Mike Gutierrez with his sons. (Courtesy: Mike Gutierrez)

Before he was sent to jail, Michael Gutierrez would drive the two hours to visit his 5-year-old son without a license, usually high on meth. But he didn’t go very often. He was homeless, living on friends’ couches. By the time he started serving his multi-year sentence for identity theft, he didn’t even know where his son was living anymore.

“I was clouded by drugs and alcohol. I was ambivalent,” he said. “I was torn between wanting to do the right thing and doing the right thing.”

Gutierrez was about five months into his sentence when the jail announced a new program.

Its goal was to help inmates with children become better fathers via a surprising method: teaching them yoga.

He was almost 40 years old then. At 6’2″ tall and around 250 pounds, the former football player hardly looked the part of a lithe yogi. But he had started to read the Bible to find a spiritual guide and the program at the Chelan County Regional Jail in Wenatchee, Washington seemed a perfect extension of that journey.

“It was one of those things that when you’re in jail and a program comes along you want to be a part of it,” he said. “I can get out of my cell and do something that is positive for the future.”

Run by researchers from Washington State University, the 112 inmates attended parent education classes for an hour and then practiced yoga for a second hour. The preliminary results found that after 12 sessions over several weeks, the participants showed a number of positive changes, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The study was repeated multiple times with different inmates over two years.

Jennifer Crawford, the lead author of the study published in the August edition of the California Journal of Health Promotion, said in an interview that she could see visible changes in the inmates’ behavior and attitudes throughout the program. Their facial expressions and their body language showed an eagerness to engage, she said. They used the yoga sessions to release emotional stress, develop patience and learn self acceptance.

During the yoga lessons, one instructor would repeat an affirmation that seemed to resonate: “We are peaceful warriors, our bodies are strong and our minds are free.”

“The role of a parent regardless of your situation, it can call on an individual to rise up and grow up, and the idea of cultivating mindfulness can help anybody be more present and able to manage themselves,” she said. “It made them more self aware, more appreciative of their kids and gave them more tools to communicate even when they were away from them.”

Teaching yoga to prisoners is not a new idea, and it’s widely accepted that mindfulness has significant mental and social benefits. But Crawford said combining the ancient Indian practice with an existing parenting curriculum for incarcerated fathers showed a positive correlation between the exercise and better parenting.

She does acknowledge limitations in the study. The design of the program made it impossible to tell whether the education classes alone without the yoga, or vice versa, would have yielded the same results.

But, in addition to inmates’ self-assessments, anecdotal observations also showed the benefits.

Rosa Vissers is the executive director of Yoga Behind Bars, a Washington-based nonprofit that offers yoga to inmates in 12 facilities in the state.  The group also trains inmates to become yoga instructors, so they can conduct classes, like Yoga Jones in Orange is the New Black. Vissers helped Crawford run the yoga portion of her study.

She recalled a man who during shavasana, the period of rest at the end of a yoga class, would lay on his back with his fists clenched and eyes wide open. As he attended more classes, he slowly began to unfurl his fingers and close his eyes.

“It makes so much sense to me,” she said, of Crawford’s finding. “If you have a way to feel more at home with yourself, if you have ways to cope, then you can meet your child from a very different place. Cultivating things like compassion helps people be there for their children.”

Participants in Yoga Behind Bars’ Teacher Training for Prisoners with instructor Laura Prudhomme at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.
(Credit: Emily Westlake)

Jenny Latimer, the jail’s education coordinator, said most of the men, who are there for misdemeanor crimes or are awaiting sentencing for felony charges, have substance abuse and anger management issues. The program ended in her jail when Crawford’s study finished in 2013, but she’s working to find funding to restart the yoga program because of its benefits. And the inmates are requesting it.

“When they want to get mad they take a few minutes and breathe and they say that it helps them,” she said. “It has just as much to do with their self esteem and self worth. The whole yoga practice is wonderful, but the bigger thing is they’re not sitting in jail without a whole lot of self-worth. When they start hearing about being good to themselves, I think that gets to them.”

It got to Gutierrez. He learned that self-compassion and looking inward was crucial to being a better dad. While in the program he located his son and they reconnected. The coordinators helped him send brand new books to his son as a gift. He wrote inside, “I’m working hard to be there for you, even though I’m not there with you.”

“It was huge now that I think about it that I was able to give him a gift,” he said.

From jail, Gutierrez was sent to prison for almost two years, guilty of multiple counts of identity theft and other related criminal activity that he said he committed out of desperation to buy drugs. While there he kept up with his meditative breathing, determined to re-enter the world grounded and ready to be a true father to his children.

Since getting out in March 2012, he’s gone back to school to be become a counselor in chemical dependency. He’s earned an associates degree, he said, and is deciding whether to go all the way for a bachelor’s. He works as a suite attendant at a hockey arena. He’s remarried and has another 10-month-old son. His older son stays with him every other week.

All he’d ever wanted was to have a home where his son could come stay and have his own bedroom and closet. He does now. His son calls it “his little apartment.”

“It was definitely a foundation for healthy living that (the program) taught me,” Gutierrez said. “Mindfulness is a big movement now. I still struggle with it sometimes, but I try when he comes up and says, ‘Dad, Dad, Dad,’ I don’t push him away. I say, ‘Yes, Jacob. What’s up?’ ”

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