Aaron Straight is a creative director who documents brave stories both domestically and internationally. His company, Soulcraft Allstars, is currently working on one documentary that combines Aaron’s appreciation for yoga and a community of women living behind the barbed fence of the Washington Corrections Center For Women.
Pacific Vim: How did you hear about Yoga Behind Bars (YBB)?
Aaron Straight: Soulcraft Allstars gives an annual Storytelling Award where we pick one story and tell it for free. Last year we were a sponsor of Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch. At the event we heard a pitch by Yoga Behind Bars (YBB). We were blown away. They are lowering the rate of inmate return (recidivism) by more than 50% for inmates who take just 4 or more yoga classes. They are also improving the lives of inmates while in prison. People in prison who participate in YBB say they are learning new coping skills. The prisons are seeing fewer infractions by inmates who participate. Prison Administration says that inmates involved in YBB show more remorse, stop blaming society, and have a willingness to look inside to figure out why they behave badly in the first place. We immediately felt that this organization’s story needed telling.
PV: Who do you work with on the YBB staff to help with the narrative of the documentary, access to prison, etc?
AS: From the beginning this has been a collaboration. YBB has a small but powerful staff and they immediately made us feel welcome and patiently educated us on their work. Together we decided what type of story would best illustrate the power of their work. We’ve been working with Executive Director (and total bad ass) Rosa Vissers, as well as the very capable and passionate, Emily Westlake. We’ve also had the pleasure of working with their very active board members, co-founder, grant writer, program coordinator, and a number of teachers in the prisons.
PV: What is the narrative of this documentary, if you can sum it up?
AS: I think YBB sums it up best, “Peace is an inside job.” This multilayered phrase describes the incredible concept behind this work. The mind, body, and soul are connected. Through the practice of Yoga Behind Bars people are being transformed and the result for our prisons and our community (as they return) is increased peace both inside the person and in the world around them.
PV: What challenges did you face while filming in prison?
AS: The hardest part of filming in prison was the paperwork. Fortunately, YBB did an amazing job of opening all the right doors. Once in prison we were welcomed by an incredibly sharp, loving, and bend-over-backwards staff. The prison staff and administrators are incredible people. They really see the value and benefits of YBB and wanted to make it easy for us to share that story with the world.
PV: Did you have any pleasant surprises while visiting the Washington Corrections Center for Women?
AS: The entire experience of filming in prison was a pleasant surprise. But I think one of the greatest surprises for me was the deep level of love and compassion that the administration and staff showed to the inmates. They are not push overs. They have to be very, very tough, but underneath that toughness is an obvious big-hearted passion for the people and the community they serve. I was impressed and moved. I have a lot of respect for the people I met.
PV: What is the goal in releasing this documentary?
AS: Our goal is to help more people in prison get access to rehabilitation so that they can improve their life in prison and hopefully, armed with new coping skills, never return. The way we can do that is by telling a powerful story that moves the public, prisons, and donors. Yoga Behind Bars does not receive any tax payer dollars. They are 100% funded by people who give a shit.
PV: How long do you want it to be? 15 minute piece or longer?
AS: We will see! We are in the middle of editing right now. The story is powerful and we need to find the right length. I think we will eventually make 2 versions: One will be a short film for the film festival circuit (15 minutes) and the second one will be an even shorter version for YBB to use for fundraising.
PV: Where can people eventually see this?
AS: Everywhere! Right? Well, eventually you will be able to see it in film festivals, Yoga Behind Bars social media and the SOULCRAFT ALLSTARS website.
PV: Can you talk a bit about how this has affected your perspective on prison reform and your general impression on judgement, second chances, innocence, guilt, hard knocks?
AS: The United States of America puts more people in prison than any country in the world. There are more than 2 million people locked up on any given day. That’s too many people. This is not a case of Americans being more likely to break the law. Something is not right. Imagine all of the families now missing fathers and mothers. Imagine all the communities torn apart. What is the true cost to our communities and to our country?
When we get scared by media and/or politicians who want to be “tough on crime” we are playing in to an abuse of power, private prison greed, and a serious lack of creativity. Tough on crime, as Seattle City Attorney, Pete Holmes says, is not necessarily being smart on crime. Being the largest jailer in the world is actually hurting our country. It is time to look at outcomes and make better decisions for the people, our community, and our country.
PV: Why yoga? What relationship do you have with the practice?
AS: For the longest time, I thought Yoga was for skinny white girls, rich soccer moms, and “sensitive” guys trying to pick up the aforementioned. Every so often, I was dragged to yoga by my wife. I couldn’t sit through the Oms with a straight face and never said “Namaste” without being ironic. Then I had severe nerve/back/spine issues. I had surgery and needed to recover. I needed core work. PT was so boring and hard to do on my own. So, I started doing some old yoga poses I remembered. I did them on my own at first, out in nature. It was amazing. I felt strong again. I decided to start going to classes without my wife. I went early in the morning. I ignored everyone and just worked on my strength, but it was when the breathing started to sync that I felt something new entirely. I found a new peace and control over my stress, anxiety, and moments of despair. It was addicting. Now, I’ll never be a skinny little pretzel type-guy and that’s not the goal, but my back, spine, nerve issues are gone and I have a new tool to improve my happiness. I am now a bona fide weirdo yoga guy “oming” and “namasting” without irony. I’m really thankful for the practice. It has changed my life more than I ever anticipated.
PV: Do you relate in some way to the influence yoga has had on inmates, or the influence for the instructor as it is taught to prisoners?
AS: When I imagine myself in prison it seems like an impossible thing to survive, physically, mentally, spiritually. I don’t know how anyone comes out of that experience a whole person capable of functioning in society. But when I imagine myself in prison with yoga skills, while it would still be messed up and very difficult, I think having a personal practice that no one could take away from me, that I could use to transform my interior would be a powerful and beautiful thing.
And what we’ve witnessed with people in prison, even people who’ve committed some terrible crimes, they can be transformed from the inside out when given the right tools. And yoga, believe it or not, is one of those tools.