GIG HARBOR, Wash. -– After watching the women who calmly enter a prison activity room and spend two hours a week practicing yoga, it is hard to imagine that any one of them is serving hard time.
But several of the women have been convicted of serious crimes, including murder. Yoga classes at the Washington Correctional Center for Women provide an escape from the inmates' sometimes volatile lives behind bars.
One of the women, Alyssa Knight, wears glasses as she glides between yoga positions. She resembles a college student, not a convicted criminal, but she is now eight years into a 21-year sentence for second-degree murder.
"I just ended up hanging out with some guys that decided to rob somebody, and in the course of that, they shot the guy," she said.
It was a costly lesson for Knight, who was a college student at the time. But yoga is helping her put that lesson into focus.
"It's all about balance," she said. "Not just balance when you"re standing on your mat, but balance within, and a way to look at the world, to find peace in any situation."
The classes are put on by a Seattle-based non-profit organization called Yoga Behind Bars, which was created in 2007 and now offers classes to offenders in seven different facilities, including the men"s prison in Monroe, the downtown Seattle jail and a couple of juvenile centers.
"Yoga's an incredible and powerful tool for creating change in somebody's life," said Natalie Smith, who was the organization's first volunteer teacher and now serves as executive director.
The program currently facilitates 16 classes a week. The women's prison recently added a second weekly class with 50 more offenders on a waiting list.
No taxpayer money is used to fund the program. Still, some might argue that convicts serving time do not deserve a luxury like yoga.
But Lynne Newark, who oversees recreation at the women's prison, said it creates a more peaceful environment.
"It's a lot better for staff safety," Newark said. "You can't put a price tag on that."
It also prepares offenders for life after prison, she said
Irene Hauzinger, a volunteer yoga teacher, plans to research the effects of prison yoga on female inmates for her doctorate. Past studies already show it can help.
"There's just an amazing transformation that takes place with as little as four classes that drastically reduces recidivism rates," Hauzinger said.
Maryann Scales, who is also serving time for second-degree murder after accidentally shooting and killing her boyfriend, said yoga makes her more flexible and helps her feel at peace.
"This is the best day of the week," she said. "I plan on practicing this for the rest of my life because it makes me feel complete."
All the evidence Smith needs arrived in the mail. She got a letter of appreciation from a young girl who attended just one class in a juvenile detention hall.
"After the class, I went into my cell and meditated for ten minutes before I laid down to rest my body," the letter said. "It actually helped a lot."
Smith hopes more offenders will be able to take their practice from behind bars to beyond the bars.