Santa Fe nonprofit brings yoga, meditation and mindfulness into NM women’s prison
Moths flutter around as the sun streams through the windows of an old basketball court with wooden bleachers and tiled walls. Six women in orange or green jumpsuits lay out yoga mats, blocks and bolster pillows and set their shoes aside. They come to the class three times a week, where a correctional officer looks on as Phoenix Savage leads them in a stretch as the first of 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 course in yoga, meditation and mindfulness at the women’s facility in Springer. The class aims to help keep participants out of prison once they’re released, but is also helping them cope with stresses behind the walls in the meantime.
After stretching, Savage teaches her first of two classes of the day a new breathing exercise. She instructs them to breathe in for a count of four and breathe out while pursing their lips for six. It’s part of a mindfulness practice intended to focus awareness on the present.
“It’s helping you to transition from what would be a flight or fight type of response to a challenge to a more controlled, composed response,” she tells her yoga students.
Kayla Solomon has been taking the class since it started in April. She’d never done yoga before and said she signed up to get active and relieve muscle tension.
“So, I didn’t think [to] that extent that you’ve got to breathe all the dang time,” she said, “It’s about the stretching, but it’s also about the breathing.”
She said of all the yoga class’s activities she’s actually gotten the most from the breathing techniques.
“Because out there I wouldn’t breath; I’d go from zero to one hundred,” she said. “And now, without even knowing it, I’m using those breathing techniques to calm myself down.”
The rate of people returning to incarceration within three years of release has been dropping in New Mexico — down to 35% from 55% in 2020, according to a recent report by the Legislative Finance Committee. Savage said she hopes her class can help lower that rate even more for its participants. Solomon said she thinks that’s possible.
“If I would have 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 didn’t really care about her on the outside.
“Now I’ve had this time to sit down and learn things like this and have the people take time out of their day to come in and try to teach us something that might help us farther along the way,” she said. “And I feel like it probably would — because I’ve learned healthier ways of dealing with things.”
Savage said she hopes to measure whether the class lowers participants’ risk of getting locked up again through data tracking and focus groups since current research on the impact of yoga, mindfulness and meditation on recidivism is limited. However, several studies have shown the practices can help.
The reasons behind reincarceration are complex — from having been in the system before to lacking a support system outside or facing challenges around mental health, substance use, housing or employment. Savage said she can’t address all of them.
“I am connecting you to this process within yourself that is going to hopefully allow you to look at your options and figure out which options you should be taking,” she said about what she can offer a participant in her Springer yoga class. “And that’s where mindfulness comes in. And maybe to the average person [it seems like], ‘Hey, that’s just common thought.’ But here’s the reality: We don’t all get an equal chance at common thought.”
Trauma can disrupt decision making and numerous studies have shown that women entering U.S. prisons experience it at high rates. A 2013 report from the New Mexico Sentencing Commission showed nearly 90% of women surveyed had been physically assaulted in their lifetimes and 67% had been sexually assaulted.
Savage said she works to make the class trauma-informed by selecting poses that would be most comfortable for survivors of assault. So, participants don’t put their legs in the air while on their backs and avoid poses like downward dog, which she said can be triggering because they aren’t aware of their surroundings.
When asked what’s different about teaching yoga in a prison context, she said people in general aren’t always connected with their bodies, “but when you’re incarcerated I think you have more of a disconnect. Because your body no longer belongs to you. Your body is a product of the government at that point.”
Just being in prison itself can be traumatic. Multiple lawsuits related to alleged sexual assault, harassment and retaliation have been filed against Springer and its staff in recent years, and The Albuquerque Journal reports former Springer correctional officer Joseph Martinez was charged in 2021 with criminal sexual penetration of a woman incarcerated at the facility. He denies the rape allegations.
Warden Marianna Vigil says bringing the yoga class in had nothing to do with the allegations, adding that it’s one of many recreational opportunities at the minimum security facility, including softball, volleyball and Zumba.
“They all reside here obviously, so they all learn how to work together,” Vigil said. “And I think it also boosts their self-esteem.”
Springer also has educational offerings meant to boost life and coping skills, like substance use treatment, heavy equipment operation training and an associate's degree program.
The Corrections Department has contracted with the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center through the end next month, but it’s open to renewing 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.
Savage said she plans to take a break in July after these first 8-week classes wrap up and start back up in August. She has identified a prison staff member who’s willing to go through yoga certification training to improve the sustainability of the class by saving Savage the four-hour round-trip commute from Santa Fe, allowing her to focus on coordinating the program.
But for the next month, Savage will continue to take her yoga students who can’t otherwise leave the prison’s walls to an imaginary forest through guided meditation. After climbing a tall tree, they find a beautiful green cloud that drops down a ladder.
"You step inside the green cloud," she tells them. "You’re so happy. You are safe, you are breathing."