Meditation, mindfulness and movement give inmates a new outlook—and a better shot at rehabilitation
BY SUE KANHAI
Imagine an hour of calm, centering yoga and meditation, but picture it in the hectic, high-stress environment of a Toronto prison.
That’s precisely where Tamsin Pukonen teaches her classes.
Ten years ago, Pukonen was completing her yoga teacher’s training (which she started as a way to tackle her own issues of fear and anxiety) when she saw an announcement looking for volunteers to teach yoga in prisons. Where some might have hesitated, it instantly struck her as something she could do. “I just felt like it was really important work, because being in prison you probably have the most fear and anxiety of anyone,” says Pukonen, a real estate agent who now also teaches yoga to inmates at the Toronto East Detention Centre (TEDC).
Every Monday, Pukonen is one of four volunteers from United Way-supported John Howard Society who go into the TEDC, a remand centre for men in Scarborough, to teach a one-hour yoga class. When some people learn about her volunteer efforts, Pukonen says they’re keen to hear horror stories. But there aren’t any. In fact, it’s such a pleasant experience that she sometimes forgets she’s in a jail. She’s taught in yoga studios, gyms and community centres across the city, but says her favourite students are the inmates. “They’re just so respectful, polite and gracious,” she says. “They’re at a very vulnerable time in their lives and they’re looking for something positive. It’s one of the easiest and most satisfying yoga classes I’ve ever taught.”
In a holding jail like the TEDC, inmates can be imprisoned for up to two years before even facing trial. They’re in their cells in a highly regulated, stressful setting for up to 18 hours a day, Pukonen says, and no programs are provided except for those like hers, which are run by volunteers.
Yoga and meditation offer everyone the same benefits, Pukonen says. And that includes inmates. In 2017, Swedish researchers found that the practice in correctional facilities reduces aggression, impulsivity and anti-social behaviour and increases wellbeing and emotional regulation. A lot of prisoners have even started their own practices. “We’re not naïve,” Pukonen says. “I don’t know that a yoga class is going to make a big difference in these inmates’ lives, but even if just for that one hour they get out of their cells and we give them something positive—bring a little bit of light into their lives—hopefully it will plant a seed.”
Like Pukonen, Laura Sygrove has had similarly positive experiences working with sentenced and detained youth in custody facilities across southern Ontario as the co-founder and executive director of New Leaf Yoga in Toronto.
When New Leaf first launched, it took Sygrove months to get a facility to agree to host yoga classes. But once she started, the demand was high. Now she teaches four classes a week to incarcerated youth. The hour-long sessions start with a structured discussion around a theme, usually a life skill, such as reactivity vs. making choices, followed by a mindfulness-based activity and then plenty of movement. In the last few minutes, the specially trained instructors talk with inmates about what they can take from that day’s theme and how they can practice it in small ways every day.
Many of the young people Sygrove works with have been labeled “criminal” or as having “anger issues.” Programming like this shows them they do have some agency and can control their internal environment, if not their physical one. “People remember when they feel good,” Sygrove says. “A lot of the youth we work with will say, ‘I felt so relaxed, I haven’t felt that in so long,’ or ‘I felt happy, I haven’t felt that way before.’ Maybe a window opens where they see what might be possible.”
People tend not to think a lot about incarcerated populations in general, she says, and when they do it might not be a community they’re excited to support. Pukonen agrees. “It’s hard to believe, but there are a lot of people who think what we do is disgusting,” she says. “They think prisoners should just be punished and what we’re doing isn’t right. It blew my mind how much pushback I got when I started.”
But once you know inmates’ stories and understand them as people, you realize they deserve help. “We’ve all done things we regret,” Sygrove says. “There’s a very small segment of the population that can’t be rehabilitated. Everybody else really deserves a chance.”