Teaching Women In Prison The Benefit Of Yoga

"A gal got out of prison and she's like 'I hate to say this, but I wish I were staying in prison because I just love your class,'" Abra Coleman, a Twin Cities, Minnesota, fitness instructor who teaches a monthly yoga class at Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility, tells me. There's a lot to love about Coleman's yoga classes: The women learn how controlling their breath can actually help their bodies; they can set an intention, or dedicate their day's practice to something or someone in their lives; and they experience the marvelousness that is the Shavasana pose (a.k.a. the corpse pose), when it's all said and done. They're some of the same aspects of yoga that transformed Coleman from a young woman who thought to herself, "What is this?" after taking her first class, into a dedicated yogi.

Coleman started teaching fitness classes in 1981 at the age of 18. But her path over the last three decades has been filled with a lot more than aerobics and yoga: cooking school, a real estate license, a job in retail, three children, and several different cities. Fitness has remained a constant for Coleman, though, and in recent years it has become her "full-time gig," as Coleman says. She teaches a variety of classes, like cycling, yoga, body sculpting, and SilverSneakers (a class designed for older adults), regularly at four different athletic clubs in the Twin Cities area, in addition to Shakopee.

Like most jobs in Coleman's life, her teaching at Shakopee just sort of happened. While working as a sales associate at fitness apparel brand Athleta, Coleman was assigned the duty of being personal shopper to a mother/daughter duo that had won a radio contest.

"One of the gals was a counselor at Shakopee in the chemical dependency portion of the prison, and I said 'I want to teach there!' and she's like, 'OK!' And it was just like that," Coleman says.

Coleman finds that her visits to the facility aren't drastically different from teaching yoga at Calhoun Beach Club or LA Fitness. Just like in her regular Vinyasa Flow classes, Coleman can still emphasize the importance of breath: She asks students to breathe out staleness and breathe in freshness before getting into sun salutations.

But there are "lots of rules in prison," she says, so distinctions between a class at Shakopee and a class at Minneapolis Club are hard to miss. The women all come to class donning the same outfit of gray sweats, and aren't allowed to take their socks off during class. On Coleman's part, she can't wear any tight clothing and can't do the hands-on assistance, like kneading a student's sore muscles during an extended child's pose, that she has made a part of her normal routine at fitness clubs. More generally, there isn't the same kind of opportunity for making deep connections with those who attend her class. "I keep a real distance. I don't share my personal life with them and I don't ask them, like, 'What are you in for?,'" she says.

If she ever did divulge any personal anecdotes with the women, they'd likely never get around to yoga. Coleman, who grew up in Chicago, has no shortage of fascinating life stories. She's the granddaughter of "Ask Ann Landers" advice columnist Esther Lederer (making her the great niece of Dear Abby columnist Pauline Phillips). And despite this legacy of advice-givers in the family, she says, her family life was fraught with dysfunction. Coleman says she was spoiled as a kid, but that she also felt she received a message from her mom that she was the "dumb, pretty one." Both her parents moved on to several other marriages, and nowadays Coleman doesn't speak to her mother; she has a "very distant" relationship with her father. "As privileged as we were, we were all emotionally bankrupt," says Coleman.

Spending bits of time in different cities, Coleman says she was lost in her younger years. She came to Minneapolis in 1987, eventually starting a family and finding a cushy job in real estate. She still felt lost, though. When the housing market crashed, Coleman decided to switch gears, and that's when she received her certification to teach yoga.

Now Coleman is an empty-nester — she's got three kids living on their own. She calls a small condo home and is learning to live a calmer, simpler life. "I kind of really realized...I thrived on chaos," she says.

But the ladies at Shakopee don't need to know all that in order to have a valuable yoga practice. "There's no need to do that," Coleman says. "To get all intimate, in terms of personal stories."

Coleman says the prisoners really look forward to her coming to Shakopee. And this doesn't appear to be the only place people appreciate Coleman's instruction. In attending several of Coleman's yoga classes outside Shakopee, I found that she often received praise from long-time attendees and beginners alike for her teaching style and general attitude. I've never thought of seriously using the descriptor "real" for any person, until meeting Coleman: She admits to being high-energy, but also claims she's really good at napping in her free time between classes. She uses a common yoga term when she calls watching Law & Order: SVU while eating pizza in bed "restorative."

And when Coleman, who is 52 now, says she loves teaching her classes both in prison and out, I believe her. She works seven days a week, sometimes instructing five classes over the course of a day. "I've always loved it and it was a hobby, and I turned it into something more because I needed to," she says.

Coleman says she's a lot happier with her life now than compared to when she was making more money working in real estate. While her schedule is packed, she says the trips to Shakopee are an honor for her.

"Many of them have never done yoga," Coleman says. "They have a lot of body pain ... that's why I think it's so great they get a chance to experience this."

The women in the facility are not "bad" women, Coleman says. She says they've just made some bad decisions. And whether it's the women at Shakopee or college students at LA Fitness, people have days of positivity as well as days when they feel they don't have anything to give. "It's about community," Coleman says. "We all have lives and some days are better than others."

This kind of thinking seems to fall directly in line with Coleman's focus on breath in her yoga classes.

"Breath is the great equalizer. We all breathe, so nobody's any different."

Images: Courtesy of Abra Coleman