Studying Yoga, Finding Themselves

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.

Warrior Lakin

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.

Jan 2017

Barb and Sue, who run Laotong Yoga

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!!

yoga-304635_1280 croppedWhen 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.
yoga-1916729_1920Finally – 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”Barbara - when i get stressed
“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.”female-breathing calms me down
“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.”Sue-tyhe best partIn 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

yoga-422196_1920And with the memories came a deepening awareness of the profound connection and mutuality between what I had seen and experienced that day and the Congregation’s Generous Promises and Mission:

“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

Jane Harrington (Chartres)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.


*Pictures from Laotong Yoga used with permission of the program

20 thoughts on “Studying Yoga, Finding Themselves

  1. You go, Jane! Thanks for sharing this part of your journey, letting us know of
    the good things that are happening at the women’s facility. Good News! Let it be heard far and wide.


  2. Sallie Latkovich says:

    Thanks, Jane! Such a positive message in the midst of so much negativity. Yoga is a real healing agent. So glad to read this reflection.


  3. mwessel1515 says:

    Jane, I would like to learn more about this form of yoga. Being with the women in prison is such a wonderful relationship. Thank you for writing and touching our calls.


  4. Christine Riley says:

    Jane – great article. – doors of the heart open in wonderous ways !!
    Stories like these awaken HOPE in the lives of so many people. Thanks for being there to celebrate with the women. Christine (Riley)


  5. Judith Ann Teufel says:

    Just so wonderful to hear how this Yoga program is making a difference in these women’s lives—and our GPGF had a part in it. So hope filled!



    AMAZING story Jane! Great job! 🙂 I love that you were there supporting women at Lakin for their graduation! Graduating from such a special yoga teacher program is truly inspiring! Beautifully written story Jane.


  7. Gertrude Maurer says:

    What a great gift to and from the women! Would that more prisons would adopt such a positive program! Thanks, Jane, for sharing this story with us.


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