Ahimsa Activism: Liberation Prison Yoga

In this bi-weekly series, we interview leaders in organizations working to promote non-violence in the world. If your group is involved in this type of effort, please let us know so we can help spread the word.

Q. Tell us about Liberation Prison Yoga?

Oneika Mays: Our program teaches 28 yoga classes a week that brings mindfulness, meditation and healing to those in prison. There are about 33 active teachers who work with the inmates at Riker’s Island, Bedford Hills, Taconic State Prison and other places.

In our teacher training, we have an active discussion around the yamas and niyamas particularly ahimsa. Cultivating a space that is free from violence against the self and others is a large part of how we teach. Our model is based on unconditional love and acceptances, which means making no commands of the prisoners but offering suggestions and letting them choose. They make choices on the mat, and this extends to their decisions off the mat. Love is the way and the answer.

Q: Can you give us an example of someone whose life has been changed through this?

OM: We recently received a letter from one of our students serving a 25-to-life sentence in a maximum-security prison. In the letter, she explains that yoga has had an indescribably positive impact on her mental pain. After suffering from PTSD and anxiety, the student found relief once she learned how to breathe properly and ‘let go.’ She writes: “Through this journey I am finding myself to be stronger mentally and capable physically, something none of my medication has been able to do. Yoga has tuned me into my spiritual side and allowed me to release things that have weighed heavy on me my entire life. Yoga has given me a sense of freedom, clarity and peace of mind.”

Q: Who inspires you?