Yoga Behind Bars

Gwendolyn Payton on teaching yoga to King County inmates 

Published in 2021 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

By Leslie Forsberg on July 15, 2021


For most people, Friday night is a time to relax or party. For Gwendolyn Payton, it’s time to head from her high-rise office to the cinderblock King County Correctional Facility 10 blocks away. The Seattle litigator has spent 12 years teaching yoga to incarcerated men and women as a volunteer with the Washington nonprofit Yoga Behind Bars. 

Her involvement in the program, which was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, was sparked by a concern over the rise of incarceration in the U.S.

“Over years of reading, I became more deeply concerned about levels of incarceration and the disparate impacts on minorities and people without resources,” says Payton, who was already a longtime yoga teacher. “It clicked: Not only do I have this calling, but I have the skills to do it.”

For the inmates, yoga can help instill a sense of calm. “I observe that it gives a sense of realization that they have the ability to take control of their lives and change, if they so choose,” she says.

It’s a time-consuming commitment. It can take an hour just to get through all the doors, security, metal detectors, ID checks and check-ins with correctional officers. Then there’s the yoga room: cold, harshly lit and grimy around the edges, with windows that look out onto a bustling hallway. Not exactly ideal.

For most of the students, wearing slippery nylon jumpsuits, it’s their first exposure to yoga. Many are homeless, indigent, challenged by mental health problems, and often angry at a system that makes them feel insignificant and powerless. 

“A lot of people there have been dealing with a massive lack of respect in life. I meet them where they are, and I try to do that with full respect,” says Payton. 

While she sometimes sees interest, connection and growth in her students, Payton has learned to wait and see. “The guy validating it for me may be good at that, but the guy fighting with me may be going through the most incredible transformation,” she says. “If teachers get too oriented to results, it will burn them out.”

When it’s clear a student is struggling emotionally, Payton will sit by that person, breathing slowly, lending silent support. 

“I’ve been told by the correctional officers that we make a material impact on the quality of evening after we’ve been there,” says Payton. 

The program wouldn’t be successful without the support of the correctional officers. “[Some] could look at us as ‘save-the-whale,’ types,” she says, “but when they observe what we do, observe our commitment and longevity, they turn around.” 

The yoga teachers, who are all volunteers, are another essential element. “They are the program,” Payton says. As one of the longest-tenured teachers, she recruits and trains new teachers. 

It’s a sharp contrast to days spent defending class actions as a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. The temporary suspension of the yoga program at King County’s jail during COVID doesn’t mean Payton has forgotten about inmates; she continues her pro bono work, focused on serving individuals facing death sentences. She’s currently working on a Texas case involving a murder conviction against a Black man from Louisiana; she believes evidence was withheld.

And she’s looking forward to the day she can resume her jail classes. “Yoga is a very powerful tool for transformation in people’s lives,” she says. “After every single class I walk out so grateful, so happy I’ve done it. It’s a transformative process for me, too.”

Gwendolyn Payton on Skills Needed to Teach Yoga and Practice Law

  1. Convey information clearly and effectively 
  2. Command the room 
  3. Listen 

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