In honor of our contract with the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) being renewed for another year, we interviewed a few members of the TYP PDP teaching team. Anna Silkoff, Megan Nascimento, Becca Curry, and Katy Kopnitsky share insight into what it's like to facilitate yoga and mindfulness classes within the PDP and why they are dedicated to bringing yoga and mindfulness practices to individuals impacted by the Justice System. We are so grateful for you all, including, our other PDP instructors: Mary Calloway, Steven Molinari, Dawn Reid, and Miles Turner!
How long have you been a TYP Instructor? What brought you to work with TYP?
Anna Silkoff: I have been an instructor for TYP for 3 years... since I completed my YTT- 200 at Kripalu. I read an article about Mike Huggins and knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of his vision. My kids had all left the nest and I was looking for a purpose in this chapter of my life. I was a children’s dentist for many years and was always drawn to treating kids with mental and physical challenges. I felt that this work helped me to become a strong, focused and compassionate person… in fact all the skills I use when I teach!
Megan Nascimento: I have been a TYP instructor since 2016. I was teaching indoor cycling 3 days a week for 3 years with an organization called Gearing Up. I finished my yoga training in 2015 and my contract ended with PDP in 2015 so I explored other opportunities at Riverside Correctional Facility.
Becca Curry: I have been teaching with TYP for one year. My passion for criminal justice reform as well as my belief in the healing powers of the yoga practice brought me to teach for TYP.
Working with the PDP can be a challenge, what keeps you coming back to teach classes?
Anna: Teaching helps me to have a purpose in my life. Serving in the PDP helps me to see the bigger picture. I sometimes get weighed down by events in my life. Teaching in the PDP shifts my focus from being self absorbed to serving a much needed population.
Megan: What keeps me coming back is seeing the smiles on peoples faces when I arrive to RCF. Consistency is important and it is comforting for our clients to know that we will be back each week. It is a great feeling seeing people get stronger and have fun while doing it.
Becca: The students keep me coming back to teach, no matter where I am teaching- at a studio, a gym setting, or in a prison facility. No matter the challenges I faced while waiting for count to clear, waiting for a volunteer officer to escort me, or some other issue standing between me and me leading a yoga practice, it was always worth it in the end to connect to the students.
Katy Kopnitsky: The “justice” system as it operates in our country, and Philadelphia is certainly no exception, operates in a way that is deliberately isolating for people caught within it. There’s a stifling of the natural human tendency to connect person to person. That’s built into the whole system. People experiencing incarceration are cut off in many ways from their support systems and communities, in ways beyond their physical isolation/removal from them. It’s cruel and I fundamentally disagree with it. And that’s a larger conversation for another time. But the work that we do is all about holding space for community and connection. It’s precious and important to make space for that within a system designed to stamp it out. I don’t make that space as an instructor, me being there isn’t it. It’s the aliveness and connectedness and spirit of community that occurs between the circle of participants who come together for class. I don’t make that happen but my job is to be in it and hold the space. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be a part of that, but it feels like something worth protecting and showing up for, that’s for sure. It’s such an immense privilege that my job is to be in community with others. I’ll never not show up for that.
What is the most surprising thing about working in the PDP?
Anna: I never stop learning from the men I teach. From a dismal situation, I am amazed how positive and optimistic they can be.
Megan: It is surprising when you see that a correctional officer seems to care about the inmates.
Becca: The most surprising thing about my teaching with TYP is that my men's prison class was my favorite to teach and they were the best students. Best students in that they listened really well and were genuinely interested in the yoga experience. Each time I drove home from these classes I was so overwhelmed with their interest and how they implemented what we learned.
What do you wish you could share most with the world about your classes and participants?
Anna: The first question people ask when I tell them that I teach in prison is “aren’t you scared of going in?" I have never felt scared... the people who come into class are very respectful and grateful to have the opportunity to practice yoga and meditation. Many of them read extensively and are very curious. I couldn’t ever see myself teaching in a regular studio…now that scares me!!
Megan: I wish I could explain that there is beauty and comfort in a place that is portrayed as being so ugly and dangerous. I wish I could share the strong female bond and connection that is felt. The majority of the women want to help and support others that have been in the same shoes as them.
Becca: I wish the general population understood that those serving time inside prison walls are also people, they deserve to be treated like humans, and most likely, they will be back in our communities as our neighbors. So many times when I mentioned that I was teaching men in prison, I would hear individuals ask why I would voluntarily provide this service. I continue to stand by my beliefs that we could all use a little compassion and yoga, no matter who you are.
If you could add any class to your schedule at the PDP what would it be?
Anna: I would love to add a class for all the families that wait to visit their loved ones. When I wait to get through security, I often see young mums with kids looking very stressed and upset as they wait. Of course, I would also love to teach the prison staff...I feel it would be very beneficial if they could see for themselves how yoga can help.
Megan: I would like to add classes for staff, re-entry classes in the Philadelphia area, and maybe offer movement and dance classes. Not everyone is into yoga and it is hard for a lot of people to sit still.