Jules, a former group work facilitator for the probation service, teaches at HMP Styal in Cheshire. Although her regular classes in the prison gym were halted in 2020, in the gap between the first two lockdowns she and fellow yoga teacher Paul started new classes for vulnerable women. Jules reflects on the challenges of teaching a group of women in their teens and early 20s.
The young women are classed as ‘vulnerable’ for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s because they are less mobile and not engaging with the prison regime in some way, others might be self-harming or have confidence and body image issues. They are a more troubled group and less likely to come to a regular gym class.
For the first class, only two women took part. One was quite challenging and found it hard to be still. She wanted to move while the other wanted to relax. We ended up doing both!
It’s important to gain trust. I do this by being quite relaxed and informal, asking everyone how they are. If they aren’t feeling great, I acknowledge that. By checking in with everyone at the beginning and end of the class, I get a feel for what is going on. If anyone is feeling resistant because of physical pain they can tell me what it is and they don’t feel judged if they don’t want to do something. It gives them permission to be in control of what they do with their own body, and learn to listen to it.
Self-harm is a big issue. Lots of the women have scarring and sometimes recent wounds. I don’t make a big fuss but acknowledge it if necessary, for example by being aware of movements that might aggravate recent wounds and stitches. I feel my role is to be accepting of whatever experience they are having.
They are here because they have heard about yoga and meditation and want to try it, and for this particular group the potential benefits are great. My job is to make yoga accessible to them, as they often tend to push back. For me, it’s about being very kind and open and treating them with respect.
We are in quite a small room and practise in a circle. I know it can be a big ask for them to come and do yoga in front of each other – they can be very self-conscious – so I ask what they feel like doing: stretches, breathing, meditation? Often we do a mix. I give them as much control as I can.
It can also be challenging for them to truly relax. But I have had them all lying down for a full 20 minutes at the end, with the option of eyes open or closed.
I also find lots of genuine praise is important. If they have poor body image it helps them to have the confidence to give it a go. It can be hard for them to practise in front of others, but if they are told they are doing well, they will feel good and want to come back next time.
After that first session, both women came back, and kept coming back, and the class grew in size to five or six women. That felt really good.