AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. - Alvaro Meza took his first yoga class in spring 2017. The 32 year old’s reasons for trying the ancient physical and mental exercise fall in line with
“It's just a great stress reliever,” he said.
The positions he practices- and struggles with- are the same ones in any standard yoga session.
“God, [the hardest is] probably one of the Warriors, Warrior II. Just trying to stay stable, without falling over,” he said.
To watch Meza practice yoga every Tuesday night would be like watching any yoga class.. anywhere. Except that his classroom is the visiting room at Airway Heights Corrections Center, where Alvaro and his classmates are incarcerated.
“When we brought yoga in, it was just a natural fit for this institution,” said Mike Rainville, a corrections unit supervisor at AHCC.
The program started in 2010 at the minimum security unit. It was eventually moved to the main unit and is a popular choice of program among the corrections center’s population.
The program was first brought to KXLY’s attention in a letter from an inmate at former student of the class.
He wrote that the “cycle of time grinds by in prison. Prison is like being held captive in the place where one breath ends- and the other has yet begun.”
The yoga program is one of several offered at AHCC that aims to break cycles, both by offering offenders a distraction from their time behind bars and by allowing them to build on skills that Rainville hopes will help them upon release.
“If they can take those tools with them and then practice those tools while they're on the streets then there's a good shot that they won't have to come back here,” he said.
It also helps promote a safer environment for all members of the prison community by reducing offender unrest and violence.
“Being mindful of your body and being mindful of yourself and just feeling centered,” Meza said.
Once a week, Meza and his classmates have the chance to practice those skills with help from volunteer instructors like Katie Loughlin.
“In a lot of situations I'm the teacher and the student, both. They're committed yogis who are capable of quite a bit,” she said.
Loughlin is an instructor at Harmony Yoga. A fellow instructor, who was instrumental in getting AHCC’s program running, told her about it and she volunteered.
“Probably like many people I sort of fell prey to the stereotypical assumptions of what prison is like and what prisoners would be like. Mostly it was just an unknown,” she said.
She’s not naive. Loughlin knows where-- and who-- she's teaching.
“I get asked by people that know me, you know, why volunteer at prison, like, why them, why there,” she said.
But that's the thing about yoga. Anyone, anywhere can practice- and that mantra doesn't stop being true past prison walls..
“At the end of the day what they need and what I need and what other people in the community need aren't that far apart.,” she said.
“She comes in, she just has this great personality she's kind and she's involved and helps us,” Meza said.
Her efforts, and the efforts of other volunteers just like her, are not lost on her students.
“I'm very grateful. especially because I'm going to be transitioning into the community here soon so feeling closer to the community is just going to help me better myself when I get out there,” Meza said.
Meza’s time behind bars is reaching an end. That’s exciting, stressful and, in some ways, scary. But the yoga program has given him some perspective.
“Joy. Joy that I get to be a part of something that maybe other places don't have,” he said.
AHCC is looking for other volunteer instructors for this program and others. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Ann Wise at 509-244-6752.
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