ATHENS, Ga. -- It’s just a double-wide, but for some inmates, the classroom trailer at the Clarke County Jail is a calming oasis away from the turmoil of the cell blocks.
There, a small group of female inmates meets each week to bend, stretch and breathe away tension and anxiety during a yoga class led by a certified instructor.
They then immediately proceed to the “Circle of Life” group in which they talk through their problems, possible solutions to them, and long-range goals.
After several months, jail officials are noticing a marked change in the attitudes and behavior of women who have gone through the program.
“What I’ve seen is there are not as many altercations in the female population,” said Sgt. Angela McAllister, a supervisor in the jail’s Classification Group, which is responsible for inmate discipline and investigating complaints.
“The yoga gives them relaxation techniques and Circle of Life provides a forum where they can talk about whatever’s going on. It provides an outlet,” McAllister said.
Three groups of women have already completed the six-week course and a fourth class of eight is currently in progress.
Several participants have been in and out of jail most of their adult lives and are looking for a way to change behaviors that keep getting them locked up.
“This class is very emotional,” said Sharika Freeman, a 34-year-old Athens resident currently serving jail time for drugs. “It’s for your mind, and when your mind relaxes all of it goes away; all the yelling and screaming, the door slamming, all of it.”
Freeman, who still has five months to serve on a 12-month sentence, said she practices yoga several times each day in her cell “to get away from all the noise and ruckus.”
The yoga class and discussion group formed almost by serendipity.
Clarke County sheriff’s Cpl. Takia Taylor had been wanting for some time to lead a group of women inmates in a discussion group in which they could safely express their feelings, frustrations, hopes and fears. She also was hoping to begin each session with some sort of relaxing activity, like breathing exercises and even yoga.
Earlier this year, an intern from the University of Georgia School of Social Work who happened to be working at the jail told officials about Michelle Arington, a certified yoga instructor who taught a class he was in.
“I was pumping gas one morning when I ran into (the intern) who said he was just thinking about me and wondered if I would be interested in teaching yoga at the jail,” Arington said. “He told me about how they had a conversation at the jail about the effectiveness of yoga and meditation for people who are experiencing chronic stress and (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
Arington jumped at the opportunity.
“The focus of my teaching has been helping people suffering from anxiety and depression, and studies have shown that among inmates, especially females, more than 60 percent are suffering from PTSD,” Arington said. “Now, the medical community really is now valuing and understanding how effective yoga can be in recovery and controlling symptoms.”
In addition to teaching private yoga classes, Arington is wellness coordinator for the Athens-based Samaritan Center for Counseling and Wellness.
The nonprofit is seeking funding to continue yoga classes at the jail, but in the meantime Arington, said she is happy to donate her time.
“When that door opened I readily said yes, I’ll do it and didn’t really think about the money,” she said.
According to Arington, yoga teaches inmates to use their bodies to teach their minds.
“Emotional pain and trauma is stored in the body, and when you move the body in a certain way it can release the emotions that are trapped in the muscle system,” Arington said. “Just teaching them how to breathe can help them control how they respond to situations, especially when they feel threatened or stressed.”
Arington said inmates have told her that they had found an inner peace through yoga that has helped them avoid getting into fights in jail and sleep better.
“Irritability that leads them to criminal behavior often is tied to past trauma that affects their ability to live in the world,” Arington said. “Ideally, what we’re teaching them is a new way to behave and have more awareness and self-control of their feelings before they become reactive.”
During a session Tuesday morning, Arington’s soothing voice led inmates through the mountain, child, stork and various other yoga poses.
“We use visualizations of peace and calmness, asking (inmates) to call up the gratitude in their hearts and see what is feels like in their bodies and just experience that,” the instructor said.
Melinda Thomas, who has served seven jail terms for various offenses, said yoga is a new tool that helps keep her temper in check.
“Sometimes when I be angry, I do my yoga to be at peace and stop my mind from racing at stuff,” the 35-year-old Athens resident said. “It really helps me a lot and this time I know that I want to get it together so I don’t keep coming back to jail.”
Ann Cooper, president of the Samaritan Center’s board of directors, is impressed by the results jail yoga classes have had thus far.
“Anxiety in participants was measured each week using the Zung Anxiety Scale,” she said. “The group measurement shows marked decrease over the length of the program from 68 (severe anxiety) to 53 (minimal to moderate anxiety).”
One grant request to fund the yoga class was recently rejected, but Cooper said the search for funding continues.
“In the meantime, we are asking others in the community to share what they can in support of this effective and inspiring ministry,” she said.