"There are no words to describe what yoga does for our residents," says Stacey Schmouth, a counselor at Fox Run Residential Treatment Program for men in Rhinebeck, one of 40 facilities operated by the New York City-based Samaritan Daytop Village. "We start by educating them and explaining that yoga isn't just for women and it's not a religious practice," Schmouth says. "And then break down the preconceived ideas they have about yoga—that it's women on Instagram doing crazy poses in colorful tights—and we assure them they can do yoga, too, even if that's just coming into the room, sitting on a mat, and watching until they feel comfortable participating."
Yoga is offered at Fox Run and other facilities thanks to Hudson-based MovingPotential (formerly Sadhana Service Project), founded by Sondra Loring, who also leads classes and trains teachers at Sadhana Center for Yoga & Meditation in Hudson. MovingPotential brings trauma-informed yoga and meditation to people residing in facilities that include prisons, recovery centers, and rehabilitation centers for young people. In addition, they have a teacher-training program (currently only available at Meadow Run in Rhinebeck) for women who want to be able to teach yoga when they leave the treatment program.
MovingPotential provides healing and support to justice-impacted people who are, in Loring's words, "housed in a broken system that should be abolished." MovingPotential currently has active programs at Samaritan Daytop Village (Meadow Run for women and Fox Run for men), Columbia County Jail, ReEntry Columbia in Hudson, and Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood in Hudson (for children with an incarcerated parent). In addition, Loring teaches movement at Greene Correctional Facility through the Wave Farm organization.
What is trauma-informed yoga?Most yoga classes start with the teacher in front of the room, welcoming students and explaining what the class will consist of. The teacher may ask students to refrain from drinking water or taking breaks and may go so far as to ask them not to go to the restroom unless it's an emergency.
There's a power dynamic shift from the start, which amps up further when the movement begins. The teacher tells students when to breathe, how to place their feet, and where to gaze. The language in yoga classes is often commanding and may encourage students to push through pain and discomfort. The teacher may offer modification for beginners or advanced practitioners, which sounds gentle but actually creates a hierarchical structure to the movements. Students may be told to close their eyes or lay still.
This dynamic can be triggering for many people—particularly those with a history of trauma. Unfortunately, a practice intended to create peace and calm may instead spark chaos and agitation. Trauma-sensitive yoga (used interchangeably with trauma-informed yoga) is a phrase coined by Dave Emerson, founder and director of Yoga Services for the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, which he shared with the world in his 2015 book, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body into Treatment.
"Trauma-informed teaching is all about the quality and intention that you bring to the studio," explains Lea Bender, one of MovingPotential's instructors, who also teaches private and group classes in Rhinebeck. Bender previously taught at Rikers Island through Prison Liberation Yoga and at recovery centers in Brooklyn and Harlem, and she believes all yoga should be trauma-informed. "You never know what people are coming in with, what their history is, or what could be upsetting to them," Bender says. "But in a jail, prison or rehab—where we know people are in a position where they do not have much, if any, control over their present circumstances—offering choice and options is key."
"Each class is offered as an exploration of movement and stillness," explains Elle Renaldo, who teaches at Rhinebeck Yoga Studio and at Meadow Run, Samaritan Village's all-female facility. "Poses are taught in a variety of approachable ways to invite all to participate, especially those who've never been to a class before," she says. All of MovingPotential's teachers hold a nurturing, caring space and pay close attention to what is happening in the room, but unlike most yoga teachers, they don't walk around the room during class and don't offer hands-on adjustments.
"As a general rule, the poses are invitations rather than commands," Bender says, "And I do most of the class along with them." Savasana (corpse pose) is often excluded from trauma-informed yoga, but MovingPotential's teachers tend to include it. However, instead of leaving the students in a dark, quiet room flat on their backs, MovingPotential teachers give the students positioning options—they can rest on their back, curl up on their side, or stay seated—and then they guide the class through a simple meditation because silence in a dark room is triggering for many people.
Loring points out that she doesn't have students clasp their hands behind their backs or neck in trauma-informed classes because of possible triggers from previous interactions with law enforcement. "We're analytically, critically, and lovingly looking at the yoga tradition and making it more inclusive," Loring explains. Renaldo thinks of it like "choose your own adventure" yoga, explaining that MovingPotential's classes are the opposite of yoga classes where the vibe is competitive. In some studios, students warm up doing handstands or advanced balancing postures that intimidate beginners from even entering the room. "The yoga that we're teaching is more geared toward choice in the self," Loring says, "The yoga that we teach is for every single person and every single body."
How does yoga help people in recovery?Fox Run's biweekly yoga classes fill up every time, and a few staff members usually join. Schmouth points out how stressful it is to work in the residnetial facility environment and how counselors also need coping strategies and support. "Everyone benefits from taking a yoga break in the middle of the day," Schmouth says, adding that she rarely misses a class and is grateful to work where she can practice yoga.
As part of her work as a counselor, Schmouth teaches anger management classes, and learning to use the breath is a major component for those learning how to manage their emotions in stressful situations. Someone might say, "I already learned this in yoga," which Schmouth loves because the more exposure clients get to mindfulness techniques, the better they'll be when they're released from the program, which, for most of them, is court-mandated.
We could list how trauma-informed yoga helps people in recovery, but there's nothing more powerful than reading what the students say about yoga's impact on their lives:
"It gives me a chance to find myself and helps me to relax my body and free my thoughts from the outside world."
—C., Fox Run, August 2023
"Before I went to class I thought to myself it would be a breeze, something to pass the time by. I mean it's yoga, what the hell. As I went through the motions I soon realized that it wasn't just a series of moves, but moves with meanings for your body and soul as well as your mental awareness of finding peace in your mind. I bonded with that inner peace."
—yoga student, Samaritan Daytop Village, 2023
"I have found yoga to be the most accessible and most holistic method of healing for me. Practicing yoga showed me that at my core, beneath the sense of darkness, separation, and total devastation, there was an unshakable, unified and life-affirming desire and ability to heal. Yoga was my first introduction to real acceptance. Yoga continues to teach me coping and life skills. Yoga soothes me. That is a priceless gift. Yoga allows me to distill my grief down to its essence, which is love. I would love nothing more than to be of service and give to others what yoga has given me."
—D., yoga student and teacher-training participant at Meadow Run, 2023
"One of our yoga instructors, Lea, reminds us that we can always use our breathing to bring us back to the present moment. This has been a huge help, even outside of yoga, because my mind wanders the majority of the day with thoughts of using drugs or some of the behaviors that come with using drugs. I am so appreciative for the tools and lessons I learn while practicing yoga and am glad I can apply them to my life outside of the class. I know this is something I will want to continue to practice even when I leave this facility."
—A., Fox Run, August 2023
How can you help support this program?
Yoga teachers tend to be empathetic, aware, and progressive people, and getting teachers to volunteer isn't a problem, getting them paid is. If you'd like to support this vital program that impacts not only those in the residential treatment facilities but everyone in the community, you can make a tax-deductible donation to MovingPotential through the Flow Chart Foundation, their fiscal sponsor. Go to Flowchartfoundation.org and designate MovingPotential in the "in honor of" box.