It takes a steady determination to make things happen in the world of incarceration, even when this system makes rehabilitation a priority, as the Queensland Correctional Service has since 2018. Enter Sonia Brown-Diaz, Prison Yoga Project’s Ambassador in Australia and Founder of PYP Affiliate, Yoga on the Inside.
Yoga became essential in Sonia’s life in 2003 as a path to healing from the seemingly insurmountable grief and subsequent PTSD she experienced following the stillbirth of her twin sons.
“Yoga gave me a deeper insight into my grieving process and allowed me to experience my body in a completely different way,” says Sonia. “I had dissociated from my body for such a long time that my emotions were seemingly ‘trapped’ inside of me, and my ‘reactions’ to life experiences were not healthy.”
“Seeing the transformation that yoga had on my life made me even more intentional about bringing this opportunity for others. I wanted to work with marginalized groups, people who might need these skills as much or more than I did, and to perhaps provide them with skills and techniques to assist them with their daily trials.”
She says that her desire to teach incarcerated people, “…is founded on the basis that we are all first and foremost human beings, who, despite our indiscretions and flaws, deserve the opportunity to better ourselves through the connection between our bodies and minds.”
Sonia’s journey with Prison Yoga Project began September 2018 in Brixton, UK, where she attended training with PYP’s Founder, James Fox, and PYP’s European Ambassador, Josefin Wikstrom. Meeting with James and Josefin ahead of the training, she declared her intention to bring trauma-informed yoga into the Australian prison system. Since then, she’s been stalwart in making that intention a reality.
In March 2019, Sonia approached the Queensland Corrective Services (QCS) with a proposal to introduce trauma-informed yoga to prisoners at 12 facilities state-wide. It’s an ambitious plan, and fits with QCS’ operational priority to, “Foster collaborative relationships with government agencies and non-government organizations to promote efficient service delivery and coordinated approaches to rehabilitation and reintegration.”
Sonia’s proposal led to an invitation to participate in the QCS’ Violence Prevention Coordinator’s committee meeting. She provided a presentation on the program, its benefits, and its desired outcomes. She shared how PYP has helped to foster the spread of trauma-informed yoga around the world. And, most importantly, she shared the studies and research that shows the impacts of such a program for incarcerated people.
Immediately, Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, a high-security prison for women, decided to engage Sonia to run a 10-week pilot program. From their press release about the program:
“The Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre has commenced an innovative Trauma-Informed Yoga program, backed by US research finding prisoners reported significant decreases in depression and stress and improved self-awareness.
“The program focuses on teaching yoga in a way that respects the unique needs of people who have suffered physical and psychological violence.
“’The results suggest yoga is an inexpensive intervention that benefits both prisoners and officers by reducing some negative behaviours and possibly mental health problems,’ says program instructor and Australian ambassador for the international Prison Yoga Project, Sonia Brown-Diaz.
“With 87% of female prisoners identifying as victims of abuse, the QCS has a commitment to a trauma-informed approach and programs that support the women.“
The trial concluded on August 8, 2019, with participants receiving a “Certificate of Completion” for their participation. The formal and informal feedback from the participants has been overwhelmingly positive.
- “Prior to doing yoga, I always thought yoga was too slow and couldn’t get it or get into it – but NOW! I LOVE IT, need it and look forward to it each week, and I feel my body needs it every week.”
- “Yoga calms my racing thoughts and helps me concentrate on my breath and just focus on the present, and really relax. I feel like everything isn’t on top of me anymore and I don’t catastrophize as much. Yoga gives me a clear fresh perspective.”
- “I’ve learned to ‘breathe and ignore’ the negative comments, and the bullying and put-downs. I listen to my body, I focus on my feet, my shoulders, and keep positive thoughts.”
- “These classes have helped me to know myself better and the trauma that was impacted on my life.”
The success of the trail has led to the continuation and expansion of the program, up from one to four weekly classes. Now, every woman incarcerated at the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre has the opportunity to attend a yoga class.
The success has also piqued the interest of Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (another high-security prison for women). They have engaged Yoga on the Inside for a 10-week trial program. Sessions began on the 8th of October 2019.
In a little more than a year, Sonia’s determination has set a solid foundation for growth. And we expect to see her partnership with Queensland Correctional Services flourish.
“In the time we’ve been working with Sonia, she’s demonstrated a steady determination to make things happen and the ability to make critical connections and to develop those relationships fruitfully,” says Bill Brown, PYP’s Executive Director.
“We’ve been receiving an increasing number of inquiries over the past year from people who are interested in bringing yoga and mindfulness to Australia’s prisons and jails,” says Brown. “These requests come from people interested in doing this work and from facilities hoping to offer yoga as a rehabilitative service. We’re happy to have Sonia as the person we can work with to shepherd those inquiries.”
“In addition to her professionalism and skill in developing relationships, we chose Sonia as our Ambassador in Australia because of her keen understanding of the trauma-informed, mindfulness-based approach Prison Yoga Project advocates. Fidelity to a trauma-informed protocol is key to providing the type of outcomes we seek from our programs. We want to ensure we offer yoga that maximizes the healing benefits for incarcerated people. Sonia gets it.”
The benefits of a trauma-informed approach to offering yoga extend well beyond prison walls. Thanks to Sonia’s advocacy, the Queensland Police Services Inspector for Operational Training Services, Corey Allen, has expressed interest in having this program implemented as part of their cadet and officer training program. And Sonia continues to reach out and connect with other community services, such as the Police Citizen’s Youth Club’s RUBY Program for victims of Domestic Violence and groups for teenage girls at risk.
Her success in Queensland is already spreading to other parts of Australia. In New South Wales (NSW), Sonia has connected with decision-makers within the NSW Department of Communities & Justice, and the NSW Corrective Services, where meetings are being planned. So, watch this space…