The S.B. Questionnaire: Ginny Kuhn

Talking Mindfulness and Healing with the Founder of Prison Yoga Santa Barbara

Ginny Kuhn at Arroyo Burro Beach.

Paul Wellman

Ginny Kuhn at Arroyo Burro Beach.

“My offering to them is to remember what it feels to be in their body,” says Ginny Kuhn, founder of Prison Yoga Santa Barbara (PYSB). “It’s a skill set that is useful to them while they’re in prison, being cognizant of their thoughts and feelings, and it’s something that is useful to them when they get out.”

PYSB is the only agency providing yoga and mindfulness training to incarcerated youth and adults in Santa Barbara County. “This population comes from trauma, and going [into jail] and doing something that over-stimulates the system is not healing,” Ginny explains. “They’re disassociated from their feelings and their bodies.”

Kuhn believes meditation and yoga is an inexpensive form of rehabilitation, an effective way to increase successful re-entry to the regular population and reduce relapse. The nonprofit PYSB works entirely as a volunteer organization and has established strong connections with its partner facilities, including the Santa Barbara County Jail and Los Prietos Boys Camp.

“When I was pregnant with my 24-year-old son, Mitchell, I discovered yoga,” Ginny tells me. “It brought me purpose.”

Ginny was born in Flint, Michigan, but her family moved around a lot. While a professor at the University of Redlands near Los Angeles, her father taught a program abroad in Austria, so Ginny lived in Salzburg during sixth grade. “It was so enchanting as a kid,” she recalls. “We traveled all over Europe.”

After coming back to Redlands and graduating from high school, she took a year off and attended the University of Salzburg. Ginny then enrolled at UCSB and got a degree in German and business economics in 1987. “I love math,” she says, proudly explaining, “I got an A+ in calculus.” In 1993, she married her husband, Paul, and started teaching math, algebra, and geometry at Santa Barbara High School, which she admits was “one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had.”

Then her second son, Jacob, was diagnosed with autism, and the majority of her motherhood became advocating for his education and growth. She created an individual education plan for Jacob and learned a lot about how to advocate peacefully. She explains, “What I did with Jacob gave me an elevated perspective and brought me to my calling, to prison yoga.”

Ginny decided to pursue a Masters degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica. When asked about how she would use her degree in service of the world, she came up with the idea of going into jails to provide mindfulness and meditation training.

Her first classes were at the medium-security Santa Barbara County Jail Honor Farm. “I was so scared at first,” she remembers. Two years later, she was asked to teach in the high-security section of the county’s main jail, but only wanted to teach women in the beginning. “For the past year, I’ve been teaching men,” says Ginny. “In this particular class, I get the same men for 10 weeks. I get to know them.”

Like she did with her son, she customizes a practice for them, gives them homework, and frequently asks, “When were you able to experience ‘namaste’ in a relationship to someone else?” All the while, Ginny encourages the prisoners to respect themselves and others. “Your practice begins when you step off the mat,” she explains.

Ginny Kuhn answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Leaving for five weeks to go travel to Kailash, Tibet through the Isha Yoga Center, then Nepal and Bhutan this summer. It was a really big deal for me, at least on the inside, to give myself permission to go for that long and that far away. It was a whole other world.

What do you like most about your job?

I love that as a yoga, mediation instructor, and life coach that so much of my platform is mindfulness, so I love that I continually have to be mindful. I just love connecting with my students at the jail, or coaching private clients. I guess the answer is connection!

What is your motto?

My motto is to identify how you want to feel and find the corresponding thought that is believable. For example, I am moving, so my affirmation is do it with ease and grace and tons of collaboration and laughter. I do this with my coaching clients all the time and they realize they get such different results in their life if they are conscious about their thoughts and choose ones that are supportive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of perfect happiness is continual fulfillment and creativity and adventure. I realize it is an inside job and it is entirely up to me about how I choose to think about each moment, each situation, and each interaction.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear? I only get one? Off the top of my head it would probably be my youngest son's future. I have to work on that projection though. Why can't his future be terrific, right?

Who do you most admire?

I admire my husband, Paul, the most. I admire his confidence, his healthy sense of himself. He is passionate about so many things: surfing, shaping, diving, fly fishing, tennis. He is successful, disciplined, and knows how to work hard and then play. He is also so likable, smart, articulate, and kind hearted. He is definitely my best friend and confidante.

What is your current state of mind?

One of complete gratitude. I feel like so many dreams are manifesting all at once. I am just touched by life and continue to look for the synchronistic moments and say, “Thank you.”

What is the quality you most like in people?

Inclusiveness, generosity, spontaneity, a sense of of humor, and a sense of adventure. I also appreciate heart-to-heart, meaningful conversations.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Hmm, nothing comes to mind, really. Once I judge someone as this or that, then I have to identify that quality in myself.

What do you most value in friends?

Heart-to-heart conversation, no conversation and being totally present, cheering each other on.

What is your most marked characteristic?

My husband would say that I am a force of nature and don't take “no” for an answer. (I went to bat for years with my younger son when he was diagnosed autistic.) I would say I am kind.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

You know....

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be a great singer or artist or maybe be able to surf those harder waves on a surfboard with my redhead son, Mitchell. He is in New Zealand. I miss him!

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

To totally and completely accept every aspect of myself, to love it all.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My mother-in-law Laura would say the home program I created for my son, Jacob, when he was little that provided one-on-one connection 24/7 to inspire growth, eye contact, speech. I would probably say going back to school to get my Masters and starting Prison Yoga Santa Barbara.

Where would you most like to live?

Where I am. Here in Santa Barbara. Rincon Point would be awesome!

What is your most treasured possession?

Everyone! I do have beautiful art, garden icons like a boy buddha, photos of my family that I treasure.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My girlfriend, Fran, my husband, Paul, and my son, Jacob.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I admire Martin Luther King Jr. and love his famous expression " I have a dream..." He inspired, organized, and rallied so many people during the Civil Rights Movement to do the right thing, to stand up with such strong conviction and that it be nonviolent.

I attended Martin Luther Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan when my dad was getting his doctorate at University of Michigan. I love Ann Arbor, or I did as a kid.

Otherwise, I tend to be most inspired by people that are alive now. It's not just one person, really. It's the individual or collective making a difference, offering a hand, saying a kind word, sticking up for something they believe in.

On what occasion do you lie?

Probably to myself, which I need to work on. Like, I am going to drink water first thing every morning or I am going to...