By Sue Zalokar, Staff writer
You can’t control what life throws at you, but you can
control how you react to it.”
That was the meditation for my second community yoga class
at the Old Town Clinic, a health care clinic run by Central City Concern for
people experiencing poverty. Like the affirmations shouted from the pews of a
Baptist church during the sermon, everyone in the class grunts or smiles
knowingly at that first part: You can’t control what life throws at you.
The classes have been a success for more than five years.
Taught by volunteer instructors from Living Yoga, a Portland-based non-profit,
the classes are open to the community, complementing their chronic pain clinic
on Friday afternoons.
We are not in a typical yoga class.
Three of us are seated in chairs, one of whom came to class
on a motorized assistive chair. Another in our ranks has emphysema and came to
his first yoga class the week before.
I myself am recovering from a lower back injury. Many
attending the class are in recovery, from drug or alcohol addiction. Still, we
are here to honor our bodies and minds through yoga. And, thanks to Living
Yoga, their volunteer teachers, Central City Concern and Old Town Clinic, we
are doing just that.
Instructors at Old Town Clinic rotate classes, teaching once
or twice a month. One of the volunteers, Michelle Barton, started teaching yoga
at Old Town Clinic in 2010. The organization is close to her heart. She knows the power of yoga. She used to be a
student: Michelle served seven years at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility
where Living Yoga classes were taught.
“It felt like while I was in prison, for that one or two
hours, I wasn’t in prison,” Michelle said.
Shortly after her parole in 2010, Michelle knew that she
wanted to pursue a career in the healing arts, specifically yoga.
For many of the students, this class is about facing demons.
This is something else that Michelle can relate to. She was involved in an auto
accident that killed two people — her passengers — in 1995. Michelle suffered
minor injuries and was released from the hospital to learn that a warrant had
been issued for her arrest. She went to see an attorney and learned that she
was being charged with two cases of manslaughter, each with a 10-year mandatory
sentence. If convicted, she would have faced 20 years in prison with no ‘good
time’ and no programs. After weighing her options, Michelle looked at her then
8-year-old son and a map and made a decision. She fled.
She moved across the country, putting as much space between
the state of her crime and her family. She created aliases for her son and
herself and they lived on the lamb for eight years before Michelle’s past
caught up to her.
She was extradited to Oregon and her charges were dropped
from 1st degree manslaughter to 2nd degree manslaughter because the fatal auto
accident was not intentional. She was sentenced to two, seven-year terms that
Michelle says she was grief stricken and broken by the time
she began serving her sentence. She had never really had the chance to grieve
the loss of her friends and the impact of the decisions she had made.
Everything just hit her all at once. She decided she was going to use this time
in prison to really heal and that she would take every opportunity that would be
beneficial to her while she was serving her sentence.
She completed a computer technical program and she acquired
a job at the law library.
She also began to attend Living Yoga classes. Immediately,
she felt as though she had connected with something really important. Yoga class is what started the healing
process for Michelle.
“It was a long process,” she said. “I got in touch with my
grief. I became accountable in my own mind for what happened. I just started to
When she was paroled in March 2010, one of the first things
she did was to take the teacher training to volunteer for the organization. She
says she wanted to give the very same hope and opportunity to other people in
the same ways she had experienced in class at Coffee Creek.
“I wanted to give back,” said Michelle.
As she began her journey with teaching volunteer yoga
classes, she received her 200-hour yoga teacher credential certification and
took the classes with Sarahjoy Marsh, the founder of Living Yoga.
During that time, Michelle began to sub for teachers while
she was finishing her program. One of those teachers was Kim Carson, who
teaches an adaptive, therapeutic yoga class for people with mobility issues,
such as older adults and people who are recovering from injuries. Therapeutic
yoga focuses on lowering the risk of injuring, or re-injuring, oneself while
building flexibility, strength and developing tools to use for reducing stress
and anxiety. Michelle says she found that this was the group she really wanted
to connect with: people who might not have access to a traditional yoga classes
due to mobility issues or healing physical or mental trauma.
Currently, Michelle is working toward her advanced teacher
training specializing in therapeutic yoga. The training is expensive and
Michelle must fit the course work in between a rigorous teaching schedule. She
teaches classes from one side of the city to the other, and continues to
volunteer one day a month at the Old Town Clinic.
Students at the Old Town Clinic are very grateful to have
the Friday class to attend. For some, it is the only yoga class they have
Sylvia Phelps has been coming to the Living Yoga class at
Old Town Clinic since 2008, when the classes first began. She says that the
classes help her with deal with life. Yoga is a tool that helps her relax and
be in the moment. Phelps says that she finds Michelle’s story to be
inspirational. Phelps served time in Columbia River Correctional Institution in
1995, but yoga classes weren’t offered at that time. “She spent time in prison
and found yoga there and now she teaches us, that means a lot,” Phelps said.
Phelps says yoga class, in tandem with other services, has helped her with her
recovery. She will mark five years of sobriety next month.
Ron Marshall is another student who has been coming to
Living Yoga class for many years. The first class that I attended at the Old
Town Clinic, Marshall was invited to read a poem that he wrote about his
healing process to open the class.
He says yoga is very healing for him, “I come to class and I
might be really tired, but yoga relaxes you and gives you energy. It makes you
more introspective. It makes it so that your days look better when you finish
(a class),” he said. This is the only yoga class Marshall attends. He says he
depends on these classes and if they weren’t offered, he says something would
be missing in his life.
Michelle says of the class she teaches at Old Town, “I’ve
had some of the same students now for three years and that’s where my heart
She loves teaching to this group of students because they
are so grateful and responsive and genuine. “They have had experiences in life
that have left a physical signature on them. We all have issues, but people who
have been homeless or who have experienced the grips of long term addiction
tend to hold that in their bodies,” said Michelle. She believes yoga releases a
certain kind of grief and it allows those who practice yoga a freedom if you
can learn to sit still and breathe.
“Yoga offers your mind a chance
to be still and focus on something other than where you have been or where you
are going. It allows you to be right where you are. When you can learn to be in
the present, it changes you. It helps you to deal with whatever you have to
deal with when you step off the (yoga) mat whether it be prison, homelessness,
grief or pain. There is something about yoga that makes coping easier. If you
can find joy in the midst of total chaos you can store it and tap into it when
you need it. Once you find it, it is always present. Yoga helps you cultivate
Living Yoga offers more than
900 yoga classes in prisons, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers,
transitional facilities, and to populations who would otherwise not have access
to it. Currently, Living Yoga serves 11 institutions with over 20 different
classes/week. They have nearly 80 active volunteers teaching more than 10,000
student hours of yoga.