Community Connections

Unique Palo Alto nonprofit heals incarcerated girls through yoga and art

Mary Lynn Fitton, the founder of the Art of Yoga Project, with Rocsana Enriquez, who went through the program as a teen

As a certified yoga teacher and nurse practitioner, Mary Lynn Fitton could have chosen an easy career path. In fact, she led packed classes as an instructor at Palo Alto’s Yoga Source and her Spanish skills gave her many choices in the medical field. But this Palo Alto resident had a different vision, one that combined her background in yoga and medicine to reach a population of girls that are largely forgotten: those in the juvenile justice system.

In 2005, Mary Lynn created The Art of Yoga Project, a unique nonprofit that has guided over 5,000 girls to become stronger, more accountable for their decisions and empowered to build a new future.

The Art of Yoga Project: Using art and yoga to help over 700 at risk girls a year

AYP participants make bracelets to remind them of what they learned from yoga and art

AYP participants make bracelets with words like ‘courageous’ to remind them of what they learned from yoga and art

The Art of Yoga Project (AYP), which just celebrated its 10th year anniversary, currently serves 700 girls each year who are in the juvenile justice system in three local counties —San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

The cornerstone of The Art of Yoga is the Yoga and Creative Arts Curriculum, which combines health education, character development, yoga, meditation and art to teach teen girls how to manage difficult emotions and become more accountable for their actions. Each session, taught by AYP-trained facilitators, begins with a rigorous, strengthening yoga practice and continues with a creative arts activity that gives the girls a chance to write, paint or draw about their feelings instead of acting them out through high-risk behaviors.

Trauma-informed approach that builds on the girls’ experiences and helps channel their emotions

AYP’s curriculum is part of a new approach called “trauma-informed” care, which acknowledges the impact of the dysfunctional and often violent homes from which incarcerated girls come. According to a report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Equality, over 80 percent of girls in the California juvenile justice system have experienced at least one incidence of sexual abuse by the age of 13, a rate that is four times higher than that of incarcerated boys. The result? According to the report, “Girls in such conditions tend to respond by internalizing their negative experiences, entering into depression or engaging in self-harm.”

AYP girls doing yoga together

AYP girls doing yoga together

For The Art of Yoga Project, trauma-informed programming means implementing a curriculum of movement and expression that allows the girls to process their experiences as a first step towards helping them choose a different path.  “I started The Art of Yoga Project because I knew instinctively that yoga and mindfulness could help incarcerated girls,” said Mary Lynn.  “Now the science is emerging to show that our approach works to mitigate the girls’ negative experiences and heal the trauma.”

And trauma-informed programming is more essential every year as the number of incarcerated girls continues to rise across the country. In fact, according to a recent report, girls are the fastest-growing group in the juvenile justice system.

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Rocsana’s story: How The Art of Yoga Project put me on a new path 

Rocsana Enriquez, who was a participant in The Art of Yoga Project when she was at Camp Kemp in San Mateo in 2006, experienced the impact of the program as an incarcerated youth and is now a yoga teacher, community college student and parent. “I didn’t know anything about yoga before juvenile hall, but as soon as I started doing the poses, I felt better and relieved that I had a way to get my stress out,” Rocsana said. “Now I am learning to be a teacher for The Art of Yoga Project so I can be a role model for girls on probation and motivate them to envision a better life.”

Rocsana Enriques first experienced AYP when she was in the juvenile justice system. Now she is training to be an AYP teacher and give back to other girls.

Rocsana Enriquez first experienced AYP when she was in the juvenile justice system. Now she is training to be an AYP teacher and give back to other girls.

“It’s miraculous to see the difference…”

Julie Greicius, a Palo Alto resident who teaches writing for The Art of Yoga Project, has also observed the transformative power of yoga and art for incarcerated girls. “Yoga, with the related art and writing projects that we teach, helps the girls turn inward, get grounded, connect with their center, and express themselves,” she said. “They may be silly or agitated at the beginning of class, but often over the course of just one hour we see them calm dramatically. It’s miraculous, really, to see the difference it has on girls in such a short time. As a teacher, facilitating that is an absolutely joy.”

The Art of Yoga Project proves its impact and attracts national interest

And this impact is more than just observational: Data about The Art of Yoga Project collected through an independent research program led by San Jose State Justice Studies provides emergent evidence that AYP’s combination of mindfulness and yoga can have a lasting positive effect. Quarterly program evaluations for the last five years at AYP consistently show over 85 percent of girls reporting better emotional regulation and an improvement in interpersonal skills and pro-social behavior.

Due to these positive results, AYP has been invited to participate in a number of task forces aimed at improving rehabilitation for incarcerated girls, including a county-wide anti-human trafficking task force and the T2 (Trauma Transformed) Collaborative in which seven San Francisco Bay Area counties are working together to develop training, policy alignment, sustaining practices, and care coordination with the goal of developing a regional center. Mary Lynn was also recognized with a “Good Karma” Award by Yoga Journal, one of the leading magazines in the yoga world.

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In addition to running its three local sites, AYP also licenses its Art and Yoga Curriculum to 26 “affiliate” organizations around the country (and even Australia), who with work at-risk girls in different settings. And recognizing the long-term commitment required to help guide at-risk girls to a different path, AYP provides a yoga mentoring program that connects AYP participants with positive adult female role models who support the girls’ physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development and help them reintegrate into their communities.

Balancing darkness and light to help guide incarcerated girls towards different choices

Each yoga and art session ends with a resting pose and a chance for the girls to reflect and relax.

Each yoga and art session ends with a resting pose and a chance for the girls to reflect and relax.

The Art of Yoga Project’s growth is impressive, but what Mary Lynn has learned along the way about working with incarcerated girls is also fascinating.

“We can’t be all peace and light, rainbows and unicorns,” she said at The Art of Yoga’s 10th anniversary luncheon. “We have to get real in this work, as we are dealing with the darkest, most horrific issues that face girls in America today. They are caught in cycles of violence and victimization, which lead to addiction, gang violence, and sex-trafficking. This is dark stuff. But it is this balance of light and dark that makes The Art of Yoga Project effective.”

Learn more about The Art of Yoga Project and get involved

The Art of Yoga Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that welcomes donations to support its work helping incarcerated girls. Click here to donate, and visit www.theartofyogaproject.org to learn more.

All photos courtesy of The Art of Yoga Project.

 

 

 

About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of GreatSchools.org , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.

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