Benjamin Wilkinson teaches yoga classes to Lane County Jail inmates. The inmates all live in a housing unit reserved for individuals with wide-ranging mental health challenges. Every Tuesday, nearly two dozen detainees shamble out of their single cells into the unit dayroom in quest of improved mindfulness and physical health under Wilkinson’s tutelage.
Jail manager Captain Clint Riley, says that the classes — fixtures at the jail for several years — carry expectations that participants self-manage their behavior in order to stay in the yoga classes. The payoff for jail staff, he says, is that yoga instruction has produced better inmate behavior, fewer incident reports, and reduced use of staff force. For Riley, “That’s more than enough for me to say this program is worth it!”
Inmates in the yoga program agree that the classes are valuable. Benefits they cite include improved self-discipline, better mental focus, stress relief, weight loss, feelings of wellbeing, and increased spirituality. They all report practicing yoga in their cells daily.
Jail yoga program capacity has doubled throughout Wilkinson’s tenure. He says that early on, he employed a boot strap approach as a volunteer instructor, but his teaching approach has since evolved into a more refined, but still adaptive regular style. It’s an approach typically less structured than what he uses at his Common Bond studio in Springfield.
To observe Wilkinson at work is to discern obvious notes of honesty, light sarcasm, and toughness. Clearly, he has a way of connecting to his students despite their often-common demonstrations of anger, frustration, and emotional vulnerability.
“I’ve learned how to improve the collective inmate group experience,” Wilkinson says, “because we’ve grown slowly over time. Now when new members join the jail group, they move more quickly into the benefits of the overall mindfulness of the group.
“My favorite two teaching populations are the elderly and the incarcerated,” Wilkinson says. “They get it! One group is willing to move in their bodies because they need it to offset the physical trauma. The others don’t need all the fluff — they just want to tune in to the magic!”