Locked up for nearly half his adult life, Mark Kainuma found he could take control of his anger and quiet his racing mind through the ancient practice of yoga.

It’s a skill he has cultivated while incarcerated at Waiawa Correctional Facility.

The 46-year-old Pearl City native said yoga has given him a system of self-care and healing. He believes his commitment to bending and breathing will help him break his cycle of imprisonment and reoffending.

Yoga Teacher Lu DiGrazia teaches a class in the Waiawa Prison, Malamama Center.
Yoga instructor Louisa “Lu” DiGrazia has been teaching classes in the Oahu jail and prison system for more than two decades. This year the Legislature awarded her $35,000 to expand the program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kainuma has been in and out of prison since 1997 on charges including kidnapping and abuse of a family member.

“Yoga for me gave me an opportunity to like use what’s tangible, which is my body, to reach something that’s intangible, which is my thoughts,” said Kainuma, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

On Wednesdays, Kainuma attends a three-hour yoga class in Waiawa’s education building, where instructor Louisa DiGrazia teaches inmates how they can use yoga to reform their destructive tendencies.

(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story identified DiGrazia as a volunteer yoga teacher. While she previously volunteered to teach classes in the Oahu corrections system, she is currently being paid by the state.)

Petite with a head of bouncy blonde curls, DiGrazia has been teaching yoga in the Oahu jail and prison system since 1992. Her goal is to save these incarcerated men and women from their trauma and pain, offering new tools for a more joyful and productive existence.

She has mostly been going at it alone, promoting yoga as therapy to prisoners in an era when it was considered the sport of far-out hippies.

This year her efforts won $35,000 in grant funding from the Legislature, allowing her to recruit, train and pay four additional yoga teachers to teach their own classes in state corrections facilities on Oahu. By early 2019, DiGrazia said she hopes to quadruple the scope of the yoga program at Waiawa, Halawa and Oahu Community correctional facilities.

“Inmates are on the bottom of the totem pole for funding — that’s kind of what I’ve observed over time,” said DiGrazia, who has donated dozens of yoga mats to her incarcerated students.

“But I think more than ever the system is recognizing the value of yoga practice. This is the moment of critical mass I’ve been waiting for where so many people know about yoga and its benefits and accept it.”

To her students, DiGrazia is “Ms. Lu” — their energetic, pliable confidant. She discusses the brain-ravaging effects of sugar and what The Beach Boys really meant when they sang about good vibrations. She cracks jokes, offering to play a Led Zeppelin song before turning on meditation music.

With an encouraging pat on the back, she acknowledges her students with a whisper of, “let it go, let it all go,” or “you’re doing great!” This goes a long way in a population of men who don’t often get positive reinforcement.

Waiawa Prison, Hale Malamama with left to right, William Brooks, Dante Rackley and right, Brendan Hill laugh during the 'happy pose'.
Waiawa Correctional Facility inmates, from left, William Brooks, Dante Rackley and Brendan Hill practice what DiGrazia calls “laughing pose.” DiGrazia encourages humor as a quick feel-good fix and a coping mechanism. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Teaching Patience And Empathy

Of course, not every inmate who signs up for the class is receptive to DiGrazia’s teachings of self-discipline and proper spine alignment. But for every stiff-shouldered macho man who resists, she said there’s another tough guy in the group who’s willing to soften.

“Sometimes I feel like these guys got arrested to come to this yoga class,” said DiGrazia, who uses humor to break the ice and build trust with her students.

“Guys will come up to me at the end of class and say, ‘That’s the first time I’ve relaxed in years.’ Some of these guys have never been relaxed their entire lifetime.”

“Most people would be surprised how decent and super-intelligent a lot of them are, it’s just that they’ve been forced into square boxes where they don’t fit.”

“Sometimes I feel like these guys got arrested to come to this yoga class.” — Louisa “Lu” DiGrazia, instructor 

David Chad, a 31-year-old Waiawa inmate from Kauai, said DiGrazia’s yoga classes have taught him patience and increased his empathy for others.

Yoga also helps him focus on his own positive growth.

“We’re in here with so many personalities and everybody’s at a different level, and this helps me from getting sucked in,” Chad said. “I evaluate myself and the situation, so I don’t get involved in something that I don’t need to be involved with.”

Yoga Teacher Lu DiGrazia teaches a class in the Waiawa Prison, Hale Malamama with left to right, William Brooks, Dante Rackley and right, Brendan Hill.
DiGrazia instructs Waiawa Correctional Facility inmates, from left, William Brooks, Dante Rackley and Brendan Hill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Dante Rackley, a 39-year-old Waiawa inmate, said he found DiGrazia’s yoga class when he was searching for a new method of thinking.

At first, he was skeptical of the merits of balancing on one foot or improving his downward-facing dog. But he has come to accept these yoga techniques as valuable tools for cultivating awareness of his thoughts, emotions and breath.

His favorite part of the class is when DiGrazia instructs her students to stretch their arms up toward the sky, throw back their heads and laugh like you’ve just heard the most hilarious joke in your life.

“The reason I like it is because I was a little hesitant to do it at first because, I mean — well, you saw it!” Rackley said.

“But once you do it and you give it your all — I mean you’ve got to laugh like you just heard the funniest joke in the world. I don’t know what it does in your body, but it’s like laughter and humor is good therapy and it works.”

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