Yoga Calm Goes to Jail

by | Apr 7, 2012 | Class Stories, Yoga Calm

A guest post by Certified Yoga Calm Instructor Jeff Albin

Deputies and probation officers have been driving through the gates of Norcor (Northern Oregon Corrections) for over 10 years now. For them, it is an old routine. Nothing new greets the eye as they press the button alerting Adult Control to open the razor wire gate so they can deliver the next prisoner. They could probably do it with their eyes closed. Perhaps some of them do.

Perhaps that is why they all have a singular and uniform reaction to the sight of a barefoot boy walking on a slackline suspended between a tree and a light pole just inside the secure boundary of the razor wire and cyclone fence. There appears to be no adult supervision other than the long haired man in sandals with his ever present cup of mate tea. The reaction looks like this: They stare straight ahead, then suddenly pivot their heads. Their well-trained observation skills catch something amiss with the scene. Ah! There it is. I can almost hear their thoughts. Why is that young man walking on what appears to be a tight rope inside of a secure facility, and where are his shoes?

But, fortunately, it is all under control. The long haired man is me, their Yoga Calm instructor. The young men in the TOOLs (nobody remembers what that actually stands for) program at Norcor participate in daily yoga classes. They arise every morning and participate in at least a half hour yoga warm-up before school. On the weekends, they participate in longer and more intensive classes combined with social and emotional activities. Every resident who wants one has a yoga mat in their room. Most report that after a week or two of instruction, they do some yoga in their room.

Most of them are content with the emotional centeredness they report after about a week of continuous classes. Quite a few of them report problems with sleeping. Because it is a secure facility, the fluorescent lights in their room are on dim all night. This is accompanied by a continuous low hum from the ballast in the lights. Most seem to suffer from anxiety, depression and addiction. With a few exceptions (generally, those who only show up to the Yoga Calm classes but don’t actually participate), they report relief from all of those symptoms. Those who use the mat in their rooms report making their own yoga routines from what I have taught them.

Most of them are content with the emotional centeredness they report after about a week of continuous classes. Like all young men, however, there are always a few who want something beyond the mat. Slacklining – and, more specifically, “Slacker Yoga” – provides a way for the young men to take the skills they learn in Yoga Calm to the next level.

Slacklining, for the uninitiated, is the art of walking on a loose piece of webbing suspended between two objects. For beginners, the webbing is usually suspended between two trees. For advanced “slackers,” the webbing is suspended between two cliffs. They wear a climbing harness at that level. Yoga slackers combine yoga and slacklining into poetry of motion that requires extensive discipline and training.

Even though the activity takes place off the mat, it always goes back to the mat to their first encounter with belly breathing. The line starts swinging. Their faces start contorting and then I hear my words come out of a resident. “It’s not the line that’s moving. It’s you. Center yourself and breathe through your nose.” They listen. They stop. They breathe. They quit swaying and the line quits swaying. They find balance and they move forward.

I have been teaching Yoga Calm almost since the beginning of their certification program, and I am proud to say that I was in the first class of certified Yoga Calm instructors. As I told Jim Gillen back then, “Yoga Calm is not so much a program as it is a way of life.” There are clear and simple guidelines and definitely some “rules,” but there is also a lot of flexibility. The young men who choose to challenge themselves on the slackline have to practice strength, but it is a different kind of strength: They cannot muscle through it. They practice stillness: It is not the line that moves. They practice community: Nobody so far has been able to make it all the way across the line without being spotted on both sides for several times.

Yoga Calm, Slacker Yoga, and slacklining are natural partners. They complement each other. Most adults content themselves with the feeling of overall well-being and physical fitness they create with a consistent yoga practice. Indeed, most of the residents in the TOOLs program at Norcor feel the daily Yoga Calm classes meet their needs. For those who need and want to take it to the next level, we have to be ready and able to provide something a few notches up. Otherwise they will find something that goes to the next level that destroys them and damages society.

Some of the young men have become so proficient at the Mat 20 and other Yoga Calm activities that they are now leading some of the poses. Carrying the practice forward is another empowering Yoga Calm practice: The students become the teachers.

At a recent training, the captain on the adult side of the Norcor facility (the facility houses adults and juveniles in different buildings within the same razor wire-decorated compound) asked me to teach her guards yoga for stress relief. I suggested that some of our young men could teach her guards some basics. That would certainly take it to the next level. I’m still waiting for an answer. I guess I’ll just keep breathing until I get a response.


Jeff Albin has been facilitating adventure experiences since he taught his first orienteering class at age 16. A short list of Jeff’s experiences include facility work in drug and alcohol treatment centers, corrections, schools and hospitals. His outdoor experience includes co-leading the first joint kayak expedition to the former Soviet Union, solo kayaking the Inside Passage, and working as a wilderness guide in settings ranging from Class 5 rivers to glaciers. Jeff has over 15 years facilitating both and high low ropes courses. Jeff is also a certified Yoga Calm instructor. He is a certifed Chemical Dependency Counselor in the state of Washington and is currently pursuing his MS in Mental Health. He has been facilitating group games for over 20 years and just recently joined the global efforts of Play for Peace as a certified trainer.

Images by godutchbaby and Oliphant, via Flickr

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