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Lifelines: How Yoga is Helping Women at N.H. State Prison Manage Trauma During COVID-19

Peter Biello/NHPR

Because of COVID-19, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections suspended all visits and volunteer services at the state’s prisons on March 16, more than 7 weeks ago. 

Nicole Belonga has been serving time at the New Hampshire State Prison for women in Concord for 11 years.

She says these efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have cut off almost all contact with the outside world, making stressful prison life even more so.

This story is part of our series Lifelines: Addressing Trauma in the Age of COVID-19

“There's no visits, there’s no volunteers, there’s no classes going on,” she says. “We’re separated by units, so we’re around the exact same people for every part of our day. So it gets to be a little much.”

But if you were able to peek into Belonga’s cell, you’d see how she’s coping. She’s doing yoga, running through a series of poses.

“The warriors 1, 2, and 3,” she says. “Pigeon pose, which is really good for your hips. The bowl pose.”

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR
Nicole Belonga participating in a yoga class at the State Prison for Women in Concord before COVID-19 hit.

For Belonga, yoga brings more than stress relief. She says she has experienced trauma, but she didn’t want to share the details. For a few months, though, when she was taking yoga classes inside the prison, she couldn’t make it through a session without crying.

“That’s my body releasing something,” says Belonga. “So I don’t know what triggers it, but I know it just sometimes comes out and I feel better afterwards.”

Before the pandemic cut off visitor access to the prison, Jen Lindgren was Belonga’s yoga teacher.  She volunteers her services through the Prison Yoga Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing yoga classes for people who are incarcerated.

Lindgren says a very high percentage of the women she works with at the prison have experienced trauma in one way or another.

“They’re not even safe in their own physical body,” she says. “And you can’t begin a healing process when you don’t feel safe in your own skin, and yoga is custom-designed for that.”

The yoga she teaches is considered “trauma-informed,” which is different from other yoga classes. It explicitly attempts to avoid any physical or emotional triggers. For example, if a certain pose or motion is overwhelming, Lindgren doesn’t force it. She says this kind of yoga really helps.

“It gives really beneficial tools for folks to be able to say, I now know who I am, I’m now comfortable, I’m now able to ask myself questions that were maybe unsafe to ask before.”

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR
Practicing yoga is one way the body can start to heal from trauma, according to Boston-based psychiatrist Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.

The benefits of yoga for trauma survivors is one of the things Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk studies. He’s the author of The Body Keeps The Score and he’s spent his career studying trauma in adults and children. He says trauma changes what he calls the “house-keeping” parts of the brain that deal with sleep, appetite, and general preparedness for threats.

“That whole system gets rewired or gets stuck in expressing and feeling like the danger is still happening right now,” says Van Der Kolk.

Once you feel safe and in control of your surroundings, Van Der Kolk says the brain begins to process traumatic memories so that they feel like they’re in the past, not the present. Breathing and movement as part of a yoga practice sends signals to the brain to calm down, which sets the stage for healing.

“At the core of trauma is that you can’t stand what’s going on inside of yourself,” he says. “So to overcome trauma, you have to actually go and meet yourself in safe situations, like a yoga studio. That allows your body to feel safe.”

For Nicole Belonga, at the state prison, yoga has helped her end toxic relationships and stop judging herself so harshly. And during this coronavirus pandemic, she says she finds herself constantly using breathing and mindfulness techniques.

“I can’t wait for it to be over,” she says. “I’m nervous about people out there, because I have a 93-year-old grandmother and family members with health issues. So I worry about them.”

Though she can’t see visitors in person, she still calls loved ones every day. She says she’s trying not to get too “in her head” or overwhelmed with the lack of contact. And she’s got a tablet in her room, where she can play music as she practices yoga.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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