The Alum Who Brought Yoga into the Blanton Takes it Behind Bars

Most yoga teachers do their thing inside studios or gyms. Olivia Silver, BA ’06, takes yoga’s postures, movements, and breathing techniques into prisons and jails.

The Austin native began exporting yoga to unusual places as an undergraduate intern at the Blanton Museum of Art. She launched a popular series of free, community Yoga in the Galleries classes inside the museum. At the Blanton, Silver seized a notion that has stuck with her: yoga works anywhere.

Now Silver, 28, is in the vanguard of an unlikely prison reform movement. She is director of development at Yoga Behind Bars, a Washington state nonprofit that sends certified yoga instructors into prisons to teach.

In the process, Silver and Yoga Behind Bars provide a unique service. By bringing yoga to incarcerated men, women and juveniles, they improve the quality of life behind bars.

It isn’t hard to convince people that yoga helps with depression and stress. It is harder to convince some that convicts deserve it.

“Prisoners have the most potential for transformation,” says Silver. “They have the most potential for yoga to do what it does best. There are lots of misconceptions about people who are not seen, people who are hidden away. They are an entire population that is out of sight. Yes, some of them have done bad things, and they are paying for it, but many of them are in search of healing and health.”

In the free classes, inmates gain skills in basic yoga. They stretch, twist, invert, and balance on their arms or on one foot. They meditate silently, with their eyes closed and hands at their chests. More than physical results ensue. Yoga Behind Bars accepts and welcomes the incarcerated offenders without judgment. The weekly classes add a structure to inmates’ existence. In an era of shrinking budgets, prisons tend to welcome the volunteers. The classes cost taxpayers nothing.

The classes and their teachers lend a dramatic contrast to a stressful prison environment. Poised and athletic, like a ballet dancer, Silver gracefully represents the ancient discipline she embraces. You can see the effects of her longtime yoga practice in the elegant way she moves.

Behind bars, Silver has encountered drug addicts, social undesirables, outcasts, and miscreants of all stripes. Yoga Behind Bars casts them all a lifeline, and many discover a tool to maintain stability after they re-enter society.

Classes are held inside Washington state’s largest prisons, jails, juvenile detention facilities, and centers for recovering addicts. About 50 volunteers teach in seven facilities. Demand for classes far exceeds supply, so prisoners often wait six to 12 months for the privilege.

Up next? Classes for prison guards: “They live behind bars too,” Silver says.

Not surprisingly, prison-based mental health professionals are among Yoga Behind Bars’ biggest believers. One advocate is Andrew Corso, psychologist at Monroe Correctional Complex, an overcrowded prison where a female corrections officer was killed by an inmate in 2011. Like many states, Washington’s prison population is exploding; many offenders sleep on rugs on concrete floors between toilets and bunk beds in jam-packed cells.

“Yoga has been shown to aid in the treatment of psychopathology, drug addiction and even criminality,” Corso says. “It improves one’s circulation, respiration and flexibility. It gives one a sense of self-awareness. Yoga teaches one to be aware of and at peace with being. This awareness and acceptance of the self can be a foundational change that combats the self-loathing at the root of illnesses like depression and anxiety.”

Corso says that prison psychologists work to change the negative thoughts and behaviors that underlie criminality, addiction, and mental illness. “And yoga is an asset to the treatment of all three of these targets.”

Current student-inmates say they benefit. “I learned how to focus on myself instead of the things that surround me in jail,” one inmate says.

“’I am a longtime heroin addict. Yoga helped tremendously during withdrawal,” says another.

In 2011, the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes criminal-justice reform, gave Yoga Behind Bars $100,000 to add more classes. As development director, Silver builds relationships with the community and supporters and brings in sustainable, long-term support.

“Olivia is awesome,” says Stephanie Niemeyer, manager in the Education Department at the Blanton, which carries on the Yoga in the Galleries tradition. “She is one of the most enthusiastic, responsible, and conscientious people I know.”

During a class for incarcerated teenage girls, Silver wrestles with her own emotions. The girls are the same age as she was when she started yoga. But these young teens wear government-issued sweats, and they can’t go home after class. Despite the grim setting, Silver says, “the yoga worked just as well as it did for me in a beautiful studio.”

Therein lies the lesson learned from Yoga in the Galleries at the Blanton, she says: “It doesn’t matter where you do yoga as long as it’s done with love.”

Photo courtesy Olivia Silver


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