This story was originally written for the Anchorage Press.
Darcy Stein and David Westlake, a married couple in Anchorage, have started Turiya of Alaska, a nonprofit organization bringing the practice of yoga into correctional facilities, mental health institutions and rehabilitation centers.
Westlake has been practicing yoga for nearly 20 years and Stein for seven. Westlake is also a 500 E-RYT and YACEP certified yoga instructor who teaches full time at Anchorage Yoga.
“It was mostly meditation, [the] occasional deep stretch. It wasn’t really that serious, and then about 10 years ago, I really got into it,” Westlake said.
Westlake said he is living a yoga teacher’s dream.
“I teach full time, I’m a lululemon ambassador, all this stuff, but I still felt kind of empty. What I was missing was service,” Westlake said. “You look around the world and you just can’t help but think, ‘How can I make a difference? How can I make a difference outside of the studio?’”
Westlake contacted a friend of his who worked at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, and a month later, he was teaching classes.
“The response inside the walls has been outstanding. The mental health clinicians are way into it, and the prisoners are way into it, the guards are way into it,” Westlake said.
He and Bronson Frye, an instructor at Anchorage Yoga, teach several classes there a week, one for the general pre-sentencing population and one in the detox unit.
“I got an email this morning actually asking if I could come into the sentenced mental health unit,” Westlake said.
Westlake says that it’s just him, the inmates and a mental health clinician in the classes. They have space to stand on their own mat and don’t have to worry about someone hovering over them.
Stein isn’t an instructor, but she practices yoga. She’s the artistic director who helps manage social media and GoFundMe pages. Their first GoFundMe raised several hundred dollars to purchase several locally made lavender eye pillows, which are used in savasana, or corpse pose.
“You don’t think about it, but when you take a yoga class and then the last pose is Savasana and you’re laying pretty much [in] the dark, when you can’t turn the lights off, you don’t get that extra relaxation for yourself. It’s hard to drown everything out,” Stein said.
Stein said the response from the community has been amazing. Organizations like Gaiam, the Give Back Yoga Foundation, Anchorage Yoga and lululemon have all donated mats. Even Anchorage residents have donated their own mats.
Turiya of Alaska will begin teaching classes at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward beginning on June 17. Their second GoFundMe fundraiser will go towards travel expenses for Westlake, Stein and Frye. Their summer goal is to travel to Seward four times by the end of August and provide maximum security prisoners an extensive training on the essentials of yoga.
“This training will be accredited through Yoga Alliance which will allow prisoners to start working up towards receiving a 200 hour teaching certificate,” the GoFundMe page reads.
It will also cover expenses for Westlake’s travel expenses to Vancouver, BC, where he will complete his 40-hour meditation instructor certification through Semperviva Yoga. He wants to incorporate meditation workshops for prisoners and prison staff in the future.
Westlake says that the horizon is unlimited, and that they hope to have instructors in the Goose Creek Correctional Center and the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in the future.
“Basically, anywhere where there’s residents in the prison walls, we have a yoga presence.” Westlake said. “The purpose of yoga is to participate in selfless activities. Yeah, of course we get something out of it, I mean we always do with what we do, but if you really take yoga to its fullest extent… it’s really about doing something that helps people free themselves.”