at the Richmond City Jail
The Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyle (REAL) program at the Richmond City Jail is intended to reduce recidivism (repeat offenses) by ensuring that individuals are prepared for reentry into society. Ellie Burke is a volunteer.
What is your level of involvement in the REAL program?
Every Monday morning since February, I have been volunteering my time to teach a weekly yoga and meditation class to female inmates. Upon my arrival at the jail, I go through the metal detector, trade my driver’s license for a badge and am escorted through a maze of hallways, ID-activated elevators and double-barricaded passageways to a locked room on the third floor.
I push tables to the periphery of the room, stack chairs out of the way and wait for my students. The class is structured to include a delicate balance of yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep”—20 to 30 minutes of guided, deep relaxation with systematic direction of consciousness; a short, guided meditation practice and some grounding and integrating yoga postures.
How does the session wind up?
Toward the end, I always ask them if they have questions or experiences they’d like to share. We talk about feeling rested, about being exhausted, about not knowing what to expect. We talk about how pretending we’re not feeling an emotion is really actually suppression, and about how our thoughts and internal stories are often habitual; that they can affect us for days, weeks and years even after the event has happened and how we perpetuate those experiences by reliving them over and over again—shaping our current reality.
Considering that 100 percent of the women with whom I work have experienced sexual abuse, trauma and prostitution, this is profound. They’ve begun to experience some freedom from their habituated ways of thinking, doing, seeing and being. As one young woman said just the other day, “Ellie, I experienced something today that I’ve never experienced before. I experienced peace in my whole body.”
Do you do any other volunteer work at the jail?
Along with the weekly yoga and meditation class, I have been doing intensive 1:1 life coaching with an inmate for the past three months. The work she is doing is mind-blowing; she is speaking of choice and possibility, accountability, her future (where she formerly saw none) and how to be the person she wants to be, especially for her young daughters. The impact has been direct and meaningful, and has the potential to change the trajectory of her life. My hope is to continue this work.
To continue to help these women increase their self-awareness in some capacity—to see how their internal reactions and responses are shaped by their experiences and not as the only possibility—to guide them even if momentarily toward experiences of themselves that are other than what they’ve known, so that they can begin to break free of behaviors and actions that damage themselves and others.