Newtown Yoga Festival!

The Newtown Yoga Festival, now in its 5th year, has partnered with The Avielle Foundation, a local, Newtown, CT non-profit, started by the parents of Avielle Richman who was one of the twenty first graders killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings.  The Avielle Foundation works to prevent violence and build compassion through brain science research, community engagement and education. 

Why is a violence prevention organization having a yoga fest?  “Yoga helps regulate emotional and physiological states.  It allows the body to regain its natural movement and teaches the use of breath for self-regulation.  Yoga teaches us that there are things we can do to change our brainstem arousal system, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and to quiet the brain.” ~ Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Author of The Body Keeps the Score and Board member at The Avielle Foundation.

We will be holding our event on Saturday, August 26th from 9am to 4pm at NYA Sports & Fitness in Newtown.  Featured headliners this year are Hala Khouri, Kathryn Templeton, Todd Norian and Tao Porchon-Lynch.

The Newtown Yoga Festival team was formed as a holistic solution for anyone and everyone to join together through the transformative wisdom and practice of yoga.  It is how we choose to honor lives lost, celebrate the strength and resilience that is human nature, and release the tensions and anxieties that accumulate in our bodies as a result of trauma. The festival itself offers a day of community, yoga movement, music, mindfulness and local wellness vendors.

Through our annual event, we have been able to make a positive impact on our community by providing the tools that have been proven effective in reducing stress and depression and a valuable mechanism for coping with physical and emotional trauma.

Shala Teacher Elizabeth Johnstone Leads this Life-Changing Program

This article as it appears in Elephant Journal

Transcending Confinement through Yoga.

Via Brian McCallen

on Feb 22, 2017



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This is not an ashram or a shala.

This is not a softly lit sanctuary with a stick of incense curling its fragrant smoke to the ceiling.

We are seated in the cinder block gym of the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, a women’s maximum security prison in Niantic, Connecticut.

This is a confined space in every sense, yet its dimensions are stretched to tranquility by women who’ve found a way to cope with their confinement.

Three of the five women I’m speaking with are certified yoga teachers. The other two are close to completing their 200- hour course to achieve certification. On a brisk January day, we’re seated on folding metal chairs in a corner of the prison’s dull grey gym.

The complex is encircled by barbed wire fencing, but there is serenity in their faces despite their incarceration. Yoga has been their path forward, a bright ray of hope, a way to reorient their lives and even recalibrate their identities. Each has embraced an ancient and highly effective practice that leads to better health, intuitive awareness and spiritual harmony.

Headed by Elizabeth Johnstone, who founded Recovery Yoga (a non-profit service organization) 10 years ago, the program has exposed thousands of women at York to yoga and seeks to prepare women for re-entry into society near the end of their sentences. Most of the yogis-in-training live in the prison’s Keys to Success Reintegration Unit.

The goal, Johnstone says, is to reduce the rate of recidivism and teach the inmates to be comfortable with discomfort.

“Yoga offers powerful tools in the growth and recovery process,” Johnstone explains. “Yoga teaches us to pause if we are willing to show up and do the lifelong work.” Warming to the subject, she says there’s a physiological response to yoga. “The various yoga poses, breathing exercises and meditation all activate the body’s natural relaxation response by turning off the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight syndrome) and by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The practice of yoga quiets the mind and brings the body, mind and spirit back into balance.”

For a group that routinely suffers from guilt, anxiety, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and low self-esteem, the results at York and other correctional institutions where yoga is practiced have been transformative. Guided by Johnstone and the experienced Recovery Yoga team of Ken Law, Kristin Vaughn, Sue MacClain and Robin Levine, a steady regimen of yoga by the inmates who’ve chosen to participate has led to inner peace, self-compassion, trust and forgiveness.

“I had done a little bit of yoga before I got here,” says Deborah, 51, who recently received her teaching certification. “When I heard about the yoga project, I approached it as exercise and a way to lose weight. At first, it was awkward. The poses were weird and I was not comfortable with the meditation part of it. But soon I felt a change, inside and out. I learned to be comfortable sitting by myself. I felt real strength in my core. I also began to find the real me.”

Michelle, 41, is unsparing in her self-assessment. “I’ve been here nine and a half years, and I started yoga eight years ago,” she says. “I didn’t really care for it at first, and I didn’t practice on a regular basis. To be honest, I hated holding the poses. I swore I’d never do it again after doing yoga outside on a hot summer day. But eventually I rejoined the class. Yoga took me inside myself. It’s been life-changing.” Michelle pauses, takes a breath, dabs away a tear.

“Unlike before, I’m not anxious or depressed or worried all the time,” she says. “I stay in the present when I’m on the mat. I stay in the present when I’m on the phone with my husband. I don’t overreact with emotion as I once did.” She says her husband wants her to teach him yoga upon her release. She also wants to work with at risk youth to share the benefits of yoga.

“Being here has been so difficult,” she admits. “I’ve dealt with depression, and the anxiety that comes with cutting myself.” She reflexively rotates her forearm. I see the scars. “Now I turn to yoga and meditation, which relieves anxiety. I realize I need to meditate—I’m an addict.” More sniffles. “I spent so many hours on the mat crying, working on self-forgiveness, and they’re some of the best tears I’ve cried,” she confesses. “I have so much guilt and shame. I’m the mother of three children and I have a grandchild, and I’m in here and I can’t see them.”

Yadira, who has a big smile that shows a missing front tooth, says she’s always dealt with severe anxiety issues in jail. “To me, sitting still (in yoga) was a big thing. Now I can do that and be alright with that. I don’t get upset as much now—I can let go of things without dwelling on them for days and weeks at a time. If I have negative emotions, I let them go. I don’t let them consume my life. My yoga practice allows me to stay grounded. I’m a lot calmer now. I listen to people now. I feel better about myself. There’s a personality modification that takes place when you do yoga. People who practice carry themselves differently.” Yadira, 35, recently received her teaching certification. She will assist Recovery Yoga instructors and mentor fellow inmates until her release.

Marjorie, a 44-year-old native of Costa Rica, says learning yoga in a second language (her native tongue is Spanish) posed a special set of challenges, though she believes the experience helped her to move on from her old self. “Yoga changed my life,” she says matter-of-factly. “With yoga, I can forget about my past and focus on the present.”

Marjorie pauses a moment to find the right words. “Yoga helps me live a simple life,” she says. “I remember my childhood. We were poor, but we were happy. We had each other. We got the simplest gifts for Christmas—a few crayons, a coloring book—and we were very grateful. There is so much materialism in America. Through yoga, I’ve learned to change my mentality. I want to live my life simple,” she says with a big smile, implying that a simple, grounded life is a richer one than money can bring.

Deborah circles back to her preconceived notions about yoga. “Initially, I thought yoga was only about holding poses,” she says. “But that’s just the beginning. The asanas are important, but there’s the self-study part of yoga, too. So is the simple act of breathing and letting go. Like a lot of women, I like to be in control, but that means worrying all the time about potential outcomes. I was never in the moment,” she admits, “especially with my kids and my husband. I was always focused on the next thing. But now, I no longer grip onto something and suffocate it. Once I learned to let go through my yoga practice, my depression and anxiety went away, and so did my stigmas.”

Deborah expands on her yoga experience. “I understand more now about the benefits yoga brings. I see the physical differences, but for me it’s much more about the mental and emotional strength. Yoga is a way to center yourself and relieve stress. When I don’t practice, I notice a difference.”

Since stress was a recurring theme among all the women, I asked Deborah to elaborate. While accepting responsibility for why she was incarcerated, she says pointedly, “We don’t have control over our lives here. We’re told what to do. We’re away from our families. Plus, the rules change all the time, and we’re held accountable if there’s a misunderstanding. The result is ongoing tension. To cope, we all know what to do—come back to our breath.”

Taking a long view, Johnstone notes that each inmate who heals herself through the ancient art of yoga has the power to impact their families and society in a powerful way. “We know that programs like Recovery Yoga create positive changes at York and within our communities,” she says. “Reducing recidivism has a definite human benefit.”

All five women in the group who gladly testified to the transformational power of yoga will be released from the Janet S. York Correctional Institution by March 2018. Each will re-enter the outside world as different people—as yogis.

They will be free to join a yoga community where yoga is practiced under soft lights, with soothing New Age music playing and maybe a stick of incense to scent the air.

Author: Brian McCallen

Photo: Mussi Katz/Flickr

Editor: Lieselle Davidson

Elizabeth Johnstone and Recovery Yoga Team lead ground breaking program at Prison helping to change lives for the better

Yoga Spreading Mindfulness Inside Niantic Prison

Yoga instructor Ken Law leads a class for inmates at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme on Friday, January 13, 2017.  The program, made possible as part of a Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's second Chance Society, is aimed at helping inmates use yoga to recover from past trauma.  (Sean B. Elliot / The Day)

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MYS Seva member Vanessa Lazine's article on Gratitude

Monday Morning Mantra: Make Time for Gratitude Daily

by Vanessa Lazine
April 27, 2015

*article as it appears in YOGANONAMOUS

We’ve all heard that being grateful can change our view of our world, but how many of us actually practice gratitude? What does a gratitude practice even look like? And, more importantly, does it really change that much?

I began my own gratitude practice in the form of journaling after reading Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning. Every morning, I open up my journal and write three things I am grateful for, including the reasons why, and two things that would make this day great. This takes five minutes or less. Try doing it every morning before getting out of bed instead of checking your email, Facebook, or Instagram. 

As I began to notice shifts in my own point of view, I also thought, why not bring this practice to my students? I teach third grade in a high priority district, where many students have challenging and stressful home lives. Gratitude practice was beginning to make a difference in my own life, but I wondered if it could really make a difference in anybody’s life, regardless of age, economic status, race, or disability. And so, we tried it out.

Every day for the last two months, the first thing my students do is write on a sticky note, “I am grateful for _________ because _____________.”

We all display our sticky notes on a poster, so we can remind ourselves about it throughout the day. Sometimes we share with partners, and other days we just write them down. 

Here are some things I have noticed, both in my own life, as well as the lives of my students:

It is important to think about, and write down, the reason why you are grateful. 

It is easy to make a list of all the people, events, and things that we thankful for. In order to fully understand and appreciate it, we must state our why. This forces us to hone in on what is amazing in our lives and helps us remember it throughout the day. For example, my students and I have written that we are grateful for the teachers in our lives, but our reasons why are unique. 

I am grateful for my teacher(s) because…

  • “…they challenge me to try new things.”
  • “…she teaches me something new every day, and once in a while I teach her something new.”
  • ….even though kids make mistakes, the teachers never give up and they keep learning.”
  • “…they are caring and nice.”
  • “…sometimes she brings in snacks for us.”
  •  “…because every time I don’t know something, she explains it to me.”

The shift in perception really starts after you get through the big things.

By the big things, I mean the first things that come to just about everyone’s mind: family, friends, teachers, shelter, food, pets. My students and I all began our practice by showing thanks for the big anchors in our lives. As the days went by, however, we had to dig a little deeper and look a little more closely as to what makes each and every day special. This is when the major shifts began.

In my own life, I noticed that what normally would have seemed like a bad situation turned out to be a good one. A parent complained to the principal about our writing curriculum. Instead of getting upset or defensive, I called the parent back with a heartfelt thank you – because their concern helped me to become a better teacher. On what seemed like our 100th snow day, I wrote I was grateful for snowplows because they allowed me to get to yoga that evening. 

Some of my favorites from my students:

  • “I am grateful for bacon because it is delicious.”
  •  “I am grateful for St. Patrick’s Day because some people are wearing my favorite color.”
  • “I am grateful to move because I will get my own room for the first time ever.”
  • “I am grateful for homework because it helps me learn.”
  • “I am grateful for the weather because, without the weather, the world would be boring.”

Shifts in perception change attitude. 

Each day, as my students and I notice the smaller moments, our attitudes have gotten sunnier. I wake up in a good mood every day. I don’t get upset when the line at the grocery store is long. I am more patient with my students and myself.

And my students? Here are some changes I’ve observed:

They help each other more often. They listen more intently. I hear the words “thank you” more often than I can count. When one of my students was upset, another rushed to grab the tissues. They stop and hold doors for adults in the building. They pick up garbage in the hallway. 

One of the biggest events that made me beam with pride was during our biography presentations. One of my students had worked extremely hard, but was nervous to present, and began to cry. The rest of my students respectfully gave him a minute, then began saying things like, “Oh you researched Dr. Seuss? I love his books,” “Great poster,” and “Can you tell us about him?”

This began a series of questions from the audience, and answers from the presenter, which helped him finish his presentation with confidence and gusto. I was blown away. 

We are still human.

We still have moments of quarreling, complaining, and bitter moods, but, all in all, we have come a long way in a short amount of time. My students have taught me that gratitude practice begins with noticing the good in our own lives, and ends with us reaching out towards others with compassion. It is a practice I will continue for years to come.

So, what are you grateful for today?