A heart to help
Meet the mindfulness and yoga practitioner changing the lives of prisoners in Hawke’s Bay.
Words Fiona Fraser. Photography Toha Media
Kate McLeay begins reading from the pile of letters she’s received from inmates who write to thank her, and her sponsors and supporters, for the work she has done within Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison. “It has helped me out a lot through the stressful times that I have been through in this environment,” reads one. “These eight weeks have changed me for the better, taught my brain how to come to stillness, focus on the present moment and then spread that stillness and focus to other areas of my life,” another prisoner shares. And then there’s this one. “This is my first time in jail. I’m overwhelmed with regret. Until I did this course I had terrible issues with ruminating at night. I really feel like mindfulness has helped set the tone, not only to make life in jail more tolerable but for a better future for myself as a father, son and brother. Being in jail really makes you feel forgotten, and unworthy of help. It was such a surprise to find out there are people out there who haven’t written me o .” McLeay has never been formally paid for her work with the residents at the prison, which accommodates o enders in minimum security right through to high-security settings. A meditation and mindfulness practitioner who ran eight-week programmes with men serving sentences for everything from violence, to robbery, to drug crime, she believes only in their potential. “Willingness,” she begins, when asked what she’s seen in the groups of 10-12 men she’s led through her course. “And such gratitude. I really wanted these men to enjoy the same benefits I’ve had from the practices of mindfulness and meditation. I love seeing their faces when the light flicks on and they suddenly understand that, even for the few who won’t be out in this lifetime, they can still have a tremendous impact inside on the guys who will return to the community.” So, who is this woman – who radiates such warmth, empathy and hope – and how did she arrive here? McLeay grew up in Australia – a military daughter who recognised early how beneficial yoga could be to prompt calm and connection. “My mum used to practise it at the village hall, and while we’d giggle at her when she was teaching us tree pose, I think as her kids, we recognised that it really helped her. She probably had depression, although no one really talked about it back then. But what we appreciated, even as children, is that she was happier when she did yoga.” Going on to become a schoolteacher, travelling to Africa with Kiwi husband Cam and children Archer, Arabella and Xander, McLeay also learned that a daily practice was enormously beneficial to her, particularly when dealing with the stresses of leading and managing an international school in Uganda, a role she held for five years. “At the beginning of my tenure it felt very much like I was on a tightrope without a net beneath me, but my yoga practice was like an ambulance at the bottom of the cli , and on the days I wasn’t in good shape, the oldest of my children would ask me ‘Mum, have you done enough yoga today?’” Leaving her job as principal, McLeay followed that passion, training as a yoga and mindfulness teacher. And when the family packed up and returned to New Zealand for the children’s high school years, she began running classes in Havelock North. But she wanted more. “I think I really craved diversity, and feeling useful,” she explains. “So I rang the prison and said ‘hello, it’s Kate here and I’d like to do some yoga’.” That was the beginning of a rich association with the Regional Prison, and the men who live there. It became very clear to McLeay, early on in her time as one of the prison’s yoga teachers, that adding in mindfulness and meditation could greatly help inmates deal with their often complex feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness and longing. “Yoga was a great ‘in’,” she explains, “because I got a whole lot of guys coming along to complement the weight training they were doing in the prison gym. They could easily see the benefits of good breathing, stretching and recovery.” Adding mindfulness and meditation to the mix was more challenging, but the men adapted – and quickly grew to love their 90-minute sessions with McLeay. “I’d do things like mindful chocolate eating to make it accessible,” she says. “But it really doesn’t take long until they get it.” Some are gang members, many are participating in the prison’s drug treatment programme – McLeay opened her heart to every one of the men she encountered. She’d hear a lot of stories in her sessions, she says, that she “can’t unhear”, but there was also plenty of humour. “For example, once, when we talked about the science of di erent reactions in the body, such as the reactions to stress, I had someone call out ‘It’s like that sixth sense when you’re selling drugs and you just know there’s about to be a raid!’ or ‘Oh, yeah, I was being chased by a guy with a hammer once. I was pretty stressed then!’” After two months with McLeay, prison sta reported a huge shift in behaviour – men who are calmer, more at peace with their situation and motivated to be better human beings. “There was one guy that management kept sending o for a drug test because they were convinced he was on something that was making him happy. Another guy said one of his prison tutors kept asking him if he was alright, because he had been really quiet rather than acting out and being the class clown as usual. He replied ‘That’s because I’ve really learned the value in listening’.” “100 per cent of my last group signed up to continue their study of yoga via correspondence,” she adds. It’s something to be immensely proud of, but though she continues to see such progress in the men she leads through the programme, it was never going to be enough for a dynamo like McLeay. “My gold star moment came when some of the guys who had been through my programme and loved it, began to deliver it themselves. That’s exactly how it should be.” But it was still not quite enough for her. “After a while working with prisoners I thought ‘How can I help stop these guys entering the system?’ Some of these prisoners are very young men filled with potential and it’s vital that we try and stop them taking the path that leads here.” McLeay joined a whānau prosperity programme, sharing mindfulness practices as part of a five-week course, for over a year. She continues to mentor some of the programme graduates as they pursue their hopes and dreams, and has even plucked two to assist her on the wellness retreats she and her husband run at Cape South – a beautiful colonial property on rural land overlooking Hawke’s Bay’s Ocean Beach. Here, people travel from all over New Zealand to fully relax, unwind and upskill in meditation, mindfulness and yoga. It’s a low-key but luxurious vibe, full of love and laughter, with a pool and hot tub, an entirely plant-based menu, a range of massages (one of the regular therapists is Nigella Lawson’s go-to when she visits New Zealand), medicinal gardens and an apothecary and lots of heart from the team. It’s a place to stop, connect and really take a breath; it also helps enormously, says McLeay, that the cellphone reception is terrible. And although the content is di erent – catering more to stressed out executives, busy mums and the retreat-curious, the concepts are the same as those McLeay has brought to her work with inmates. A percentage of each retreat fee (a three-day, two-night retreat is $960 share twin or $1,465 for your own spacious room and ensuite) goes towards funding her community work, and the work her protégés continue to deliver within prison. During a stay at Cape South, you’re treated to stories of how your payment is helping facilitate something wonderful. It seems very much like a win-win – you’re absorbing instantly applicable skills, while supporting prisoners to do the same. “I realise I can’t solve all the world’s problems,” says McLeay with a smile, “but I can encourage others to live a life that’s peaceful, with tools to navigate the journey with a bit more ease and happiness.” It feels only right to let this prisoner have the final word. “Since doing time with Kate,” he writes in his letter, “and teaching my mind, body and soul to relax there’s been such a positive shift in me. I’m 100% committed to practising mindfulness and yoga when I’m released from this playground. Now it’s my job to snap out of being a dickhead and stop robbing banks and be some sort of role model.”