Bringing Yoga to a Women’s Prison. ~ Robin McAlpine

Via Robin McAlpine
on Apr 8, 2014
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I’m 54 and have been practicing yoga since my 20s when I was in drama school.

Yoga has assisted me through two childbirths and helped me retain sanity through one divorce. There were a few traumatic events I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived without my yoga and meditation practice.

I started working at Living Yoga as the Development Manager two months ago, diving straight into organizing the Yogathon and Gala while confident in my knowledge of the life changing effects of yoga and meditation.

As part of learning my new job, I have to go visit the community to see what Living Yoga actually does. I have to put boots, or in my case, sneakers on the ground.

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the Women’s Medium Security in Wilsonville, is first up. I’d been warned that “it’s really intense”, and “will freak you out.”

I thought I was ready. I’ve seen the shows “Orange Is the New Black” and “Locked Up”, thanks to my teenaged sons.

I mean, for crying out loud, my husband worked as a mental health specialist in Oregon State Penitentiary Super-max for two years. I have heard all of the stories. I figured I had this.

I receive specific instructions about what to wear, what not to wear, and how to behave. No tight yoga pants, no blue, red or lime green colors.

No touching, no phones, no under-wire bras.

I scour the Lloyd Center for baggie grey sweatpants. When I finally find a pair, I buy them a size too big, just to be safe, and drive down to Wilsonville.

Lorene, the teacher I’m shadowing, is a gem. She’s been teaching this class for over five years. Lorene is the most committed, lovely, calm volunteer you will ever find.

As we walk in the Spartan lobby, the larger-than-life guard greets her with familiarity before turning to look steadily at me. I can’t swallow. I know he can see everything I did in the 80’s…ack!

He speaks, “So, you finally come to turn yourself in on that warrant?”

I’m almost positive I’ve never been arrested. With this giant man glaring at me, however, I’m not so sure. My life flashes before my eyes like it’s my last moment on earth. Can I edit out my years in New York City before he puts me in a cell?

But his eyebrow is slightly raised. He’s totally yanking my chain by seeing how the newbie reacts. I think. I hope. I take a chance and come back with a confident, cocky, “Yeah.”

“It’s about time,” he says as he slowly cracks what I assume is his smile. He goes on to assure me that when everything goes horribly wrong in there and some inmate tries to “shank” me, he’ll be the one to save me.


I exchange my ID for a red laminated “Visitor” tag. A piece of paper with my name on it is handed to Lorene—my “leash.”

Once the first massive “sally port” (a steel plate and thick Plexiglass gate) grinds heavily shut behind me, that paper, my “leash”, is the only thing that will let me leave the facility.

I have nothing on me, nothing to distinguish me from an inmate. Except somehow, I’m vainly certain I don’t look anything like an inmate. I do feel awfully naked without an ID or iPhone.

The floors in the twisting and echoing empty corridors were amazing—the shiniest I’ve ever seen, which is an absurd thing to notice. Bare concrete buffed and polished with care and pride.

After about the 16th steel sally port clangs behind me, I have thoroughly lost my bearings.

We make it to the unit. Through open doorways, I see women sitting in a common area. The tables and benches are bolted to the floor. They’re laughing and talking, just as I was doing this afternoon in the lunchroom at work.

Except they’re all wearing big dark blue t-shirts that say “INMATE” across the back and there are a couple of security officers standing at the periphery.

Lorene gets a CD player from an officer and we head to the multipurpose room. It’s a carpeted classroom lined with whiteboards.

Remnants of communal therapy work are still evident as large butcher-block papers are taped to the walls with encouraging slogans on them: “We will use our voices to express our needs”, “I’m making Peace with my Past”, “Freedom is within my reach” with women’s signatures carefully written across them in pink and blue and green marker.

The women start to file in. I don’t know what I was expecting.

Angry? Tough? Dour?

I do know that what I wasn’t expecting were these bright eyed, smiling women walking in, chatting with each other and heading straight to the metal cabinet filled with yoga props.

A few notice me and, realizing I was new, walk straight up to me, and stick out a hand with a “Hi! What’s your name? Thanks for coming!”

“I’m Robin. I work for Living Yoga. It’s my job to raise money so that we can have these programs and classes.”

They stopped in their tracks. Spontaneous applause erupted.

“You do?!” “Thank you!” “Bless you!” “Thank you!” “Thank you!”

I feel humbled. I really haven’t done much yet.

As Lorene begins the class, “Let’s start in easy pose, close your eyes, and just breathe,” the women join right in, knowing what to do even though they only get to do this once a week.PHOTO CREDIT: AISHA HARLEY

I sit near Laurene and look out at the class.

Sitting in front of me is a spindly older lady with square glasses and grey hair in a severe bun. She places her hands on her heart in silent gratitude and nods to me.

She could be any grandma at the grocery store, the mall, on the Max, or in a restaurant. I wonder, “What in the world did this nice lady do to end up in here?”

I begin to have an argument in my head—part of me is dying to know what the inmates had done to end up in prison, while the other part does not want to know.

This part of me wants to give the gift of allowing these women, for just one hour of the week, to be in a place where they’re not a last name or a number.

For one hour, allowing them to just be a person doing yoga.

One hour of not walking around with “The biggest mistake ever made” emblazoned on their forehead. Because that’s what it must be like.

Some are defined by a single mistake that will impact them forever—“I’m ‘The woman who drove drunk and killed a pedestrian.’” Do they ever get to replace that story?

I think back to my life flashing before my eyes in the lobby when the guard was messing with me.

What if I had to walk around with everyone knowing the huge mistakes I had made before I even had a chance to introduce myself and present a better me?

Because I’ve made a bunch of huge mistakes. I just never happened to get caught and there, but for the Grace of God, go I.

The ladies in the room were me. How many times have I driven with alcohol in my system?

How many times have I been enraged with someone, but had just enough impulse control not to act on it?

How many times have I not behaved with integrity, or hung out with wrong people, been in the wrong place, just not at the wrong time?

God, I am so fortunate. I just didn’t know how fortunate until I sat with women who weren’t so lucky.

The shapeless navy INMATE t-shirts and red polyester shorts fade away. All I see now are faces—lovely, clean, women’s faces, free of make-up, free of pretense, just yearning to catch my eye for approval, or a moment of honest connection with another woman.


The class is over.

Namaste. I see you.

The infinite me sees the infinite in you.

And then, I am mobbed.

Not in a scary way. Women are respectfully waiting to ask me to bring a message back to everyone involved with Living Yoga.

“Please, can we have a Friday class too? We’ve checked and this room is available,” and “There’s no visitors, so we have nothing to pull us away.” “Please can you ask if we can have another class?”

I promise I will ask.

There is an unending outpouring of gratitude for the one class a week they do have.

The requests go on and on for more classes and workshops.

Then there is the last woman, the grandma who had sat in front of me with her large square glasses. She starts strongly and confidently, “Robin, when you take your impressions back to Living Yoga, please tell them I’ve been coming to class for five years,” She pauses and her voice chokes, “Please tell them this class means the world to me.” She just stands there, nodding, tears streaming down her face.

It takes everything to not hug her. But I was told we can’t touch them.

They’re not allowed touch, any touch.

For years and years, they’re not allowed any kind human physical contact.

I’m just like her, and she’s just like me. Except I have a piece of paper that’s going to let me back out of those gates tonight. And I get to go home to the warm arms of my husband, while she’ll be sleeping in a cot in a room that never sees darkness. And I have my choice of yoga classes all day long, any day I feel like going.

I promise her that I will tell everyone at Living Yoga. I promise I will tell everyone.

This class means the world to her.


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Assistant Editor: Karissa Kneeland/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo Credit: Aisha Harley


About Robin McAlpine

Robin McAlpine is 54 and has been practicing yoga since her 20s when she was in drama school. Yoga has assisted her through two childbirths, helped her retain sanity through one divorce, and has helped her through a couple of traumatic events. She is sure she wouldn’t have survived without yoga and meditation practice. She began working at Living Yoga as the Development Manager two months ago, diving straight into organizing the Yogathon and Gala, confident in her knowledge of the life changing effects of yoga and meditation.


30 Responses to “Bringing Yoga to a Women’s Prison. ~ Robin McAlpine”

  1. Chip K says:

    I am proud to be this amazing woman's husband. Living Yoga does powerful and important work. Spread the word!

  2. Amanda says:

    Robin, thank you for this article. I have seen lots of information about Yoga in men's prison, but not much about Yoga in a woman's prison. This topic is very dear to my heart. I was that inmate, that prisoner, that woman who associated herself with the wrong people and got caught. I was not lucky enough to have Yoga in prison, I found it after my release. My practice continues to change my life for the better, and I want to share that with others. Is there advice you can give to become involved/volunteer in an organization such as yours?

  3. Bronwyn Petry says:

    Wow Robin. This post was riveting. So powerful. Thank you for sharing your experience and for spreading their message.

  4. Colleen says:

    Wow wow wow. Thank you for doing this. I work in mental health as a psych np and the clients I see I know would benefit from yoga. Lots and lots of PTSD. I used to teach yoga as a school nurse and loved sharing it. I love this and am inspired to try to bring it to the people I work with now.

  5. Lisa Gravelle says:

    WOW … that's not what I expected at all, Thank you so much, Robin for sharing your experience with the world. It really moved me to tears and I am not easily put there. Beautiful gift.

  6. encounterillumination says:

    Hello and thank you!! I too teach yoga in a women's facility in Philadelphia…it is the most rewarding work ever…I'm blessed each week. Your essay was so well -written. Stay strong/stay true!!! xo

  7. Ilise says:

    This is amazing! What a great piece. Yoga is so important and what a gift to give all people the opportunity to have yoga. Great job, Living Yoga. I hope to read more about this adventure!

  8. michelle says:

    I had no idea when I start reading this article that I would end up in tears. Thank you Robin for bringing their world to us and inspiring a deep compassion for all with your perception and words.

  9. Tina says:

    A beautiful article! Reminds us all that these woman are still people who made some bad choices, but who are still human and looking for a way, as we all do, to find the inner peace within themselves. Bravo to Living Yoga and Robin for bringing this program to them!

  10. karen Katz says:

    great article-I know a yoga teacher here, who teaches down at the Baltimore City jail each week-she said she will go down there for ONE student, but usually her classes are fuller than that. I am not naive enough to think that nobody should do time for wrongs they have done (especially when they have hurt other people), but I know from my many years as working as a nurse that even the person who acts in the most horrible manner is still a child of God. Somewhere they stopped relating to that aspect of their Being, or the hole that most of us carry around somewhere inside, that most of us learn to fill with healthier things, has never been filled in them. I have heard of some amazing cases of forgiveness-like women who have reached out to the gangbangers who killed their own children, reached out to them, forgave them and in the process helped to heal the person who killed, and they start to heal themselves.
    When John Lennon was asked once about "All You Need is Love", he said something like "Of course it is that simple,, but it doesn't mean it's easy."

  11. Robin says:

    HI Amanda, Thank you for sharing your story. I'm very proud to represent this non-profit and am deeply committed to the work we do. Have you looked in your area for organizations like ours?

  12. Robin says:

    thank you so much, Bronwyn.

  13. Robin says:

    Thank you!

  14. Robin says:

    thank you, Lisa. I appreciate your comment so much.

  15. Robin says:

    Thank you! Keep up the great work, and I WILL TOO!

  16. Robin says:

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!

  17. Robin says:

    thank you so much!

  18. Robin says:

    thank you, Tina!

  19. Robin says:

    Thank you for sharing that, Karen.

  20. latterenee says:

    Literally brought tears to my eyes. This was beautifully written and sheds light on the power and importance of karma yoga. Thank you!

  21. brownsaucey says:

    I appreciate efforts to support yoga in the prison environment. I also thought the tone of this article makes a lot of assumptions and otherizes those who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system, and gives off an underlying superiority of he author in relation to 'them'. I also found the article to provide a very simplified narrative of the criminal justice system in the United States. Going to prison isn't just about getting caught or making a mistake. It's much more complex than that. It's a profit driven industry that makes money off of incarcerating other human beings. It incarcerates more black and brown men than were separated by their families in the slave era. It is an incredibly racially biased, violent, exploitive system that rarely if ever provides just representation for those who have been pushed out of the mainstream economy. The article seemed to focus more on how the author lives a privileged life and is providing those impacted by mass incarceration something they could never provide for themselves rather than unpacking how the limbs of yoga can provide healing inside a very corrupt and oppressive system. I'll end with a quote: “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” -Elder Lila Watson

  22. brownsaucey says:

    Our intentions to share yoga in other communities is often undermined by our thought, speech and action within communities we do not represent and claim to know lots about. I appreciate any effort to support the practice of yoga in the prison system and also found this article offensive and indicative of the 'white savior complex' and 'otherization' that plagues the yoga community (and every other community). The author (not surprisingly a privileged white woman) writes her piece that in my perspective completely otherizes those actually impacted by the criminal justice system (unlike herself), makes assumptions of what it must be like to be 'them' (vs. all of us), and weaves her internalized superiority throughout the article. Even worse, she provides such a simplified and narrow narrative of the prison system in the United States. Claiming that 'these' women made mistakes and got caught, unlike herself. If you are going to be writing about the criminal justice system, especially in this context, it is your due diligence to educate readers about the systemic oppressions the system perpetuates instead of using the power of your words to ignore WHY so many of our fellow citizens end up in prison at a higher rate than any other industrialized country. Going to prison is not just about making a mistake and getting caught. We are talking about a system that racially profiles communities who have already been pushed out of the mainstream economy through a history of slavery and white supremacy. More black and brown men are imprisoned in our system then were separated from their families in the slave era.

    I expect more from Elephant Journal. If we are to publish a critical analysis around yoga and service I would hope you would filter against articles that actually perpetuate notions of 'otherness', only provide an individualistic lens to a systemic problem and fuel the idea that there is an inherit 'superiority' between the server and the served. As if the communities being served are not powerful in their own right.

  23. elephantjournal says:

    Dear brownsaucey,
    We appreciate and welcome your contributions to the conversation. While we agree with your analysis of this article as an example of American exceptionalism (or, as you put it, "white savior complex"), we also are a group of readers, writers, and editors focused on mindfulness. Mindfulness is largely centered around intention. So while this author may not have been aware of the assumptions and cultural leaps associated with yoga inside the prison system, she was certainly intending to be of benefit.
    Thank you for contributing to this conversation, and we encourage you to submit your own piece(s) on this topic and others! Blessings, Light, & Love.

  24. Robin says:

    Dear brownsaucey,

    Please don't make assumptions. You know absolutely nothing about my life, financial circumstances or what I've gone through.

    We do what we can:

    My husband has worked in community mental health with schizophrenic men, psychopaths, and in a mental health prison unit for 15 years. Now, we both work for non-profits (making very little money) trying to help change the world.

    My 13 year old son wrote a bar mitzvah speech that went viral (190,000 views) this november, and while the majority of people commented positively on his views on gay marriage, he was also the subject of many online death threats from people who sat in their rooms criticizing him for being pro-gay and jewish.

    I infiltrated operation rescue when i was 30, stopping the bombing of an abortion clinic.

    Have a lovely day.


  25. Robin says:

    thank you, I appreciate your encouragement.

  26. Laura S. says:

    EJ Editors: While it is obvious from this article that the author “was certainly intending to be of benefit” I am concerned by what I consider a rather cavalier defense on your part against brownsaucey’s criticism. The use of a claim of “good intention” as a roadblock to open dialog around an issue – especially one as critical as the systemic victimization of minoritized individuals in our culture – is not, in my opinion, in line with the true spirit of a focus on intention. We do not live inside our practice. We live in a real world, where there are very real consequences to our speech and action regardless of the initial intention that motivated us. It is our responsibility to pair our intention with informed awareness as to the context in which our intentions are played out Good intention, without concern as to the consequences of actions and speech, is not, in the end, good intention at all. Life is messy. It is inevitable that we will make mistakes. Part and parcel of a good intention is the willingness to take ownership of the consequences of how we act on that intention. Focus on initial intention, separated from consequence, is nothing more than belly-gazing.

  27. brownsaucey says:

    Robin – Thanks for sharing your life experiences. I also don't see how me commenting on the complexity of the prison system has anything to do with what you've personally experienced. I commented on HOW you speak about OTHERS in your article. Because you are white, you have privilege. No matter what your background is. That's just the world we operate in. I'm South Asian and Muslim – but I'm middle class – I too have privilege in that regard. Privilege is not something bad or to be ashamed of – it's something to recognize and acknowledge influences how not only we walk through the world but how our world treats us. Nothing in my comments invalidates you as a person – if you choose to feel invalidated and defensive, that is your choice. I'm talking about the complexity of power dynamics between communities who are served by those don't represent them. Which I don't think in itself is bad – it's the approach and the language we choose that can either empower are fellow community members rather by being a witness to their lives versus a paternalistic figure that assumes what they need and want. I apologize that my comment put you in defense mode and made you feel like you had to list all the ways your life has encountered challenges. I still think it's important to be mindful of the impact we have on others. Nobody is free of assumptions – we are human. You article was full of them.

  28. Laura S. says:

    Robin – I can understand how you might feel defensive about brownsaucey's response to your article; it is hard when we have acted with our best intentions and receive criticism for it. And it does appear from your article that you truly do have good intentions. That said, brownsaucey has some very valid points that – IMHO – deserve a compassionate and thought-out response. While the examples you list of your and your family's history of progressive service are admirable, that list really isn't pertinent to brownsaucey's criticism. As white people, we do have privilege – like it or not – that we simply cannot deny. Whether we approve of the system or not, we do benefit from it simply by virtue of the whiteness of our skin. That being the case, if we really do want to make a difference – if our final goal is truly to create a world where we are all empowered and treated fairly – then we must own the shadow side of being members of the dominant group in this culture. We own that shadow, regardless of how well-intentioned we may be. Membership in a privileged class inevitably brings with it a considerable assortment of blind spots and unintentionally oppressive thought and action. When we are called out for falling short, that is hard, especially when we have good intentions. But growth demands of us that we listen openly and with compassion to the criticism – if we're truly concerned with social justice, we owe it to those who, from a minoritized position, tell us when we are blind or misguided. I know that my response here sounds a bit sermon-y, and for that I apologize; I don't want to sound pompous or condescending – I have been where you are now, receiving criticism because, by virtue of being white, I simply did not have the awareness and education to know how my limited perspective regarding the experience of minoritized people impacted my ability to truly be of service. In fact, I feel very vulnerable right now, because it is such a tricky thing to attempt to voice disagreement compassionately, and I fear I may not be doing a very good job of that. I acknowledge that writing this reply requires of me a willingness to be criticized in response; while I don't want to expose myself to that, it is the only way to grow and be shown my own blind spots. So if you are willing and interested, I offer you a challenge: Read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow." Then go back and visit the prison again, and write another article from a perspective informed by what you learn from that book. I hope that if you choose to do this, you will find it a rewarding venture.

  29. Laura S. says:

    EJ Editors: I am troubled by your response to brownsaucey’s criticism of this article. To use a claim of good intentions as a way of shutting down critique – especially around a subject as urgent as the flagrant race and class bias in our criminal justice system – is disingenuous at best. Yes, intention is integral to a mindfulness practice. But intention, isolated from action, is meaningless. Action with disregard for the consequences of that action is irresponsible. Action without awareness for the context in which it is enacted is unskilled and ignorant. We do not live inside our practice. We live in a world where the majority of meaning, experience and growth comes by way of interaction with the world, where both our intentions and our actions (including speech and other expression of thoughts, attitudes and beliefs) have a very real impact. Life is messy. We all have shadows and we all make mistakes. To truly honor the spirit of good intention, we must also own and take responsibility for the impact our intentions have on the world when we act on them. The quality of intention is arguably a valid consideration. But if we truly want to grow spiritually and be of service, we have a responsibility to engage in rigorous and honest self-enquiry, as well as being present for and open to feedback that will inform us as to the quality of the consequences of our efforts. Attention to intention divorced from how it plays out in our interaction with the world is nothing more than self-indulgent belly-gazing.

  30. Lori Renee says:

    I am so thankful I read this. I may have found my calling. I am not allowed in any jails or prisons because I was once a client Not even to assist in an A.A. Meeting with my sponsor. I believe even mental hospitals are also out due to confidentiaality laws even though I was a client at one or two of those as well. A senior citizens establisrnent does not want some yoga chick stepping on the physical therapists toes either. Not being negative but would love to find a joint to give it away at? The woman’s shelter. & domestic violence said no dice too.

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