VACAVILLE - Eight years into his life sentence at California State Prison Solano, Don Favorita’s friend Gordon Melvin asked him, “Would you want to practice yoga with me?”
“In prison, you don’t just take your shoes off in the middle of the day room floor,” Favorita said. But Melvin was an old biker who wasn’t worried. “Screw all those guys,” he told Favorita. “Let's sit down, let's practice together.”
They worked with the prison administration to bring in the Prison Yoga Project, which held a day-long retreat in 2008 and exposed about 70 inmates to yoga. The project started biweekly classes that continue to this day.
But Favorita wanted to teach.
Favorita, a certified alcohol and drug addiction counselor, was moved to the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for a few years to start a substance use disorder treatment program. While he was away, the Prison Yoga Project started a yoga teacher certification program at Solano in 2015, but about 70 hours into the training the program was canceled. “I heard that and it broke my heart,” Favorita said.
When Favorita returned to Solano two years later, he sent dozens of letters to yoga groups across the country, seeking help to resume a yoga teacher’s training program at the prison. Anna Proctor from the Yoga Dana Foundation in Vallejo was the only one who replied.
“I was telling her about our dilemma here, how we have a bunch of hungry guys wanting to learn how to become yoga instructors,” Favorita said.
“The whole story starts with this very hopeful letter. It happened to land in my mailbox in a moment when I was looking for a major life change,” Proctor said. “I was so burnt out, commuting to San Francisco, teaching all over, I couldn't do it anymore.”
Proctor agreed to help immediately. She launched Yoga Bridge in October 2018 to fund the teaching project.
More than four years later, the first nine instructors finally graduated last month. It took Proctor and Favorita a year to navigate the prison bureaucracy before they were allowed to launch the yoga teacher training program in August of 2019. The training was interrupted by the COVID-19 shutdown when they were 30 hours shy of completing the 200-hour course. Over half of the original 20 participants were released or left the program during the shutdown.
Proctor likens prison yoga to bringing water into a desert. She says that yoga provides an immediate way to attend to anxiety, stress and fear. “Many of these guys are dealing with PTSD,” Proctor said. “They need a lifeline.”
Evidence shows that practicing yoga and meditation can change the activation of the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system. Proctor said her students also study nonviolence, nonviolent communication and empathetic listening.
“Yoga is just one piece of this lifestyle that they're leading. It's one of the best practices if you want to reduce the amount of violence around you by healing yourself to reduce your own violent tendencies,” Proctor said. “Yoga is highly effective in the prison environment.”
“These guys are some of the best yoga teachers, they're so good at communicating what they've studied,” Proctor said. “No one is better suited to communicate that to a fellow incarcerated person, someone dealing with past violence or dealing with anger. They are ambassadors of nonviolence.”
Proctor says that it is difficult for incarcerated men to break free of prison culture, because there are so many stereotypes about what it means to be a man. “You can imagine how difficult it is to be doing your yoga and just ignoring all judgments,” Proctor said. “They're remarkable people.”
The newly minted yoga teachers will be co-teaching a yoga and mindfulness class with Proctor two nights a week for the next three years. Their yoga teaching credentials will be a marketable skill for those who are paroled.
Favorita, 59, was a professional skier in the United States Freestyle Ski Team before he was convicted of killing his wife 24 years ago. He describes his prior self as a show-off and a misogynist. He said his wife became a centerpiece to pain and suffering he held but was unaware of because he was deluded by drugs and alcohol.
“My life is a complete dedication to my victim,” Favorita said. “The tremendous amount of shame, the guilt that I feel is representative in my practice, in my day to day walk in my sobriety.”
Favortia practices yoga daily at 5 a.m. on the day room floor. “I live in a fishbowl,” Favorita said. There are over 200 men in the open dorm setting he shares. He said that they are very hypervigilant and watch what other guys do. His practice gives him the opportunity to lead by example.
“Guys become inquisitive,” Favorita said. “They start to let their guard down and ask where they can come and attend the classes.”
“A lot of the guys just want a place where they can take their shoes off, find a place of peace and quiet and actually be vulnerable,” Favorita said.
“Some of the most notorious gangbangers who have reformed themselves are involved in the program,” Favorita said. “If you met them and talked to them you wouldn't know their past history because of the transformative powers that yoga has helped these guys with.”
Favorita said he is grateful to Proctor, who has not only helped him and the other men she’s taught, but also all the men that they come in contact with. “She has touched so many souls,” Favorita said. “The ripple effect of her compassion and the knowledge and skills and attitude that she’s taught us is extremely valuable.”
Proctor’s Yoga Bridge funds the yoga teaching credential project. Monthly subscriptions are $25 per month, or $1 per month for Vallejo residents. Subscribers have access to the instructional yoga videos that Proctor releases each week.
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- California State Prison Solano
- Prison Yoga Project
- Yoga Dana Foundation
- Anna Proctor
- Yoga Bridge
- Don Favorita
Gretchen Zimmermann started volunteering with Vallejo Open Studios in 2010, launched the Vallejo Arts and Entertainment website in 2014 and creates mixed media sculpture at Mare Island Art Studios.
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