Denise Payne is a yoga teacher originally from Arizona, who ran two yoga schools in Portland, Oregon for a decade before moving to Ubud five years ago with her young son. She teaches at Yoga Barn, and runs regular teacher trainings. Four years ago, Denise started teaching yoga at Kerobokan Prison in Bali at the request of Myuran Sukamaran, one of the Bali Nine. Catriona Mitchell talked to Denise about her experiences teaching in the prison.

Denise, had you used yoga in connection with activism before becoming the in-house instructor at Kerobokan Prison?

Probably. Just not so overtly. People think I’m a super hard, strict teacher and it’s only because I’ve said “what’s the whole point of any of this if you do all this asana work… it’s really designed to keep the body fit to sit for long periods of time in meditation, only for the sole purpose of going out and serving others more effectively.” Not everyone agrees with that; they love yoga for fitness, and they think meditation is supposed to serve them in some way, but I’ve never been like that. I’ve always been an activist in the sense that this is designed to keep you centred in order to serve others more effectively.

How did you get involved in teaching at Kerobokan?

My friend Joanna Witt started Mule Jewels with Si Yi Chen [one of the Bali Nine], at the silver studio in Kerobokan. She was talking to Myu [Myuran Sukamaran, one of two leaders of the Bali Nine drug smuggling ring] one day and he said, “You know, I really want to get yoga started in here. Do you know anybody?” And she said, “Yeah, my friend Denise teaches yoga; I could find out if she’d want to do that.” So Myu and I got in touch and we worked it out and the next thing you know, there I was walking into Kerobokan.

How many inmates come to your classes there?

Between 20-30 people.

Myu & Denise Yoga CROPMyuran Sukamaran and Denise Payne at a yoga class, Kerobokan Prison


I guess yoga would give the in-mates a sense of freedom they don’t otherwise have, if they’re living in physically restricted conditions otherwise?

I guess so, though for some of them I think it’s just something different to do for 90 minutes, you know? Truthfully. I definitely don’t walk in there with any grandiose ideas about people changing their lives through what we’re doing. I think sometimes the best thing we can do is break up the monotony of that place.

At the very least the classes must be helping them deal with stress?

I don’t teach a gentle, calming class. I teach a really hard class in there – I really want them to work out and sweat. Sometimes we do more of a Yin style, and sometimes we do myofascial release, using tennis balls… but a lot of the time we’re just working on arm balances, hand stands… it’s always been my philosophy to do the hard stuff on the mat so that it’s like our training ground. We do the hard stuff here, we learn how to be joyful, we learn how to breathe calmly, so that we train ourselves to handle all that stress when we leave the mat.

Learning how to move gracefully on the mat carries into your life, and learning how to breathe effectively carries into their day. There are very few people who speak English in my class, but that doesn’t even matter because it always translates to whatever the functional purpose is for that person. It’s different for every person.

Do you get a lot of time for conversation with your students?

Yes, absolutely. I feel like those are my people. I can’t wait for Tuesdays. I walk in and they hug me and it’s like my sisters and brothers.


DeniseMyuYogaDenise Payne and Myuran Sukamaran


Are any of the students practising yoga in between classes?

I’ve had some regulars for the last four years. I do give homework too. And I’ve always done some free teacher training programs throughout the year for people – I give someone a free course where they can get certified – and so I’ve been really pushing to have teacher training start in there. Now I have two students, one male and one female.

So they can then start teaching inside the jail?

Both of them are getting out within a year, so this actually gives them their second chance. Once they get out they can go anywhere and say, “I’m a certified yoga teacher” and just forget all of that other stuff. And they’re learning to teach in one of the hardest environments possible.

Denise Payne Handstand


This is part of a longer interview with Denise Payne, which took place shortly after her return from Nusa Kembanganan, where the execution of Myuran Sukamaran and Andrew Chan of the Bali Nine, and six others, took place. That more extensive interview, on Denise’s friendship with Myu, the programs he set up for his fellow in-mates in jail, his artwork and fundraising efforts and then the heart-breaking events of last week on Nusa Kembanganan, can be found here

To follow Denise Payne on Instagram, where she has set up a ‘handstand movement’ which supports ongoing programs set up by Myuran Sukamaran at Kerobokan, click here.
You can learn more about Denise at her yoga website here.

To donate to the programs set up by Myuran Sukamaran in Kerobokan Prison, please email

Next in the UBUD’S ACTIVISTS series is an interview with Joanna Witt, of Yin Jewelery.