I’ve recently become involved, on a volunteer basis, with a small but mighty Canadian organization called Freeing the Human Spirit (FTHS). It is impossible to discuss FTHS without first mentioning Sister Elaine MacInnes, a Catholic nun who while on her first mission in the early 1960s, developed a keen interest in Zen meditation. After 20 years of living and practicing in Japan, Sister Elaine became a Zen Master. Shortly thereafter, she relocated to the Philippines where she taught meditation to a group of political prisoners who were being tortured in detention. One can only assume that this was a pivotal experience for Sister Elaine whom – as a result – became a strong advocate for restorative justice.
Years later, Sister Elaine was named Executive Director of the Prison Phoenix Trust based in Oxford, England. Prison Phoenix Trust was established in 1988 to support prisoners in their spiritual journeys through the teaching of yoga and meditation. During her tenure as Executive Director (1993-1999), Prison Phoenix Trust successfully placed yoga and meditation teachers in 86 prisons across the U.K.
Luckily for us, Sister Elaine decided to return to Canada and in 2004 founded FTHS. The goal of FTHS is simple: to bring hope and healing to inmates. The program meets its goals by pairing yoga and meditation instructors who co-teach in correctional facilities. Once or twice per week (depending on the institution) inmates are guided through a yoga sequence before they embark on walking and sitting meditation.
FTHS is entirely volunteer-based and covers its operational costs with donations and limited fundraising. Since its inception, FTSH has grown to include 70 volunteers, teaching in 17 institutions (many of them in Ontario), and is in the process of expanding across the country. Upon Sister Elaine’s retirement in 2013, FTHS became a program of the John Howard Society of Canada (although it retains its own charity number as well as a distinct Board of Directors).
Check back for updates on my experience teaching yoga at a correctional facility in the GTA, as well as future blog posts on benefits of yoga and meditation in prison.
For more information on FTHS (including details on how to make a donation to the program), please visit: http://www.freeingspirit.com/index.cfm