Since 1992, Louisa “Lu” DiGrazia has been teaching yoga — both asana and philosophy, namely the eightfold path of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras — to Hawaii’s incarcerated men, women, and youth. Each week, she gives her students a different essay she’s written on one of the eight limbs of yoga, so that they can discuss and gain deeper understanding on the topic the following week. While her teachings sprouted from humble beginnings, Lu and her husband, Tom Digrazia, along with their board, formed the Hawaii Yoga Prison Project in 2002 as a means to expand their outreach to prisoners. A sign of success, HYPP recently received a grant which has allowed them to employ three new instructors. Lu and her team now teach in three different facilities here on Oahu.
Q: Why is prison yoga so important?
Lu: For one, I find that when people have been arrested, they may have the tendency to round forward — pulled forward in the heart because they’re protecting — because their arms are taken out of their control. When you teach a person asana, you tell them to open their chest, “you’re not being arrested.” And they laugh, I know they understand. They’re opening and lifting their hearts. (Lu demonstrates with shoulders rolled back and arms out and bent up into a “W” to the sides.) With that one posture you can change a person’s internal energy field, making sure that the heart doesn’t close, because when they go back to their living space they might need to be in that self-defense position for protection.
Q: What are the benefits of prison yoga?
Lu: One of the biggest things I noticed in the women’s facility, was that the more mature women wanted to help if there were conflict in their groups. They had a maternal, nurturing instinct to help. Yoga helped them realize they didn’t have to get involved in the drama, and that changed them.
I’ve seen people who were overweight lose a lot of weight. I’ve had guys ask me, “What can I do?” (to lose weight) and I would tell them — in addition to yoga — to cut out the wheat and white rice, and they’d come back two months later having lost 25 pounds.
One man came to me, the week after his first yoga class, and said he was confronted by someone. Instead of popping (punching) him, he took a deep breath and he thought better of it! After one class!
They learn to meditate. In the true way of simply stilling the mind, they learn to understand who they are. You can see it in them; I had a guy relate to me, “I learned to know myself.” They develop an awareness of the spinning mind. I had another student ask, “So we’re examining the programming or conditioning of the mind; how we can wrap our whole consciousness around that, who we are, based on what we’ve been told?” His father had always called him a “criminal,” and, through yoga, he realized that his father had been wrong.
We can help them there. We can help them cope with the walls and find peace within. Of course there are the common benefits such as decreased pain, increased suppleness, flexibility, recovery, and emotional and physical healing. One student of mine was scheduled to have back surgery for his chronic pain. After three months of yoga and asana practice, he decided he didn’t want to have it, as his pain had dissipated.
Q: How and when did you find Yoga and your personal practice?
Lu: I was 23, searching for the meaning of love. I had had boyfriends I truly loved with all my heart. Then something would happen, it wouldn’t work out, and suddenly there was no love anymore, so the whole notion of love was confusing for me. Around the same time, a friend of mine who lived next door had the book “Yoga for Americans” by Indra Devi. That book was the beginning of my yoga practice, my asana (postures/physical) practice. I did asana for an hour every day. I had always been athletic, but even in my early twenties, I had already begun to have low back pain and other physical issues. I realized I needed to give my body 60 minutes (of yoga) a day.
I was working with the elderly for OAS (Old Age Security) then. I had about 200 people on my caseload that I saw everyday, in homes or nursing homes. I saw what happens to the human body, mind, soul, and heart from the age of 60 and above. I realized I needed to take care of myself if I was going to be (the age I am now) and remain healthy, vital, and youthful. In those days people didn’t exercise; there was no yoga. I realized then, early on, that I needed to take care of myself — no one else was going to do that for me.
I soaked up (the knowledge of) teachers wherever I could, because there weren’t very many teachers at that time (in the early ‘70s). That’s also when I discovered J. Krishnamurti and began to explore the meaning of love and consciousness. Krishnamurti was my Raja Yoga teacher. Physical postures were easy for me; easy to practice and easy to teach. It was the yoga philosophy that was very challenging, and that’s what my students tell me too. Thank goodness it’s there (the philosophy), because yoga is not only asana. We often hear asana used synonymously with yoga; we use the word “yoga,” when we really mean asana.
Yoga has been my profession, my life, and my heart since then.
Q: When did you start teaching “inside” (the prisons)?
Lu: I started this work while immersed in Peace Studies at the University of Hawaii, for a class project, in 1992. I went in for a study and wrote a report. I was working with a social worker there. He was really wonderful; he attended my classes with me in the beginning. I started teaching in the “High” (special holding) area. Once I finished with the class, I was so passionate about the work, I just figured out a way to hang out. In 1998, I received a stipend to teach with the Department of Public Safety, and that lasted until 2008. I then taught for six years or so, as a volunteer, before I finally asked for pay. Last year we received a legislative grant, which allowed me to hire three more teachers and start more classes. Unfortunately, we did not get the second grant, so it’s been challenging. That’s why it’s important to get the word out — especially to yogis — that we need help; in this case, funds to keep the program running.
Q: What was your motivation to teach inside?
Lu: I lived in Alaska for three-and-a-half years, and, for the first time in my life, I understood what “cabin fever” was. The practice of yoga and asana really saved my life there. I had been thinking for a long time how wonderful asana practice could be for people who were incarcerated, because they’re so isolated. That was my motivation. I wanted to do it so bad, I was really fired up for it, and I found that I couldn’t just knock on the door (at the prison) and say “can I come in?” At the time, nobody knew what yoga was, so I had trouble getting students, so we called it “stress management.” I always had a full class. People don’t realize that yoga was rare then; it is ubiquitous now.
Q: How has teaching inside affected or changed you?
Lu: I think you go in there with empathy and compassion. If you didn’t have those things you wouldn’t be interested in doing it. In my career, I’ve taught all kinds of people, and this seems to be the most needed. You gotta get these guys to find the kindness within themselves and the compassion and forgiveness within themselves, because we have a real problem on this planet, we have a “male crisis of consciousness.” Being able to work with them and understand their humanity, I’ve learned more about myself; that kind of depth of understanding is unique. The practice of yoga has always been about service to me.