Santa Fe nonprofit brings yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to NM Women’s Prison

Moths flutter about as the sun shines through the windows of an old basketball court with wooden bleachers and tiled walls. Six women in orange or green jumpsuits put aside yoga mats, blocks and pillows and put their shoes aside. They come to class three times a week, where a correctional officer watches as Phoenix Savage directs them as the first of the frequent announcements blares over an intercom.

Savage serves on the board of the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center, a nonprofit that has partnered with the New Mexico Corrections Department to offer a yoga, meditation, and mindfulness course at the Women’s Center in Springer. The class is designed to keep participants out of prison once released, but also helps them deal with the tensions behind the walls in the meantime.

After stretching, Savage teaches her a new breathing exercise for the first of two lessons of the day. She instructs them to inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of six as they purse their lips together. It is part of a mindfulness practice designed to focus awareness on the present.

“It helps you transition from what would be a flight or fight response to a challenge to a more controlled, controlled response,” she tells her yoga students.

Kayla Solomon has been taking the class since it started in April. She had never done yoga before and said she signed up to get active and relieve muscle tension.

So I didn’t think [to] to the extent that you have to breathe all the time,” she said, “it’s about the stretching, but it’s also about the breathing.

She said that of all the yoga class activities, she actually got the most out of the breathing techniques.

‘Cause I wouldn’t breathe out there; I would go from zero to a hundred,” she said. “And now, unknowingly, I’m using those breathing techniques to calm myself down.”

The percentage of people returning to prison within three years of release has fallen in New Mexico — from 55% in 2020 to 35%, according to a recent report by the Legislative Finance Commission. Savage said she hopes her class can help lower that rate even further for her participants. Solomon said she thinks that’s possible.

“If I had some coping skills, or healthy coping skills instead of the negative ones that got me here, I feel like I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said.

She said she felt like people on the outside didn’t really care about her.

“Now I’ve had this time to sit down and learn things like this and give people time to come in and try to teach us something that can help us along the way,” she said. “And I feel like it probably would be — because I’ve learned healthier ways to handle things.”

Savage said she hopes to measure whether the class lowers participants’ risk of re-incarceration through data tracking and focus groups, as current research on the impact of yoga, mindfulness and meditation on recidivism is limited. However, different studies have shown that the practices can help.

Phoenix Savage sits in front of the labyrinth outside the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center, where she sits on the board. Savage spearheaded the center’s recent partnership with NMCD and commutes four hours three times a week to conduct classes.

The reasons for reintegration are complex – from having been in the system before to not having an outside support system or facing mental health, substance use, housing or employment challenges. Savage said she can’t address them all.

“I connect you to this process within yourself that will hopefully allow you to look at your options and figure out which ones you should take,” she said of what she can offer a participant in her Springer yoga class. “And that’s where mindfulness comes into play. And maybe for the average person [it seems like]”Hey, that’s just a general thought.” But here’s the reality: we don’t all get an equal chance at common thoughts.”

Trauma can interfere with decision making and nnumerous studies have shown that women who enter US prisons experience it at a high rate. A report from 2013 of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission showed that nearly 90% of the women surveyed had been physically assaulted in their lifetime and 67% had been sexually assaulted.

Savage said she works to make the classroom trauma-informed by choosing poses that are most comfortable for assault survivors. So participants don’t raise their legs while lying on their backs and avoid poses like downward dog, which she says can be triggered because they’re unaware of their surroundings.

When asked what’s different about teaching yoga in a prison context, she said people generally aren’t always connected to their bodies, “but when you’re in prison I think you’re more disconnected. Because your body is no longer yours. At that point your body is a product of the government.”

Being in prison alone can be traumatic. Multiple lawsuits alleging sexual assault, harassment and retaliation have been filed against Springer and his staff in recent years, and This is reported by the Albuquerque Journal former Springer prison officer Joseph Martinez was charged in 2021 with criminal sexual penetration of a woman serving time in prison. He denies the rape allegations.

Director Marianna Vigil says bringing in the yoga class had nothing to do with the allegations, adding that it is one of several recreational opportunities at the minimum security facility, including softball, volleyball and Zumba.

“They all live here, of course, so they’re all learning how to work together,” Vigil said. “And I think it also boosts their self-esteem.”

Springer also has educational offerings designed to encourage life and coping skills, such as substance use treatment, training in operating heavy equipment, and an associate’s degree program.

The Corrections Department has contracted with the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center through the end of next month, but is open to extending the agreement. The department set aside up to $10,866 for this first round of classes to pay for equipment and training, as well as instructors and their travel time.

    Phoenix Savage of the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center leads Springer Correctional Center participants in a guided meditation.

Phoenix Savage of the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center leads Springer Correctional Center participants in a guided meditation.

Savage said she plans to take a break in July after these first 8-week classes are completed and start again in August. She has identified a prison employee who is willing to take yoga certification training to improve classroom sustainability by saving Savage the four-hour round trip from Santa Fe so she can focus on coordinating the program.

But for the next month, Savage will continue to take her yoga students who otherwise can’t leave the prison walls into an imaginary forest through guided meditation. After climbing a tall tree, they find a beautiful green cloud falling down a ladder.

“You step into the green cloud,” she tells them. “You’re so happy. You’re safe, you’re breathing.”

Santa Fe nonprofit brings yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to NM Women’s Prison

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