DAVENPORT, Iowa — One by one, four women positioned their bare feet on yoga mats around the drab-carpeted, makeshift studio in downtown Davenport.

“We’ll start in the Mountain Pose,” Joan Marttila, the instructor, said to begin the session. “That’s a pose where we just stand very still.”

None of the students had cellphones with them or commitments after class to disturb or distract their focus. Clad in orange jumpsuits, they walked there empty-handed from their cells at Scott County Jail for their weekly 60-minute yoga class.

Timing their breaths and testing their balance and flexibility, the group followed Marttila’s step-by-step instructions, transitioning to Warrior II, Tree Pose and other classic stances on their orange mats.

“If you feel nice and strong, close your eyes and maybe you can inhale and exhale, feeling the air hit the back of your throat,” the calm teacher continued, encouraging her students. “On the exhales, maybe you can just let the thoughts of the day go, whatever’s been rolling around in your head.”

Completely engaged, each of the inmates kept to themselves, quietly copying Marttila’s moves.

Launched in 2012 under former Sheriff Dennis Conard, staff recently named yoga the program of the year at the jail.

The restorative exercise, jail officials said, reduces the inmates’ stress and anxiety levels and improves their sleep. Many participants take what they learn in class back with them to their rooms.

“They leave centered,” said MaryBeth Wood, health care coordinator at the jail, who initiated the effort, and teaches a weekly class for male inmates. “My whole intention is to help them realize they can take a breath and hit the pause button before they make a choice.”

The Quad-City Times reports the male class is limited to 15 participants, while the female class is capped at eight.

Only inmates housed in the facility’s general population may participate in yoga, or any of the other more than 60 programs offered there, including substance abuse, money management and parenting classes, said Sgt. William Hyde of the Scott County Sheriff’s Office.

Before they can attend programs, however, prisoners at the direct-supervision jail must exhibit good behavior to move into general population. The activities and classes serve as incentives to reward the inmates for following the rules.

“As long as they cooperate and stay in the general population area, they’re allowed to attend programs,” said Hyde, who has worked at the jail for more than 11 years.

The inmate fund, which is backed by commissary sales and phone call fees, covered the expenses of mats and foam support blocks needed for the yoga program.

Additionally, both instructors, who received training at the Davenport School of Yoga, volunteer their time.

Inspired by other programs around the country, Wood underwent supplementary teacher training in 2012, led by James Fox, the founder of the Prison Yoga Project. He started teaching yoga 15 years ago at San Quentin State Prison in California. The nonprofit organization’s commitment to bringing yoga to incarcerated individuals since has spurred the development of more than 200 programs at correctional centers worldwide, including four in Iowa and four in Illinois.

The Scott County Juvenile Detention Center also recently introduced yoga to adolescents.

Although Marttila initially felt nervous about entering the jail environment, she has grown to appreciate her role and interactions with female inmates.

“I found out that it’s not the way it is on television,” she said with a laugh after a recent class. “I think that a lot of times, when we look at people who are incarcerated, we begin to think of them as somewhat less than human, but I find that many of the women here are kind, funny and really good sports.”

Marttila teaches a class at St. Peters Episcopal Church in Bettendorf, as well, but she called her time at the jail the “highlight” of her week.

That goes for the inmates, too.

Earlier this month, Linda Leitholf, 52, an inmate who is charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and violating her parole, attended her first yoga class at the jail.

“I actually feel like my spirit is lifted,” said Leitholf, who wears a gold-colored grill, or jewelry, over her top teeth. “I’m going to look forward to this if I’m here for a while.”

She accompanied her roommate, Sara McConnell, 39, who is charged with interference with official acts resulting in bodily injury and third-degree robbery.

Yoga allows her to “stretch and release some of my energy,” she said.

At the end of the hour, Marttila directed the four inmates to lay flat on their mats with their feet spread apart, their arms at their sides and their palms facing upward.

“Notice how each inhalation enters the body and each exhalation exits the body,” she said. “Feel your belly rise and fall.”

They remained in that pose, called Shavasana, for several minutes until Marttila instructed them to return to a cross-legged position.

“At the end of the yoga classes here I say a word to you,” Marttila said, noting they did not have to repeat it back to her if they did not want to. “The word is Namaste, which means, ‘I honor you.'”

“Namaste,” she said with her hands folded, bowing her head.

Responded all: “Namaste.”

When they are released from jail, former inmates may attend classes for free at the Davenport School of Yoga, taught by the studio’s founder, Jeani Mackenzie.


Information from: Quad-City Times, http://www.qctimes.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Quad-City Times.

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JACK CULLEN
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