Teaching Yoga in Prison – Interview With Natalia Pedroza Roldán

There is always light in the darkness; people are really willing to develop their best potential if you give them a chance

Natalia, you studied psychology for 3 years and then specialized in humanistic psychology for another 2 years, when did your interest for the human mind, behaviour and development begin?

It started around 2004, after graduating high school. I did my final project on the mental health impact of 9/11. At the time, I didn’t want to study psychology – I thought it was stupid! I applied instead to a program in Anthropology in Colombia but I was thinking at the time about moving to France and studying French. I really wanted to see the world so I chose France. I love languages and it opened up a whole new world for me in terms of different cultures but I wasn’t really satisfied and I couldn’t see myself being an interpreter or translator. I didn’t really feel like I was helping people in the way I had imagined.  I had a lot of doubt during that period but it really made me who I am today. So finally, I decided to return to Colombia and start all over. I knew this time I wanted to work in service to people. Sometimes people are going through really difficult things alone. I really wanted to be that person to help them. I experienced going through many challenges on my own when I lived in Europe. I knew I would probably be the oldest person in my second bachelor but I knew I had to go through with it. 

What made you drawn to the humanistic approach in particular?

Just knowing that people have the potential to be what they want, they have the freedom to change what they want. Change is really triggered if you want it to from within; not because someone else told you to.  I also believe in human potential. In humanistic psychology there isn’t the same distance between the therapist and client; it’s so important for them to know that you are on the same level as them.

How did you get started with Yoga and teaching? 

A few years after I returned to Colombia, I started with Yoga, which completely changed my life. Honestly, I was really a couch potato all my life. I never liked moving before and would make any excuse not to! It was a friend who suggested it to me for stress relief and there was a free class, so I tried it. I still remember; it was a Monday at noon and it was really hot in Colombia.  At the time, I was still smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. After that class, everything changed; I stopped smoking, got out of a toxic relationship and I started taking care of myself. I saw the difference right away and I needed to share it with everybody else. I mean, I used to drink so much coca cola everyday, I had never even tasted a fruit growing up – and I come from Colombia! Yoga really taught me how to feel my body and understand its needs. When I started eating fruits and less meat, I couldn’t believe the difference. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing out on my whole life. Today I am so grateful for my body. If I hadn’t made the change, I don’t know where I would be today.

So when did you decide to become a Yoga teacher?

I started doing Yoga every day and I was studying humanistic psychology at the same time. Then I started an internship in HR in a big pharmaceutical company in Colombia. It was horrible – I cried everyday for a year. At the time I was doing Yoga every single day to cope. That is really what kept me sane and I realized that I would never be able to work an office job. Still, I was grateful because I had just enough money to do my first Yoga teacher training. My teachers were part of the Hare Krishnas and I moved to their Ashram for a month. That same year, I was writing my thesis on meditation. I had no idea how but with the knowledge and experience I gained, I knew that I needed to do something with it. 

Did you already know from the start that you wanted to work in a correctional facility setting? How did this come together for you?

When I was writing my thesis, I came into contact with people working in prison. And then one day, I decided to send them a job application.  My boss told me about a project they were starting in 6 months in Cali, which is the city where I lived. It scared me a lot but something inside was telling me that I should do it even if everyone around me was telling me not to.

Wow. That is brave that you listened to your intuition.

What kind of preparation (mental, psychological, emotional) is needed to be able to teach in such a particular setting? What tools really helped you?

Well, humanistic psychology for sure. Also, the fact that I had done therapy myself and had been a consistent yoga practitioner.  That I had gone through personal transformation in my own life. One of the most important things was the belief that people are good – sometimes they are confused and they do bad things, but it’s mostly because they have to. I could not see any evil in them.

Now that you’ve had experience working with inmates, do you think that there are misconceptions about them in society?

I think that many of us live in a bubble and it’s easier not to see what is happening, especially in Colombia. It’s easy for people who are wealthy and educated to just look the other way. You can actually be separated in the same village and not even see how bad the poverty is on the other side. It’s easier to just go about your everyday life. We need to be grateful for all the privileges we have and one of the biggest ones we have is education. The education these people have access to is not good quality, which perpetuates the poverty cycle. When you have to struggle just to fulfil basic needs and survive… Think about where you live now, even if it is small, you have everything you need. In those areas, the streets are not paved; they live in shanty houses. Sometimes they have to work in different neighbourhoods; often the mothers’ work as maids for the wealthy and of course there are feelings of resentment because they didn’t even have the possibility to overcome their own circumstances. The physical context as well; you are constantly scared, there are a lot of gangs and they might try to recruit you and if you say no, you could get killed. It’s a cycle; it might even be a family obligation if your father is a member of a gang.  It’s difficult to get out when there is no support or even more importantly, role models. Crime is a way of life; it’s normalized in a way. How can you make a decision if you don’t know any other way? This is their world.

So basically, they are just like you and me.

Yes they just grew up in a different environment.

For someone else thinking about teaching Yoga in prison, could you walk us through a typical class?

The first thing that you have to do is to gain their trust – it’s very difficult. I always felt respected; I never felt threatened or afraid. As a woman working with male prisoners, I had to be strong – but not like a dictator.  I always think that movement and speaking are related; I used a lot of both. I was teaching them about their bodies because they were lacking basic knowledge. Some of them were fathers but they didn’t know how a child is created. Just reassuring them that many things are normal, especially when it comes to emotions. Many of them think it’s a bad thing to feel sad for example instead of accepting it as a part of being human. That’s when you see addictions as well, because you are trying to avoid feeling.  There was a lot of dialogue, body awareness, teaching them about mindfulness, meditation and Asanas. You have to sense what the group needs that day. You can’t show up with a preset structure.

What was the response in the beginning when you were first developing a bond with them?

They were curious, I read a lot to them, which they liked and I was surprised. I was also trying to listen to them; I was open to any question they had. The trust was gained little by little. I mean at first they thought it was a woman’s thing. They didn’t understand why they were doing it. I told them that most Yogis were men; I showed them posters and they became interested knowing that it could actually challenge them and make them stronger. 

A lot of people have the misconception that Yoga is just about stretching…

In the end they started to get engaged, even suggesting to try different postures. We even got their families involved. Sometimes they would come and practice with us depending on the inmate’s conduct.

Did you only work with men?

I also had a small group of girls; I would say it was even maybe a little more difficult. It can be complicated…especially between each other.

It has been said that there is a cycle of trauma that pervades the prison environment. How can Yoga or perhaps other forms of therapy help to break the cycle?

Just being aware of what is happening in your body will help. When you don’t know what is happening inside of you then you are just fighting your own feelings. There is also the trauma response; there is all this adrenaline and hormones that are released and over time accumulate and make you sick. Just moving can help you release these hormones and find balance. Another important part is speaking out; understanding what happened to you, where you come from and that you are not the trauma. You have the power to change but it’s a process. The main thing is body awareness.

So you think processing trauma stems from body awareness?

It’s a way to process memories stored in the body that you’re not able to speak out – it’s a feeling what the trauma is making you feel. Moving will help you to process it and give it another meaning. 

This might be true not only for personal healing but also for the collective healing

I do believe that. Trauma is sometimes kept within 7 generations. You might not even know why you have a certain feeling about men for example because your ancestors were victims of trauma like rape. All the healing you do will affect the next generation. Even if you don’t have kids, it will still have an impact. 

Is there a specific story of courage, transformation or breakthrough you were able to witness while teaching in prison and could share with us? 

Yes there are many but I can think of one in particular when they had chickenpox and they were in quarantine for 2 months in their cells; basically there are two bunk beds for 4 people, a toilet in between and one person sleeping on the floor. On top of that there were a lot of conflicts, they were treating one another badly. They wanted to stop the program but I had gotten chicken pox when I was a child so I decided to go there anyway. I had to give the classes in the bathrooms for those months. Just the smell…And only the healthy ones could participate. They were not even allowed to see their families. The guards were also angry and treating them badly. I kept teaching though, and sometimes those in the cells would listen and even join during the chanting or mantras. At the end of those weeks, they thanked me for coming everyday. They said it kept them sane, it helped them manage conflict and even more importantly it helped them to be able to sleep. 

That is a beautiful story of human resilience and kindness.

I think that when you have a higher purpose, somehow it gives you the strength to surmount incredible difficulties.

I know it isn’t for everyone but if you love what you do…

So who is this work for do you think? 

People who are very aware of themselves, of their bodies, who have gone through a process and who have knowledge in psychology and Yoga.

Do you have any advice for someone interested in teaching Yoga or other movement or art therapies in prison?

Any profession where you are working with people, you need to go through your own process. You need to confront your darkness and your light as well. In that way you can help other people meet their darkness and their light. If you haven’t gone through that, you can’t help someone else do it. If you are going there to judge, then you should not go there. Especially towards people who are different from you, who have a completely different life experience than you do. You need to be aware of your privileges and have gratitude for what you have. 

I am sure what you experienced was incredibly meaningful. What are the biggest lessons you learned from working with inmates?

It was impressive the way they shared everything. Families would sometimes bring food but instead of keeping it for themselves; they would share it with every single person in the room. Even sharing a piece of mango with me… That was a beautiful lesson. They shared even when they had nothing. 

If you treat people well, they will treat you well back. If you just listen to the human being in front of you, they will feel validated. Acknowledge the person in front of you.

On a personal level, there is more to people than what they did. They are humans just like us. I feel that Yoga and therapy really heals. Self-awareness is necessary and education is the best tool. That is what is going to keep people from the streets, break the cycle of poverty and corruption. There is always light in the darkness; people are really willing to develop their best potential if you give them a chance. They just need the tools and guidance.

You are tremendously courageous. What do you hope to share with the world through your work, teaching and with your current studies in Dance Movement Therapy?

I would rather call myself a movement therapist and help people find their light and help them heal. I’m not the perfect person, I have my flaws of course. If I picture myself in ten years, I hope I can still work with vulnerable populations. In one way, the Corona pandemic has enabled us to use more tools to connect with others all around the world. I hope to use these tools to open up to an international audience. I’m not sure how but I think that if you are on the right path, things just start to show up. A good inspiration for me is Marianne Eberhart. I would really like to work with trauma and addiction, especially because I think that they are connected. I also believe that everyone has some kind of trauma in their background.

Thank you so much for giving a voice to those who do not have one and for your continuous contribution to this world.