By Sister Jane Harrington
Recently I found myself driving along a winding country road, on my way to prison.
Hmm – let me clarify. I was indeed going to the West Virginia State Prison for Women (known as Lakin), but as an invited guest for a special graduation. Eight woman in prison at Lakin, having completed the rigorous curriculum, were graduating as certified yoga instructors! Not only could they teach in the prison, but upon release, they would leave with a valuable skill.
How did this happen? What’s the “backstory” here? Trust me, the story is exciting, inspiring, touching, and encouraging.
I don’t remember how I learned about Laotong Yoga but when I saw the names of the two women who founded it, I knew I wanted to learn more. A mutual friend arranged for us to meet over lunch – and I was hooked! After retiring from their “day jobs,” Sue and Barb had begun bringing yoga (movement) and stillness (meditation) to those who couldn’t access regular classes – specifically, those incarcerated. The goals include nurturing peace, wellness, justice, and compassion.
After a few years of classes, the next step was to begin yoga teacher training ( referred to as YTT) at Lakin. It was demanding – one full weekend each month for a year, with 200 hours of instruction, practice, testing, and supervised teaching. And these women did it!!
When I walked into the graduation site, several women of Lakin were putting the final touches on their decorating – the walls were lined with paper cut-outs of yoga mats – each with the name of a woman at Lakin who had completed at least one series of 8 yoga classes – over 200 names. Other women (those in a Culinary Class at Lakin) were setting up and preparing for the luncheon buffet to follow.
Then a gong sounded. Led by Sue and Barb (wearing white stoles), the eight woman (also wearing white stoles) walked with grace and dignity to their seats facing us. And as with all graduations, we experienced a number of speakers! The Warden and the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections not only congratulated the women but expressed their gratitude for how their practice was benefiting others at the prison and the entire atmosphere.
Finally – awarding the certificates. Sue and Barb introduced each woman, adding a few comments so we could know her a little better, and presented her with a well-deserved certificate. Each woman addressed the guests, and everyone began by thanking those who made this day possible for them, including funders! (A grant from the Congregation of St. Joseph Generous Promise Grant Fund helped supply each woman with her yoga mat, a binder of resources, and accessories — or as the women put it, “the super cool supplies that we received.”)
Here are a few of the women’s comments:
“It has been a privilege to be part of the YTT program – a blessing we never expected to receive – an extraordinary opportunity, a special gift”
“Laotong Yoga and the YTT program have transformed us into the people we have always been deep inside but that had been lost or forgotten.”
“Physically I can do more. Emotionally I deal with problems at a different level now.”
“I seem to be more relaxed but when stress happens, I’m a lot quicker to just breathe and collect myself.”
“As Laotong Yoga taught us, we are all connected as kindred spirits through energies of deep awareness, great compassion, and expansive love.”In late afternoon, as I once again drove the curving, country road back home, memories of my day filled my heart:
- the unfailing welcomes and courtesies of the staff, visitors and the women of Lakin
- The eloquence, confidence, gratitude and vibrant spirituality of the graduates
- The delicious lunch, graciously served by the women who prepared it
“we commit to deepen our practice of shared leadership to activate personal and collective empowerment:”
“we commit to strengthen and expand our . . .partnering with a diversity of persons and groups to bring about life-giving change”
“that all may be one.”
About the Author
Sister Jane Harrington retired as Executive Director of the Sisters of St. Joseph Charitable Fund (now the Sisters Health Foundation), and currently serves on the board of directors for Catholic Charities, West Virginia. She enjoys visiting family and friends in various parts of the country, quilting, and occasional (ad)ventures into knitting.