Yoga Behind Bars has held classes at the Monroe Correctional Complex since 2010.
Yoga Behind Bars has held classes at the Monroe Correctional Complex since 2010.

Seghon Rorie received a 16-year sentence a little more than a decade ago. He was convicted of second-degree assault with a deadly weapon. While this wasn’t his first stint in jail, he determined to change the outcome this time around.

The 47-year-old will exit the Monroe Correctional Complex Minimum Security Unit in less than 60 days. He plans to work toward forming a nonprofit that provides supports for former inmates, and to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Much of his lasting growth he attributes to personal work accomplished during weekly classes in the Yoga Behind Bars program.

“I got in touch with myself, my inner-self as opposed to my habit-self...(which is) the impulsive, addictive nature I used to have,” he said.

Rorie said he has addressed a dual-diagnosis of substance abuse and mental health conditions while incarcerated. Through YBB he’s learned how to incorporate mindfulness practices and constructive habits into his daily routine. He’s explored the roots of his anger and aggressive tendencies.

Rorie rolled out his mat in an empty classroom last Thursday. Five other inmates joined him. Brian Charlton stood in front of the group with a steady stance. The Yoga Behind Bars volunteer led them through movements that stretched stiff muscles and paused them in positions that caused arms to quake.

His directions were even and gentle. No one was asked to push too hard or too far. The yogis laughed at their own discomfort and surrendered to the poses.

Yoga Behind Bars was started in 2008 to “find a way to fundamentally change the current course of the American corrections system.” The world’s largest jailer, the United States has experienced a “prison boom” since the 1970s, which disproportionately affects the country’s poorest, immigrants, people of color and people living with mental illness.

“We are committed to breaking this cycle of suffering by giving people behind bars the opportunity to heal their trauma, reduce stress, and promote safety while in prison and once released,” according to YBB.

Charlton said he has been fundraising for the program for the past several years. It wasn’t until this September that he started as an instructor.

“The program just spoke to me,” he said before his students filed in last Thursday morning.

A major motivator was learning how much the inmates wanted to be in the yoga classes — it “added a level of humanity,” Charlton said. They are people who want to make a positive difference in their lives, he said.

The longtime teacher also leads sessions at studios. He has been instructing for close to a decade. Yoga Behind Bars program director Jess Frank said volunteers must complete a 17-hour training that emphasizes sensitivity to the presence of traumatic experiences among participants in addition to their existing certifications.

“The philosophy is the same, the postures are the same, but the students are a little different,” Charlton said.

Instructors don’t usually touch the inmates, he said. They take extra care in their words and the way they guide. Frank said compassion and empowerment is taught through choice — learning to decide what is best for their physical well-being translates into increased feelings of agency over their own lives.

“They challenge us in the class, but it’s not more than my body can take,” said Thomas Hill.

The 34-year-old was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison for committing first-degree robbery with a firearm. He said at the time he didn’t understand how much he was injuring people because he wasn’t causing physical harm.

Hill said he has since learned actions can also leave emotional and mental wounds. He and Rorie also participate in the educational opportunities at the Monroe complex and the Crossroads Transitional Mental Health Program.

Both men say they have learned how to not only take responsibility for their behaviors, but to take care of themselves. Frank said 97 percent of inmates will eventually be released. Giving them the tools to be less reactive to stimuli and stress creates a safer community within and outside of institutions, she said.

Yoga Behind Bars classes are held at 18 prisons and jails throughout Washington, Frank said. Inmates have been trained as teachers in two facilities. The Monroe program has been in place about half a decade and has students in the medium, minimum, mental health units, and previously in solitary confinement. Incarcerated individuals in the latter can be anyone from the general population. The small groups are only taught mindfulness skills because they are shackled to desks during classes, she said.

“In that space, with the intrinsic tools of yoga that can’t be taken away from you, including breath and meditation and movement, they are actually able to make that a more meaningful experience,” she said.

Rorie and Hill add they were worried about making it out of the system at all when first sentenced. Prison politics and aggression are consistently present. Rorie breathes deeply or into a subtle balancing posture when invited to fight. Hill said he often starts with and uses mantras and breathing exercises throughout the day.

Both men say they experience some grief from their peers while headed to class. Hill said the division used to get to him. He dropped out of school at a young age because he had a learning disability and was placed in courses that separated him from the general population. He was embarrassed. He ended up living on the streets multiple times in the following years.

Over time they have become less affected by the comments, and the offending inmates are taking notice of how their improved mental and emotional states have improved.

Charlton has been told by his students that they feel safe while in class. The way they come in is not the way they leave. Their whole attitude shifts, some dramatically, he said. He also applies his YBB training to teaching in studios. You can never be sure of what other people are going through, he said.

“It puts a slightly different lens on what yoga is and what it can be,” he said.

Hill and Rorie said they are incredibly thankful for the YBB instructors, who come to the complex on major holidays and teach countless hours of free classes. Both men said they will continue learning once they are released. Hill said he would encourage the practice to anyone living on the streets. Rorie said he wished he grew up learning the exercises.

“Tai Chi is the next step for me,” he said.