conferences, and podcasts to discuss yoga in carceral settings. I’ll talk to yoga teachers who are interested in teaching people who are incarcerated or impacted by the justice system.
Yoga means “to join” and “to unite.” I’m grateful that yoga has brought all of my interests together through my work in correctional facilities.
Dr. Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois (RYT-200) is a Professor of Criminal Justice with degrees in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice, completed her doctoral studies in the Administration of Justice Department of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Justice Research. Her work and research have focused on resilience among youth impacted by family and/or parental incarceration, disparities in the criminal justice system, and criminal justice reform. She brings her love for yoga to that work, with an interest in the intersection of yoga and social justice.