‘the penitentiary is one of the most stressed and traumatized environments’

Liberation Institute training Maine State Prison inmates to be yoga instructors

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 11:30am

WARREN — The Liberation Institute began teaching yoga to those participating in drug and alcohol recovery treatment programs in 2007.  Now, the Warren-based effort is holding certification programs in the Maine State Prison and other prisons. 

Over five years ago, husband and wife duo Piers and Jessica Kaniuka sat down with Kevin Martin to brainstorm ways to affect the lives of individuals at-risk, struggling with drugs and alcohol recovery. 

The Kaniukas, who have taught yoga to those participating in drug and alcohol recovery treatment programs since 2007, launched the Liberation Institute with Martin in 2014. 

The nonprofit offers education wellness and recovery services to under-served communities in Northern New England.  In 2016, the program began offering their programming to the Maine State Prison, a move that made logical sense for this trio. 

Jessica Kaniuka is a veteran yoga instructor. Piers Kaniuka has spent two decades working with people battling alcoholism and addiction, and Martin, once incarcerated, is sharpening his knowledge of human rights and advocacy. 

“We had been doing yoga with addicts for a long time and had come to believe that it was the ‘missing piece’ in substance abuse treatment,” said Jessica Kaniuka, who noted most treatment centers do not effectively address the stress response. “We realized that yoga was the perfect modality for prison, for the penitentiary is one of the most stressed and traumatized environments in American society.”

Within the prison, the trio trains inmates to become accredited yoga teachers. 

In Oct. 2017, the program graduated its first cohort of six nationally accredited yoga teachers at the 200 hour level. Those graduates, in turn, began teaching yoga throughout the facility. 

A cohort of seven graduated in August also at the 200 hour level, with the first cohort currently working towards their 500 hour certification. Four students are part of a 300 hour cohort and the program is now offering a weekend recovery training program, while gearing up for another 200 hour cohort. 

Inmates participating in the program are less stressed, less likely to get into trouble and get along better with their peers. 

“Some have told us that yoga has enhanced their religious practice as well as their ability to focus on their homework,” said Jessica Kaniuka. “They are some of the most serious students we have had the privilege to teach. And most significantly, in teaching yoga to the other inmates they bring a measure of peace and equanimity to the most challenging units in the prison.”

The most rewarding part of the program, the Kaniukas say, is seeing a wellness and yoga-informed recovery community established within the prison. 

The most challenging aspect of the program was the initial steep learning, and the unfamiliarity with prison culture. 

“Although we enjoy the support of the administration we really didn't have a good handle on prison culture,” said Jessica Kaniuka.

Though Martin, a program cofounder, was incarcerated and provides some insight into prison culture, the Kaniukas said it is still difficult to fully grasp life behind bars if one has never served a sentence there.

To continue their Liberation Institute mission in the prison, the Kaniukas are seeking financial support to expand programming throughout the Department of Corrections.

So far, 90 percent of the work has been done pro bono, which the Kaniukas note is not sustainable, especially since they hope to expand programming. 

As part of their fundraising, the Kaniukas are offering a yoga and meditation fundraising event at the Dancing Elephant in Rockland on Thursday, Nov. 21, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

All are welcome to participate in the event, no yoga experience is necessary. All proceeds will directly support the program at the Maine State Prison with a suggested donation of $25. 

The Kaniukas are seeking individuals interested in being trained in their methodology to serve other marginalized communities or people interesting in helping the Kaniukas establish a residential re-entry facility. 

“The world desperately needs this type of initiative,” said Jessica Kaniuka. “People need to come together and share space in meaningful ways. There is a loneliness epidemic and it isn't just in these types of facilities. It is everywhere.” 

Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com