Transitioning Leaders at Prison Yoga Project

In May, we decided it was in the best interest of Prison Yoga Project (PYP) for Nicole Hellthaler to take on the role of Executive Director. I had assumed that role when we were at a transition point, shifting from a training-focused grassroots organization to a services-focused small nonprofit. Now, we’re at another transition point as we continue to scale to meet the growing demand for our services, expanding and enhancing our impact in the world.

During my tenure as Executive Director, we accomplished much to solidify the vision and mission of PYP’s founder, James Fox, who remains the organization’s guiding force. Our achievements have aligned us with a world that increasingly values rehabilitation, healing, and restorative justice principles as it seeks to address crime, substance use, and mental health disorders—a cultural shift we support and seek to drive forward.

This leadership change is not just beneficial for PYP; it’s also a positive move for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to transition to the role of Director of Programming, Publishing, and Advocacy. This is where my passion lies. Let me share an anecdote with you from this past weekend.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and I am sitting in a small group circle in a multi-purpose room in a housing unit on Echo Yard at Richard J. Donovan (RJD) Correctional Facility. Larry Esparza is guiding us through Chair Pose. It’s his first time as a facilitator, and he’s doing great, but we’ve been in the pose for a while—a good long while. I’m feeling it in my shoulders, really feeling it. I open my eyes and look over at Ali sitting next to me. He looks back at me, his eyes comically wide; we both suppress a giggle. This is right where I want to be.

Larry’s going to be a great facilitator. I think everyone will want to take his classes. He’s dedicated to his practice, almost never missing a session in the seven years I’ve known him. He has a sage-like quality with his long braided ponytail and his gentle and wise demeanor. He’s been incarcerated since 1989. He was just 18 when he entered prison; now he’s 54, just a bit older than me.

Kayley Lofstrom is with us in the circle. She’s one of the newest members of our core team. When we initially hired her as a part-time administrative assistant, I didn’t expect that she would become such a committed partner in our work at RJD. Earlier in the day, she led the practice on Delta Yard with more than 40 folks in the circle. It was just about the best example of a Prison Yoga Project-style trauma-informed yoga practice I’ve experienced. I’m proud to be one of her mentors and grateful for her presence most Saturdays.

Developing innovative new programs like our peer-facilitator training, mentoring developing facilitators, creating videos, books, and online programs to help us be more effective and reach more people, and sharing the stories of the people I meet inside to advocate for a more humane justice system is right where I want to be.

I’ve been facilitating yoga and mindfulness practices with PYP since 2013, shortly after I began practicing yoga. My training as a yoga therapist paralleled my experience working with groups inside prisons and jails. It also coincided with my own trauma-healing supported by my yoga practice.

As the San Diego chapter leader, I grew our offerings to more than 14 weekly programs in the county. Unfortunately, COVID trimmed that back a bit, but we’re back up to nine and still growing.  My experience in growing our local chapter led James Fox to invite me to become the Program Director at the national level in 2017. He also anticipated that I would eventually take on the role of Executive Director, which I did in 2018.

When I became the Executive Director of PYP, the acceptance of trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness in prisons had changed significantly since James Fox began teaching yoga at San Quentin in 2002. James had spread the word about the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for incarcerated people around the world. More media coverage and evidence of its efficacy meant we did not have to beg to be allowed to bring a practice into a facility. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk had promoted yoga as an effective method for treating trauma in his best-selling book “The Body Keeps the Score,” and the connection between trauma and incarceration was increasingly acknowledged by the system. Facilities were starting to seek us out, and more funding was becoming available. This changing landscape led me to pivot our business model from being primarily a training organization to a services-based organization. Punitive incarceration is a failed proposition, and we needed to give the industry a place to invest in healing-centered solutions.

In June 2019, I attended the annual conference of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) and heard Dr. Richard Miller, the founder of iRest, a well-researched protocol for yoga nidra that had seen adoption by the Veterans Administration, deliver a keynote address. In that speech, he outlined five pillars that a yoga organization needed to gain traction and funding to win adoption within mainstream institutions. The program needed to be replicable with a documented protocol. It needed to be evidence-based. Facilitators needed to be certified. Outputs and outcomes needed to be monitored to ensure it was meeting its goals. And it needed to be scalable with robust business operations to support it. It was clear to me that building up these five pillars was exactly what PYP needed to do. This was the inspiration for how I charted our course as Executive Director.

I am happy to say that in 2024, we have achieved what I set out to accomplish with room for continuous improvement. We became an independent nonprofit after years of sponsorship by the Give Back Yoga Foundation. We wrote and implemented a “Program Facilitation Guideline” to document our methodology. We published and have begun expanding use of our program curriculum “PYP’s Yoga and Mindfulness Immersion.” We have an outstanding online training platform for our Foundational Training and our 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. Where most of our revenue once came from training alone, we now offer almost the same value in training scholarships so that we can support a growing diversity in our community. We developed robust financial and business operations systems. We solidified our facilitator network and implemented systems for tracking programs. And we now have a measurement and evaluation focus that centers on “Customer First Measurement” to ensure we are meeting the needs of our participants, as well as growing research evidence that directly documents the efficacy of our methodology, thanks to Josfin Wikstrom and Nora Kereks working with PYP in Europe.

The credit for these accomplishments belongs to the many people who were involved in bringing it all together; too many to name them all. In addition to James, one of the people who has been there along the way while I have been PYP’s ED has been Nicole Hellthaler. She joined us as a graduate student working on a capstone project for her master’s degree in public service. Her talents and versatility were immediately apparent, and her commitment and dedication have been proven.

I am so grateful we are able to hand off the role of Executive Director to Nicole. My prior career in corporate IT came in handy and still does, as we implemented business systems to mature Prison Yoga Project as an organization. But as good as I am at developing and implementing systems, Nicole is better at managing them. She has a solid vision to grow PYP so that we can continue to meet the increasing demand for our services and find new and innovative ways to reach the people we serve. She’s also a compassionate and pragmatic leader of people.

My time as ED for Prison Yoga Project has been so fulfilling. As I move into the role of Director of Programming, Publishing, and Advocacy, I get to return my full attention to the work itself. I am eager to work with our team to develop our programs, mentor new facilitators, and create materials to support our initiatives. I am dedicated to using my experience and skills to advance trauma-informed yoga as a therapy, serving an overlooked part of our community where I see so much resilience and potential. As an advocate, I will continue to shape the cultural shift toward a healing-centered approach. This is right where I want to be, and I am excited for the future of PYP under Nicole’s leadership.

Responses

  1. Congrats to you both!! Thank you Bill for accomplishing so much and for all the future work you will do! Nicole, you will do a great job as ED.!! .Love how both of you have filled your passion with your individual talents 🙂
    XO
    Sheri Calandra

  2. Congratulations Nicole and Bill!! I am so happy to see you both growing into your greatest strengths and I love seeing PYP continue to grow and impact so many lives! Thank you to you both for your incredible Service, Love, and Light.

  3. Jen , sorry am not able to find exactly where to write my reflection on the sanga group.(Yoga Community group) Hopefully here it’s
    Kindly note that I missed live session due to poor network connection.

    However ihave been able to follow on recordings and here is my reflection.kindly find it

    Got much exploration on breath and movement,Humana anatomy , Skelton system and poses , realised how our body can move anatomical to further mobility and strength.

    Learnt of muscles, realised there are 600 muscles in our body , primary function being to provide movement for our body, explored about five Major property of muscles,3 types of muscles and 5Types of muscles movement

    Learnt of psoas and quadriceps stretch.

    The mountain pose,forward pose,warrior 2 and 1,chair pose, locust pose,child pose and savasana.
    Also explored on human respiratory system

    Exploring much here about pranayama
    Different types of breath
    Victorious breath,breath of fire,bee breath and laughter.

    My question is ,when learning about pranayama in the weekly course resources,I noticed it’s important to breath through nose and not mouth so that to filter dirty from atmosphere into lungs by nostril hair.

    Then lion breath it encourages breath by mouth
    Kindly clarify

    Lastly demonstrate on bee breath.

    Thank you.
    Daniel Obed Masaba.