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A former juvenile lifer embraces yoga to overcome past and move forward

Off the mat: Turning a life sentence into a second chance through yoga

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - Life behind bars. It's a sentence given to people who commit some of the most heinous crimes in society, like murder. It was that crime, specifically, that would change the life of Kempis Songster forever.

In 1987, at the age of 15, the Brooklyn, New York, native ran away from home and fled to Philadelphia. It was the in the City of Brotherly Love that Songster would be involved in a violently hateful attack.

“A very, very explosive and tragic act of violence took place between myself, it was three of us, we were all children,” Songster recalled. “Two of us were 15 and one of us was 17 and one of us passed away. One of us was killed, actually.”

Songster and the 17-year-old were sentenced to life without parole, both becoming what are known as juvenile lifers.

“Which means you're sentenced to die in prison,” said Songster.

Locked Up For Life
This undated photo provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in July 2017 shows Kempis Songster. He was a 15-year-old runaway when he joined another teen in the 1987 Philadelphia drug house stabbing of 17-year-old Anjo Pryce, a fellow gang member. At trial, Songster turned down a prosecutor's offer that would have likely seen him do eight to 10 years in prison. "I think they were the youngest guys I ever prosecuted for murder. You walk in there and see that they're children and you say, 'Wait a minute,'" says Jack McMahon, who offered the long-ago plea deal and chalks up Songster's refusal to youthful bravado. Now a defense attorney, McMahon had offered to testify for him. (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections via AP)

Over a 30-year period, Songster, or Ghani as friends call him, would be transferred from one prison to the next, bound to nothing but his solitary confinement and his emotions. It was during that time he was able to self-reflect and change into the person he wanted to be.

“That 30 years of experience was a very complex experience. It was an experience, it was growth, it was misery, it was physical, sensory deprivation. I think at the end of the day, it was maturity,” Songster remembered.

Part of that maturation was spreading it to others. While he was in prison, Songster started a number of programs, including a self-enhancement and awareness group. He also started the Fathers and Children Together program to reconnect incarcerated fathers into the lives of their children who were on the outside. But it wasn’t until 2002 when his life completely changed.

“There used to be the show that came on the Oxygen channel early in the morning about 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning and called, I think it was called ‘Inhale,’” Songster said. “That's how I got into yoga. But I didn't maintain the practice.”

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It wasn’t until 2004 that he picked yoga back up, and he gives all thanks to the Transformation Yoga Project.

“The goal of Transformation Yoga Project is pretty straightforward. We’re an organization who serve people impacted by trauma,” explained Mike Huggins, founder of the TYP. “We do that through a trauma-sensitive, mind-based approach to yoga.”

“Our yoga practice, we really believe, is the best way to connect your mind and body. So, that when we say, ‘Hey, I don’t feel right,’ we really mean, 'I don’t feel right. Something is not right. I should listen to that.'”

Songster says that’s exactly what yoga has done for him. Yoga helped him realize how it felt to be insecure. After initially reading about it, he said he wasn’t sure he could actually do it. To really excel at it, he had to overcome those insecurities and be comfortable with himself.

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“This is about you not being perfect but being whole. You not being inadequate but being who you are,” Songster explained. “You’re not comparing yourself to the person on the mat next to you, who may be able to hold a pose better than you. It's about you feeling comfortable in your own skin and not even looking at your limitations as limitations. Not even looking at your physical challenges as challenges.”

The TYP left such a huge impression on Songster, he signed up to take part in its instructor training. Huggins said he was essential in making the program a big success. Brianne Murphy, the director of justice re-entry services for the TYP, says Songster always took the sessions to the next level.

“Kempis was always providing insight that took our conversations well beyond any yoga teacher training I’ve been in,” Murphy said. “From the get-go, we discuss about deep philosophy.”

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Songster was putting so much into the world around him, the world was ready to give back. A series of Supreme Court cases made it probable for him to have a life outside of prison. Thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings, he was able to get himself out of that situation. In 2010, judges banned the use of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide in the Graham v. Florida case. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole violates the Eighth Amendment. Finally, in 2016, during Montgomery vs. Louisiana, the court ruled that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability."

He’s been out for six months now and he is still working with the TYP and doing yoga, but the rest of the world is nothing like the one he left at the age of 15.

“I was reading about it. Studying about it, seeing it on TV. But it's nothing like coming out here and having to live with it. It's nothing like actually having a cellphone in your hand and having to learn on, operate it and just feeling like just you've been totally infantilized. You know what I'm saying, like, you have so much to learn. There's things that little children can do that we can't do.”

“I’m just glad that I have this, that I'm out here in this world with a deeper sense of appreciation.”

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