Great article by Jennie Bragg
UpRising Yoga at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles
(Editor's Note: Another excellent exclusive from our Person-Centered HealthCare contributor, Jennie Bragg!)
“Breathe in. Breathe out,” instructs Jill Weiss, a seasoned yoga instructor in Los Angeles. While the words and the postures remain the same, this Hatha yoga class is a bit different from many of the classes Weiss instructs. Instead of spandex-clad regulars, before her stand six novice yoginis in grey jumpsuits. Tonight, we are in the Alpha ward at LA’s Central Juvenile Hall.
Weiss is the founder and director of UpRising Yoga, a program that brings yoga to at risk youth and communities that need it most. She feels a deep personal connection to these girls- a connection most evident when she explains to them that she, too, spent time in Central Juvenile Hall. Yoga, she tells them, made her feel like a whole person. When asked why bring yoga to these adolescents, Weiss simply explains, “We are there to heal trauma. If you are arrested, there is trauma.”
But what is trauma? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Kyra Haglund, a somatic psychotherapist and yoga teacher specializing in trauma, suggests that yoga causes a physiological shift in one’s internal space. This usually lowers levels of cortisol, which cause stress. This kind of shift can also increase serotonin and dopamine, which are the feel good hormones.
Since November 2011, UpRising Yoga has reached upwards of 800 adolescents in Central Juvenile Hall alone. Just seven months after the yoga program was implemented, probation officers stated that no violent incidents had been reported.
A former student testified, “this yoga program really helps me with my temper. Every time I get angry I think of the things the yoga instructors showed me and I use it to calm myself down.”
Another student told Weiss she liked the feeling yoga gave her so much, when she was released from Juvenile Hall, she planned to quit smoking marijuana and start doing yoga instead.
Yoga has been proven effective for all sorts of trauma, not just the trauma surrounding arrests. Haglund, has worked with victims of trauma ranging from physical and sexual abuse, to those recovering from the scars of war and car accidents, to those with distress from foster care, racism, gangs and economic status.
“Great transformation comes from intense pain,” says Haglund. “When you are suffering and in that much pain, people will try pretty much anything just to make themselves feel a little better. In extreme circumstances, people become more receptive to trying new things”
Trauma-sensitive classes are often taught a bit differently than a standard yoga class. Teachers respect physical boundaries, making sure not to touch students who may not want to be touched. And instead of giving commands, the teacher asks permission. “Trauma makes you powerless in your ability to resolve a situation,” says Haglund. “Giving someone the opportunity and permission to choose what they do is actually really reparative and establishes some trust between teacher and student”
As a person begins to learn yoga postures, they become more attuned to their body and, often, the stress of trauma slips away. “The postures change when there is more coherence in the muscle,” explains Haglund. “Depressed people start to stand a little taller. I have listened to people’s voices change. At first they are anxious, babbling, high pitched. After the yoga, they become calmer and drop into a more grounded or lower tone.”
It can be difficult to get someone who has suffered a trauma to be open to the idea of freeing his or her body. “But people of all different experiences and backgrounds find the benefits and find the good in yoga,” says Haglund. “I have watched my students come back to life. I have watched them expand their capacity to be in the world.”
photo: courtesy Andrew Veis
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Yoga’s Place in the Juvenile Justice SystemAUGUST 4, 2013 BY NANNETTE RICAFORTE LEAVE A COMMENT
Why our at-risk youth and our juvenile detention centers could use some yoga.It was Christmas Eve night in 1997 and I was processed into my jail cell wondering how I ended up there. I replayed the moments leading up to it and wondered if I could have handled my anger differently. The charges against me were assault and battery toward a family member.
The trauma my three-day stint in jail inflicted was enough to convince me to change my ways and manage my temper. There were a handful of inmates who expressed their bewilderment at my presence.
“You don’t belong here little girl.” (I was 29-years-old.)
My three children were too young to understand where their mommy was during the holidays but I was honest with them once they were old enough to understand. I hoped my honesty would not only allow them to learn from my mistakes but employ a scare tactic to avoid jail in their future.
Last month I had the privilege to photograph Uprising Yoga’s first workshop. This event wasn’t your regular yoga session but one where trained yogis came together to discuss their passion for teaching yoga in the juvenile justice system. Before I met Jill Weiss, founder of Uprising Yoga, I never correlated yoga with jail/juvenile hall.
My mind was reeling with the information I learned about at-risk youth at the yoga workshop. Approximately “250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, and incarcerated as adults each year across the United States.”
Some believe the severity of the offenses justify imprisonment in an adult jail regardless of age but Campaign For Youth Justice believe keeping kids in adult jails & prisons isn’t safe, fair, or right: Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide; youth of color are disproportionately impacted; and Federal law requires that children be protected while in custody.
Separating youth from adults in adult jails/prisons only serves to put them in dangerous territory instead of protective custody. Placing youth in solitary confinement to separate them from adults can cause harmful effects such as “anxiety, paranoia, and exacerbate existing mental disorders” that can lead to suicide.
Is juvenile hall a safer alternative for youth?
One 17-year-old speaks candidly on how he was first detained in juvenile hall when he was 13-years-old and has returned seven times. He’s a broken kid who’s a product of a broken home. He comes from a “family of drug abusers and criminals.”
“They expect me to change over night but they don’t realize progress takes time. I’ve changed in the last 4 months here by trying to control my anger…my mouth…my disrespect…They say I have grown a bit.”
According to Tamar Birckhead’s article juvenile hall isn’t a place for kids. Youth who are considered dangerous to society, runaways, drug addicts, or mentally ill are taken into custody in detention facilities and often mistreated with mechanical restraints or locked in solitary confinement.
Birckhead suggests using “community-based services, wraparound therapy for families, and outpatient treatment instead of removing adolescents from their homes and families.” For those kids without options juvenile hall could be a place of rehabilitation offering “psychological treatment, vocational training and quality education.”
In 2012, James Swift highlighted a handful of experts and their belief that modern juvenile justice systems have taken a turn toward a positive rehabilitative route. While it is understood that juvenile detention centers protect the community from at-risk youth, it should also be a place that “serves a greater purpose for both youth and society.”
Several factors contribute in making juvenile detention a positive rehabilitative experience with professionally trained and caring personnel who can teach juveniles to be better people. Mike Rollins, an executive director of Coosa Valley Youth Services (CVYS) in Alabama, believes giving incarcerated teens “as many tools as they get, holistically, [we] stand a lot better chance of success when they leave us.”
At CVYS physical activity is added to a curriculum of counseling and academic services as part of their rehabilitation. Males shoot hoops while females participate in yoga programs and equine therapy.
A study conducted by Oxford University revealed psychological benefits such as improvement in mood and decreased stress among prisoners who completed a ten-week yoga course. It’s not touted as a cure but a way to manage stressors in inmates.
For Jill Weiss of Uprising Yoga (URY), her work with at-risk youth in L.A. county’s juvenile hall is “to share yoga to plant the seed of healing, not to help or fix them, but to offer a gift of sharing how yoga has helped us heal.” Every Tuesday night since 2011, URY has taught students how to apply yoga to their lives especially in controlling their anger and temper when faced with certain situations.
Positive rehabilitative practices yield promising results for youth in juvenile hall. Let this be the new path for the juvenile justice system in the future.