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Feb 27

Express-Times Story Features CAR-FREE CAT Bike Director

Yoga program reaches out to Northampton County Prison inmates, juvenile offenders

Published: Monday, February 27, 2012, 4:47 AM     Updated: Monday, February 27, 2012, 9:00 AM
Scott Slingerland

Matt Smith | The Express-Times Instructor Scott Slingerland (left), of Easton, with the Shanthi Project, leads inmates including Charlie Stimmell (right) in a Yoga session at Northampton County Prison.
Express-Times Photo | MATT SMITH Yoga instruction at Northampton County Prisongallery (10 photos)
A near-complete silence pervades the cinder-block room, broken only by slow, steady breathing.Five men lie on yoga mats in a rectangular pattern, eyes closed, while a sixth man sitting cross-legged nearby implores them to engage in deep thought.

“Here, maybe we can find some clarity in the stillness,” said the instructor, Scott Slingerland. “We’re opening our awareness, for each of us to figure out what’s the most important thing in life.”

It’s Sunday afternoon on the B-4 Unit at Northampton County Prison, and a quintet of inmates have just completed their weekly yoga session in a room up the hall from the unit’s main community center.

Under the guidance of Slingerland, the inmates, who are enrolled in the prison’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, cycled through warrior, downward dog, cobra and other iconic yoga poses, in what Slingerland described as a “journey” of the body.

“I’m here to help with washing away the old habits and bringing in new habits,” said one of the inmates, Joshua Klemka, 31. “All I’ve known for so long is the addict’s life.” 

Klemka’s fellow inmates and yoga students, Charles Stimmel, 23, Evan Radice, 22, Kenny Runyan, 31, and Dave Senick, 36, all agreed yoga provides an escape from day-to-day prison life, as well as a vessel for stress relief and self-reflection.

“I come back here to feel free,” Radice said.

Slingerland’s weekly class behind bars is part of the Shanthi Project, a registered nonprofit organization founded in 2010 that provides yoga classes to local at-risk populations — prison inmates and juvenile offenders — as well as youth involved in the Boys & Girls Club of Easton.

The program — the name is derived from the Sanskrit word for “peace” — is the brainchild of yoga teacher and clinical research scientist Denise Veres.

About two years ago, when Veres realized one of her yoga students, Sue Burnside, was the deputy director for treatment at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center, she expressed interest in bringing yoga to the children at the center.

For Veres, it was an opportunity to combine her passions for yoga and research.

“I had read about yoga in prison settings, but there wasn’t a lot of data out there,” she said. “I wanted to see what kind of impact yoga could have on these individuals.”

Veres wrote a proposal for a pilot program consisting of a month’s worth of biweekly yoga classes for a group of boys at the Juvenile Justice Center. On the research end, she composed a series of self-representative questions for the boys to answer, at the midpoint and the end of the program, regarding what effects the classes had on their levels of stress and anxiety.

After the proposal was approved, Veres began teaching a group of a dozen boys at the facility in May 2010. She was immediately struck by the amount of emotional baggage the boys carried.

“I saw that these kids were carrying huge burdens,” Veres said. “A lot of them are trauma survivors. They’re dealing with some kind of trauma, with what they’ve done, with who they’ve left behind. That package makes them very stressed individuals.”

Some of the juvenile residents were initially resistant to the yoga classes, but most warmed up to the idea during the monthlong program, Burnside said.

“A lot of the boys were concerned early on that yoga is just a ‘girl thing,’” she said. “But some of our male staff at the center talked to them about the benefits of yoga and convinced them otherwise.”

Veres’ independent research on the pilot group yielded positive results, with eight of the boys indicating they wanted to continue doing yoga at the conclusion of the program, she said. Burnside was pleased with the outcome.

“I think the classes had a major impact,” Burnside said. “For the kids, it’s another tool they can add to their toolbox.” 

Following the success of the pilot program, Veres was brought back to continue teaching boys yoga classes at the Juvenile Justice Center, and the center added a class for girls. Soon after, Burnside reached out to the prison and made contact with the Boys & Girls Club of Easton. Both institutions adopted yoga classes into their schedules.

Today, Shanthi Project has a roster of 12 volunteer teachers who collectively teach 24 classes per month across the prison, juvenile detention center and Boys & Girls Club. Much of the organization’s support comes from money raised by several local yoga studios during special community yoga classes.

“Community support has been amazing,” Veres said.

For students such as Klemka, Shanthi Project has proved an invaluable outlet. Klemka and the other inmates who participated Sunday all expressed interest in continuing yoga once they get out of prison.

“I feel so much better after this,” Klemka said. “There’s this war going on inside me, and the evil is trying to win. This is helping me get rid of that evil energy.”

For more information about Shanthi Project, visit theshantiproject.org.

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