Yoga with a Purpose

Colleen McEvoy ’92 (finance), M.B.A. ’92
Colleen McEvoy ’92 (finance), M.B.A. ’92

By Stuart Glascock

Colleen McEvoy ’92, M.B.A. ’92, brings the benefits of yoga to prisoners.

At a home celebration for volunteers, both the fire and enthusiasm of Colleen McEvoy ’92 (finance), M.B.A. ’92, warm the room. But she isn’t kicking up her heels. She checks to-do lists, puts labels on pot luck dishes, greets each guest kindly, and makes everyone feel welcome.

It’s not a hypothetical scene. The gathering honors volunteers who teach yoga in prisons. The cheerful house is McEvoy’s. Detail oriented and upbeat, she is president of the board of Yoga Behind Bars, a growing non-profit providing free yoga classes inside prisons and jails.

In her critical leadership role, McEvoy helps bring yoga to locked up men, women, and teenagers. She believes yoga fosters physical, mental, and spiritual growth for individuals, including those inside America’s vast penitentiaries.

Seattle-based Yoga Behind Bars delivers classes at seven prisons and jails in Washington state. The yoga classes cover basic balancing, grounding, and relaxing exercise methods. Waiting lists are a clear measure of success; demand for yoga in prison far exceeds space. Inside prison walls, the word is getting out: yoga brings results.

“This is something that can really give people the tools to help themselves,” McEvoy says.

In her professional life, McEvoy excels in an active career in business and finance. A chartered financial analyst, she has been an executive with U.S. Bank for 15 years, currently serving as vice president for media and communications. In her work, she handles loans for large media and telecom clients nationwide. Prior to U.S. Bank, she was vice president at Hibernia National Bank.

McEvoy’s parents taught her from an early age that “we definitely are our brothers’ keepers.” Sixteen years of Jesuit-inspired education, including both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Loyola, sealed the point.

As a busy young professional and parent, McEvoy gave generously to charities. Then something extraordinary happened. That something resonated profoundly when Natalie, the second of McEvoy’s six kids, started teaching yoga to prison inmates. In a twist, the younger generation’s social activism strongly influenced the parent.

It began when Natalie jumped in with both feet. In fairly short order, the determined young woman taught more than 250 classes on the inside, trained dozens of teachers to go into prisons, and helped triple the number of classes. Natalie, who is 29, then took the reigns, becoming executive director of Yoga Behind Bars in 2010.

McEvoy says her daughter’s work touched her deeply. Serendipitously, at 56, Colleen was beginning to have more freedom to give not only money, but also time. She joined the board in 2010 and became president in January 2013.

“She’s one of the most organized and positive people I’ve ever met,” Natalie says of her mom. “She encourages everybody. She is incredibly positive. It’s so important to have that positive energy.”

McEvoy says she loves working with her daughter, stating, “I’m her biggest fan.”

Yoga Behind Bars aims high. It intends to bring deep and effective healing into the culture of corrections. To that end, it furnished 477 hours of classes in 2010 and 584 hours in 2011. It carried out 12 weekly classes for men, women, and teenagers. An average of 10 inmates in each class climbed onto mats to stretch, bend, and sweat.

Founded in 2007, it didn’t take long for Yoga Behind Bars to catch the eye of criminal justice reformers. In 2011, the RiverStyx Foundation gave Yoga Behind Bars a $100,000 grant to expand.

Yoga Behind Bars hopes to start a program in a federal prison. It’s an especially meaningful prospect for one board member, a former federal prison inmate who began attending yoga classes in prison. The small yoga class, he says, helped create an atmosphere of self-rehabilitation, relaxation, and compassion behind bars.

Overall, the idea is to reach inside as many prisons as possible, McEvoy says, “to give the tools to anyone who wants them.” In India, some inmates shave time off sentences by learning yoga. Meanwhile, the U.S. imprisoned 1.6 million people in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, making the U.S. No. 1 worldwide in incarceration.

McEvoy practices yoga but does not teach it. She brings financial savvy and analytical prowess to the board, navigating it through a startling array of issues for the small nonprofit.

Clearly, the committed little organization is doing something right. Wardens, guards, and prison-based mental health and recreation officials welcome Yoga Behind Bars with open arms. The chief psychologist at the state’s largest men’s penitentiary insists the yoga helps prisoners in many ways. Inmates give it rave reviews.

“Yoga gave me a quiet place—a space away from all the craziness—a safe place to go,” says one former inmate who discovered yoga while incarcerated.

An active yoga community in the Puget Sound buoys up the grassroots volunteers. Passionate yoga enthusiasts from regional yoga studios provide services, give money, and donate time to Yoga Behind Bars. Last Thanksgiving week, for example, 36 studios held benefit classes for Yoga Behind Bars through an event dubbed Gratitude in Motion. One of those small businesses is Seattle’s popular 8 Limbs Yoga Centers, which is owned by New Orleans native Anne Phyfe Palmer. Like many other studio owners, she supports Yoga Behind Bars and its calling.

“On a basic level, yoga immediately helps people get at the roots of stress,” Palmer says. “Yoga has physiological aspects that help our nervous system. Even a few minutes helps. Our bodies are not made to be under constant stress and fear.”

While some might view prisoners as less-than-deserving of the tools yoga offers, McEvoy takes a more global view.

“It’s a misperception to think that a person in jail is any different or less deserving than the rest of us,” she says. “Our students have all made mistakes and exercised poor judgment, for which they are imprisoned and serving their time. This does not mean they should be treated with any less respect and dignity than any other human.”

Scriptures tell many stories about suffering, prison life, and jails. One Old Testament verse, for instance, says: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.” In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda, the yoga master advises inmates to see jail as an opportunity “to change your attitude in life, to reform and purify yourself.”

Theology aside: prophets, sages, and saints agree that volunteers who serve prisoners sometimes deserve a break. Don’t be too surprised to find Colleen McEvoy hosting the shindig.

Stuart Glascock is a freelance journalist based in Seattle, Wash.

View the complete spring 2013 issue of LOYNO.

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