Woman becomes first inmate to train aspiring yoga teachers
Inmate Fergosa Bluff is teaching draper yoga at Utah State Prison on Wednesday. Bluff is the first inmate to complete 500 hours of yoga teacher training in prison and has been commended for “serving life” rather than serving a life sentence. (Kristin Murphy, Desert News)
UTAH State Prison – If all goes according to plan, many students on a yoga program in Utah will one day walk out of the door of their current classroom and never return.
From their own experiences, they draw the physical discipline to help others heal from traumatic events, recover from an addiction, or simply find their way against all odds. And they will not return to a criminal justice system that tends to keep a person involved after an arrest.
The ancient practice, credited with improving physical and mental health, has become a mainstay in Utah State Prison and other prisons across the country, with many inmates completing hundreds of hours of training while in custody and receiving certificates to teach yoga.
Inmate Fergosa Bluff is teaching yoga at Utah State Prison in Draper on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. Bluff is the first inmate to complete 500 hours of yoga teacher training in prison. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Desert News)
But the professors who run these programs are usually “outside,” going through metal detectors each week or appearing on a tablet screen.
That is changing in Utah as master teacher Ferosa Bluff prepares to train nine more women on a 10-month program that requires intensive study of postures and history, as well as introspection and practice in guiding others through the poses. Not only will your students graduate with more confidence, but also professional skills and certification that can help those who will one day leave prison and get used to life outside the gates more easily.
“There’s a lot to be said for what we’re doing yoga here,” said Bluff. “It’s not mainstream yet, in a prison setting, but we hope this will be the start of something big.”
She guided a group of nine trainees through a powerful yoga flow at the Timpanogos Women’s Correctional Facility this week, performing physical poses and reminding them to take deep breaths and stay focused. Denise Druce of Utah-based sister organizations Yoga Assets and Yoga Forward awarded Bluff a certificate of 500 hours of training and life imprisonment.
Inmate Madison Pooley practices yoga with fellow inmates at Utah State Prison in Draper on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. Her teacher, Fergosa Bluff, is the first inmate to complete 500 hours of yoga teacher training in prison. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Desert News)
With soulful voices, the group describes how the lessons shed light on the darkness and not only alleviate knee and shoulder injuries, but also help with anxiety and depression. The sessions have helped some to allay fears of future job and apartment efforts and to better come to terms with their own actions.
The women who are serving prison terms for a range of criminal convictions say certification provides a way to alleviate suffering after it is caused earlier in their lives.
Crystal Gardner, 37, kept getting into disciplinary trouble in prison for repressing feelings of shame and frustration, but she said things have changed since she took yoga classes about two years ago.
“I was so angry that I couldn’t get out,” recalls Gardner. “I did my first class, I just yelled.”
Gardner, who is from Fort Duchesne in Uintah County, said she was aiming for certification so she could share yoga with children and teenagers growing up on the Uintah and Ouray Reservations in eastern Utah. She is also taking college courses in anthropology and planning a bachelor’s degree. She said she is also focused on her relationship with her son in college and a daughter who is in high school.
“I’ve already started the change here. I understand I was wrong,” said Gardner, one of several defendants in a kidnapping case due to have a parole board hearing in 2025. “I may not be a role model precisely because of where I am, but when I get out I want to be a role model.”
Madison Pooley, 21, began to let go of her fears about how society views her drug judgment and instead focused on changes she can make for herself and her 2-year-old daughter, she said.
If the parole authorities follow state sentencing guidelines, Pooley will be out of prison in October and plans to continue her yoga training thereafter.
“Yes, there are people here for serious crimes, but there are a lot of women who are lost who didn’t have people to teach them and push them in the right direction,” Pooley said. “I just want the world to know that we are not all terrible people. We really want to be better with our lives and some of us just don’t know how.
The yoga setting is similar in many ways to those outside the prison walls, with mats, belts, and pads for each student and mantras like “Love your Body” painted on the wall in Building five – the gym – the women’s facility. Bluff uses music and lights to help students settle in with the environment, and addresses heart-opening poses to appeal to rounded shoulders that are often accompanied by a desire to remain guarded, along with feelings of shame and worthlessness.
Inmates Crystal Jack Gardner and Fergosa Bluff hug after Bluff teaches a yoga class at Utah State Prison in Draper on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. Bluff is the first inmate to complete 500 hours of yoga teacher training in prison. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Desert News)
“The opening into the heart chakra is the opposite of that,” said Bluff.
She and one other man were sentenced to life imprisonment for the death of their three-year-old daughter in 1998. She declined to discuss the case, but protested her innocence.
She has long taught fitness classes in prison and started yoga more than a decade ago to get a good stretch and kept going because of the emotional and mental benefits. A concept in yoga of finding the soft edge of a hard place resonates with her.
“That’s my personal philosophy for how I live my daily life here,” said Bluff. “You have to be in the moment.”