Transcript for Episode 38: Bringing Yoga to Jail

NASW Social Work Talks Podcast

Cat McDonald: I'm Cat McDonald, and this is NASW Social Work Talks. Michael Wilkins, LCSW, is a therapist at The Center for Trauma and Resilience in Denver. He's a yoga instructor, an ultramarathon runner, and is certified in auricular acupuncture. Michael helps clients to attain skills that enable them to experience an active lifestyle as a means to better physical and mental health. Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

Michael Wilkins: Thanks so much.

Cat McDonald: How and why did you start doing yoga?

Michael Wilkins: Initially, I didn't know, what I learned now, is specifically how it relates to trauma. What I believe now is that it's a great way of, probably the best way, as far as helping clients alleviate stress on their own, any type of mental health issue. I just come to find in myself that doing self-care on my own, that it does work — be it yoga or any kind of physical activity — it does have a positive influence on our mental health.

Cat McDonald: People who've never done yoga might expect that you have to be flexible and fit to do yoga. Can anybody do yoga?

Michael Wilkins: Absolutely. That's one of the big things that I share with the inmates is that traditionally it's always been a young, lithe female that works in studios, and you didn't see a lot of people of color. There was nobody that looked like us. In fact, that was my experience at first, too. So, in going into the jails, I share with the inmates that we can do this, too, and we can utilize our own voice and do it in our own way, but it's not just limited to one specific population.

Cat McDonald: You're bringing yoga into a prison setting. For people who have never been inside a prison, can you describe for us what it looks like and what it feels like for you to be in that space?

Michael Wilkins: Absolutely. And again, I want to emphasize, I'm not in prisons, I'm in the jails-

Cat McDonald: Okay.

Michael Wilkins: ...but it's practically the same type of security. Nonetheless, you go in, and as you expect, you got to make sure you don't have anything on you that you ain't supposed to. At that point when it locks behind you, I feel a little worried, myself, but it's okay.

It's challenging in a sense, because you're not in a regular yoga studio. There's constantly going to be noise and interruptions. You're going to hear doors open and close and in this constantly very active area. That's one of the bigger challenges. I even take that opportunity to share with the guys the importance of staying in the moment, even with, throughout all the noise and distractions, which I really take that moment to focus on being mindful. For the most part, they do good until there's a distracted by getting their commissary. The distractions again, the loud noises. Mainly, that's the big challenge.

Also, gender expectations is a factor. For most times, what happens is some of the guys aren't comfortable going in, because of the stereotypes with yoga until they see other men going. I see that less since I've been doing it now in the jails, so over the last year and a half of getting more comfortable. My classes are getting bigger, but that's one of the bigger challenges that comes up, in addition to a lot of the physical noise and surroundings.

Also, too, it's like the security part. I come in with a big, old bag full of mats. I always get these strange looks by the sheriffs, but I just go on and open a bag to get into everything and go on about my way. But it is very obvious, and it's interesting how the guards respond.

Cat McDonald: What are some of the mental and emotional issues that you see prisoners or people in the jails are dealing with?

Michael Wilkins: A lot of substance abuse, primarily. I would say that's probably about 80 to 90 percent of what led to their situations in there. What I share with them, specifically, is how trauma works and how your drug use, how they had been utilizing that as a coping skill. And I teach them that, you know, yoga can be a great way of replacing that.

What I really do more than anything, is rather than focusing on the postures, I really go at it upon the breathing techniques and how they can do a better job of regulating their body and getting out of that limbic system and getting their mind open and really talking about how trauma works and the significance and how yoga can play into that. It's very interesting, too, because at the end of every session the guys will say, "Yeah, I feel really good."

I had one guy today who was like, "Wow, I feel high, but I'm not on drugs, and I haven't felt this calm. The response will always consist in more of the same, just the idea that I can actually feel calm without the use of substances. Or, I can feel calm and still work through the problems I have in my life.

Cat McDonald: That's really powerful, actually.

Michael Wilkins: Mm-hmm.

Cat McDonald: About trauma, I'm wondering, when people get really still, sometimes the trauma can come up even more in that stillness.

Michael Wilkins: Mm-hmm.

Cat McDonald: How do you help people deal with that when that comes up, or if that comes up, and how do you ensure that the yoga sessions that you do are trauma-informed?

Michael Wilkins: Well, first and foremost, I don't engage in any kind of physical touch. I try to stay, basically, in front. I don't even walk around. I just stay visible in front of them because of this particular population, so they can see where I'm at.

I tell them up front that, I share with them, that I'm not going to be big on the moves, but more on the breathing and to really focus on postures and finding a way that's comfortable in the postures that we go into, and I'm always encouraging them to modify. We're on the floor a lot, so I always constantly encourage those who find it more challenging to modify, utilizing more of their knees, and to really feel comfortable. That tends to work.

There's a few guys that want to be challenged a little bit more. I really make it a conscious effort to encourage the influence of modifications. For the most part, I think there hasn't been any triggers or anything, so to speak. I think that's on my part, it's important not to...To be aware of my boundaries and just...

Cat McDonald: For you, what's the connection between yoga and social work?

Michael Wilkins: When we're offering yoga now, it's clearly systemic in a sense that it's physical and mental on a micro level, on an individual level. I'm thinking, "You know, what if we provide this," because I'm a family therapist, too, and how does this look in a home with family? Family can practice this on their own, make it a part of their normal routine.

I just see that almost on a very basic individual need to some macro relational way that if most of us, if we train ourselves to really pay attention to what trauma looks like and what and how to alleviate some of those stresses through yoga, I think it makes the world better. I think it would make our relationships better, and I was just saying it'd make our job better. It'd make the inmates feel better and alleviate any kind of stress and anxiety.

It gives them the skills to do it on their own. I had one guy today. He was like, he's just fair. He's like, "You know, I'm learning I can do this stuff on my own." I was like, "You know what? That's what I want to hear," because I want to get rid of the idea of therapists and the idea of talking, but really taking these methods, whether it's breathing exercises, meditation, can really utilize that and do it on a good for themselves. And again, like the young man told me today, "I feel like I'm in control." That's the best thing I think I can teach and spread to everybody.

Cat McDonald: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so you're using yoga as a tool for healing and supporting people in jail, but I'm wondering what other populations might benefit from yoga?

Michael Wilkins: Absolutely. Here at our agency, again, The Center for Trauma and Resiliency, I specifically do a lot of the work in the jails, as well as another counselor. She works with the females, but we also offer yoga with various other populations, such as we have a yoga program for women of color.

We have another program that's very popular for our older adults, our elder program, and that's really grown. We're really spreading out in addition to just working in the jails.

We are doing that here and again at the Center for Trauma and Resiliency. We're giving them that same metric, the idea of utilizing experience and techniques of invasive health and teach to trauma. Really for us, it's utilizing more of those ideas and practicing them here. We also provide what's called NADA, which is a form of ear acupuncture. In short, I think what people like about yoga, it gives them the skills to do it on their own, both physical and mental.

Cat McDonald: Do you think there maybe populations for whom yoga would not be a good a useful tool?

Michael Wilkins: I've had one situation, I thought was kind of challenging, was some very unspiritual populations, faith-based organizations. There seems to be a little challenge there, and I wasn't expecting that. I was working with a family, and again, I presented some particular types of ideas around yoga, and they were just like, "Absolutely not," but they were receptive to breathing techniques, so that's been the most resistance I've come across.

Cat McDonald: Mm-hmm. That was folks who felt like there's the spirituality aspect of yoga might conflict with their own religious beliefs?

Michael Wilkins: Yeah. Uh-huh. Exactly.

Cat McDonald: Okay. That's something [crosstalk 00:09:44] to be sensitive to.

Michael Wilkins: Absolutely.

Cat McDonald: Yeah. What advice would you give to other social workers who are thinking about incorporating yoga into their work or bringing yoga to populations that they work with?

Michael Wilkins: To be trauma informed and be very focused on the idea of what trauma looks like in conjunct, how yoga looks in conjunction to this particular population, as well as, again, teaching them the basics of yoga. Not so much the postures, but the idea of how to calm themselves down, to teach them how trauma works, let them practice those skills on their own. I just can't say enough about that.

Cat McDonald: What kinds of things do you say at the beginning of the class, to sort of open people's minds up to the practice?

Michael Wilkins: Well, first though, a lot of times what I'll do when I get new gentlemen in, I'll commit who I am, and I acknowledge who they are. I share first and foremost what I do, what we're going to be doing is really not so much focusing on the postures but utilizing this time to learn how to focus on our breathing. Then at that point, we'll just start with a warm up, and I use a lot of the same moves that way. It doesn't become so unpredictable. At that point, we go very slow, and I just say, I don't use a lot of the chakras, those particular terms. Sometimes I'll mix it up, or not. I'll just be very direct in my language, and I'll just say, "On an inhale, we're going to bring our arms up." What clearly I'm speaking in our language and not a lot of big words, just keeping the language very simple.

Cat McDonald: Mm-hmm.

Michael Wilkins: I think that's very important. I start there, and what I like to do is I start off from a standing position. I like to be still, a little warm up, a few exercises, but when we get to the floor, I like to encourage them to... What we do is we push a little bit more. I tell them, "We're going to take it a little farther for some of us, and if you're not okay, the modifications." I really like to make some moves kind of challenging. For instance, the downward dog, and so we'll work some of those things, some more of the physical types of movements.

Again, I'm teaching them the importance of breathing. They did really good work, and I can tell because I get high, and at that point, I take advantage of that point of letting them then allowing the body to recover. I tell them that as we change to the move, we'll come back to a child's pose. I'll share, "Okay at this point, now I'm going to let the body recover, and while you're recovering, just pay attention to your body."

My main point is, I'm always driving home is the idea of being aware how their body's feeling at the time of those movements, be it very physical over there to calming down. Once I finally get them to that point where we're pretty tired, that's when I take advantage of really utilizing more slower movements and meditations. At that point we really come down, and that's when we're really able to notice the difference in body recovery. It works very, very well on a guy who is very calm, quiet.

Cat McDonald: Yeah. I can imagine there are not a lot of quiet, still places in jail?

Michael Wilkins: No, not at all. That's one of the challenges in there, too. The distractions of the guards, when they're coming in, disrupt, they don't intentionally mean it, but they got to give commissary, and so that just breaks any kind of concentration, because that's their snacks and food. That's one of the biggest challenges with, but the problem with that is they [inaudible 00:13:17] themselves as a high turnover rate, and half them, they don't know I'm there. Half the people, they see me, they don't want to see me. It's like the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, as you may expect in a large department like that.

Cat McDonald: I guess that's part of the reality is, you have to sort of find the stillness even in the midst of all of this sort of noise and distractions ... and all of that. I think that's...

Michael Wilkins: Yeah.

Cat McDonald: ...part of the beauty of meditation and yoga is that's what it helps you do, even even if there's wildness and craziness going on around outside.

Michael Wilkins: Absolutely. Yeah. That's a good way of putting it. And even through that noise, I'll encourage them as we're meditating. I'm like, "Well, if you want to use focus on the ... sounds that you hear." Whatever ... I'd like to stay in that moment. The inmates, they enjoy it, and doing yoga so long now, I don't know how to do it without being in the jail. We work through it.

Michael Wilkins: It's been an experience for me coming out of grad school, because this was not on my list of ideas and just to know that now I can have it in an LCSW and helping people in this way, it's very, very, very unique. I've run a lot, and so I've always been mindful of what exercise means to me.

Wherever I go numb brought on this idea that I can't work on, we can't work with mental health, if we're not addressing physical health. I'm just totally convinced of that. They both have to be addressed in unison together-

Cat McDonald: Mm-hmm.

Michael Wilkins: ...or it's just not going to work.

Cat McDonald: Thank you so much, Michael Wilkins, for...

Michael Wilkins: Okay.

Cat McDonald: ...speaking with us about doing yoga in jails.

Michael Wilkins: I just appreciate this opportunity and sharing what we do. Thanks so much.

Cat McDonald: Thank you so much.

Michael Wilkins: All right.

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