How This Once-Incarcerated CEO Found Purpose in Prison
Mike Huggins founded the Kennett Square-based Transformation Yoga Project.
Tessa Marie Images.
Mike Huggins never thought he’d write a book—or go to prison. Now, he’s done both.
Huggins was chief executive officer of Synthes, a Switzerland-based company with facilities in West Chester that manufactures plates, rods, screws and power tools to repair broken bones. In 2009, he was the highest ranking of four Synthes executives who pled guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from the company’s illegal promotion and use of a bone cement before it had FDA approval. The use of the experimental product resulted in the deaths of three patients on the operating table.
Executives rarely go to prison when medical device companies break the law, but they’re not untouchable. “Because the medical-device industry is highly regulated by the FDA, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that high-level officers of FDA-regulated companies can be held responsible for ‘public welfare’ offenses—even if they did not intend to or knowingly do anything wrong,” Huggins says.
To help him endure the two-year “purgatory” between plea and sentencing and a nine-month stay at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia and then Lewisburg Federal Prison Camp, Huggins turned to yoga. At the sentencing, he told himself, “I can’t change what led to this moment—not the mistakes at Synthes, not my plea, not the judge’s approach. I can’t change what’s coming next. There’s only this moment. For good or bad, this is the moment. I have to live in it and accept it.”
Once in prison, fellow inmates saw Huggins practicing yoga and asked him to teach them. “That was the beginning of a grassroots effort to teach other inmates the coping mechanisms and restorative benefits of yoga,” says Huggins, who’s now a certified yoga instructor.
While incarcerated, Huggins had plenty of time to think about his personal and professional future. He decided he didn’t want to return to the corporate world. Upon his release in 2012, he founded the Transformation Yoga Project, a Kennet Square-based nonprofit that serves people impacted by trauma, addiction and incarceration through trauma-sensitive, mindfulness-based yoga.
The seed for Huggins’ book began when he emailed a few friends and family members from prison, describing his daily experiences. Recipients forwarded the emails to others, and soon the missives took on a life of their own. When he returned home, his contacts in the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executive Group recommended California-based writer Walter Meyer to help him write what would become Going Om: A CEO’s Journey from a Prison Facility to Spiritual Tranquility. It’s a fitting title, since “Yogi Mike” often reminded himself and others, “Where you are does not define who you are.”
Huggins was born in 1957 in Drexel Hill, the middle of five children in a typical Irish-Catholic family with a stay-at-home mom and a college-educated father who worked for General Electric. Huggins was so squeaky-clean that even his parents called him “St. Michael.” He loved baseball and music. All the kids in the family took piano lessons, but he was the only one who stuck with it. He did well in school, receiving a bachelor’s in accounting and finance from Villanova University and an MBA from the Wharton School.
Huggins married his college sweetheart, had two daughters, and began working for Arthur Andersen. Subsequent stints with General Mills and a Boston jewelry company followed. In 1994, Huggins became CEO of Synthes, bringing him closer to home.
While navigating the hell of his prison journey, Huggins’ personal mantra was “joy, surrender, true self.” It was what he needed to tell himself for emotional support. Now, with the pressures and challenges of acting as project manager, ringleader, fundraiser and main cheerleader for TYP, he’s updated his mantra to help him relax. He takes an even breath in and thinks “self-care,” then slowly exhales a longer breath and thinks “for myself and all beings.”
Theses days, Huggins doesn’t feel nostalgic or resentful when he’s in a room full of executives. He’s made peace with the life he left behind. Several successful execs who are knowledgeable in small-business start-ups even serve on TYP’s board of directors. But his corporate mindset is still a part of him, and it can produce occasional frustration. “I’m impatient to move TYP forward, but I realize I’m the only full-time person. Everyone else is either part time or a volunteer,” he says.
Current TYP programs focus primarily on individuals in the substance abuse or criminal justice systems. Instructors annotate past and present substance abuse and chart weekly progress as their yoga students develop successful coping mechanisms. TYP hopes to serve these individuals as they re-enter their communities while giving them the opportunity to continue their yoga practice in a safe and accessible environment. “My vision is to provide a pathway where the powerful tools of yoga and mindfulness are accessible and used in a practical way to allow individuals impacted by trauma to deal with life’s challenges in a healthy way,” says Huggins.
TYP operates in prisons throughout the greater Delaware Valley area, including the six counties surrounding Philadelphia, northern Delaware and southern New Jersey. TYP also offers yoga at four inpatient recovery facilities, one hospital, three college recovery programs, five sober-living homes, and four behavioral health facilities.
TYP’s midterm objective is to expand throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Another is to secure an office—right now, employees work out of their homes. Huggins’ long-term goal is to see a change in the culture of prison through yoga.
The instructors at TYP receive specialized training and follow research-based protocol on treating populations dealing with acute or chronic trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s no music, as it may trigger adverse emotions. Certain postures, which activate the relaxation response, are included, while those that might look like sexual positions are not. Instructors wear loose clothing instead of traditional spandex yoga pants and tops.
In a letter to Huggins, inmate “Ira” shared why he loves yoga:
"It helps me in all respects—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. I am finding this especially when we do the pigeon pose. I find that when I open my right hip, I am letting go of a lot of emotional pain from my childhood. When I open up my left hip, I am able to accept all the good things I have done and accept the goodness in me."
Recently, Huggins was the keynote speaker honoring volunteers at the Federal Detention Center. When the warden shook his hand and presented him with the outstanding service award, Huggins realized at that moment that he’d come full circle and found his true purpose in life. “I’m the right person to make yoga accessible in prisons and to help victims of trauma. That’s why I’m here,” he says.