One of the great gifts of yoga is in opening to the mystery that is living itself through our lives. Saying yes to this mystery, we say yes to the full participation with life: each inhale opening; each exhale, bowing to the ocean of this mystery. From this viewpoint, all I see around me becomes the divine mystery, manifesting itself in these many, many forms. Seeing the world this way gives a poignant and sweet sense of intimacy with everything, a boundlessness of heart.
Rilke once said:
“…The infinite—what is it?
If not intensified sky…
hurled through with birds
and deep with the winds of homecoming…”
When we know that we are this boundlessness, the sky through which birds roam, and the great, deep doorway for homecoming, every action becomes a gesture of this intimacy, a gesture of homecoming. This is why I teach in the prison; and it is what I hope to offer there.
I’ve been teaching bi-weekly yoga classes at a local correctional institution for the past year. The classes began in the TV room of Unit 2.
On the first night, I walk onto the unit in my new sweat pants, assuming, rightly so, that tights would not be in order. Though I only stand an inch over five feet tall, I am immediately sized up. I tell the officer why I am here. He announces the class to the bustling unit of card-playing, walkman-listening, hair-styling women. No one changes stride. I ask the Officer to turn off the TV for yoga class. I go in to the TV room as women walk out past me. I put down my yoga mat. And then with nothing more to do, I do what I often do when I am nervous. I do yoga. I stretch into prasarita padottanasana. As I stand with my feet wide, bent over at my hips, my head on the floor, breathing deeply, a couple of women ease into the room. They’re checking me out. Finally six women come to stay for class.
We say hello and introduce ourselves by first name. No other biographical information is expected or given. I have no idea what their lives have been like. In fact, the only construct I might use to imagine what their lives are like is based on TV, media, movies, etc., from my childhood. Somehow my conscious mind knows this won’t be helpful—and I manage to meet them with an empty mind. I feel neither sorry for nor afraid of them. Because I haven’t generated ideas about their situation, I am able to meet them in a freshness that allows me to teach as I always do, from my heart. I tell them that when we are in class, we will be in class together, meaning together. We are here to support each other. The only requirement for them is that they respect themselves. They can like or dislike yoga, or me, or each other, or the food in the cafeteria—but in yoga class they will come with respect for themselves and their bodies. Everyone nods. And we begin.
The unit holds seventy women. Sixty-four of them are just outside the TV room talking, laughing, doing laundry, shouting across the unit to the officer. The lights in the institution are incredibly bright. The TV room has windows on all sides, with a view of the unit, the hallway, and the institution. There is a TV hanging from the corner wall; the room has no other furniture, no decor at all. Blank. For me, it’s a noisy place; a too-shiny, bright-lights place; a cold, still, blank-room place. No soft music, no blankets, no yoga mats, straps, or eye pillows. None of the usual yoga trimmings. We have only the essence of yoga here—an invitation to homecoming.
The first class goes really well, all in all. The women walk out looking tranced and relaxed. Literally, though they wouldn’t tell me for some time, they became entranced with yoga in our very first meeting. Despite all of the possible distractions of unit life, or perhaps because of them, the women who came to yoga class were able to focus remarkably well. For people who had never heard of or done yoga before, they asked me incredible questions: questions on the anatomy of breathing, and how it helps you relax; questions on strength and relaxation, and how you can develop both at the same time.
At the end of our first class, I led them in deep relaxation and encouraged them to experience each breath as a gift. The breath offers itself to life, to each of us, unconditionally, be we rich or poor, young or old, within the walls of prison, or on the outside. The breath is a reflection of our innate vastness and freedom, like the sky “hurled through with birds.” And it is our doorway home. As unconditional as the breath is, we come to realize, so too is our innate freedom. It is this freedom, I tell them, that can never be taken away. It is this freedom that is so overlooked and forgotten. Here I invite them to let each simple breath remind them of the freedom and homecoming that lies within.
I tell them I will see them next week.
And indeed I do. The same core of women come to yoga class two times a week. They are always ready when I arrive, sitting on their mats in the TV room. Since yoga is a regular event now, the TV is usually turned off before I get there. They are eager, inquisitive, and soak up everything I can share about yoga, including the language of yoga, stories about yoga, and so on. As we progress through yoga poses, they watch themselves getting stronger, feeling more balanced, breathing more deeply. Reports are even given about how one student used the breathing practice to help out in a heated situation with the woman in the bunk next to her. And how breathing before bed is helping them to sleep better at night—as they focus inside, the noise of the unit fades, and they can hear the still, quiet place in their own hearts.
The joy they have for yoga becomes contagious. They often bring a friend and regularly recruit the newest unit resident to come along too. A natural mentoring begins to happen as the “regulars” teach the new women about the structure of class… where the mats go, how they should lie down to begin, that it all gets easier with practice, and what the word Namasté means.
The truth is we are not just having a yoga class when we do yoga together. The women are finding a circle of support. We are a community while we are together. We laugh hilariously, moan about hamstrings and bedsprings, sit quietly in gratitude and cheer each other on.
People often ask me if how I teach in the prison is different than how I teach outside of the prison. Granted, the location is very different, the level of education is also generally different, and the level of exposure to yoga and meditation is definitely different. But the longing for freedom, the deep calling to connect with the mystery, to feel at home in our own hearts, the longing to understand the deepest, most elusive aspects of ourselves—these longings are the same. The way I teach in prison is very much the same way that I teach outside of prison. Except that I don’t wear yoga tights or give out my phone number. I do not take lightly any references to the anger, confusion, rage and frustration that the women in prison often report about their weeks, their day, the interaction they just had. I am sensitive to everything they share. And I respond to their concerns from the same yogic heart that I respond to my own. I don’t censor myself in my teaching, nor in my life. I flow between being candid, being a sister, being a guide to the timeless wisdom of yoga, and being a friend whose life is unfolding with turbulence and grace.
People ask me what I hope to teach these women. Sometimes people who hear about these yoga classes get riled up and supportive of the differences I must be making in these inmates. Sometimes the talk turns to recidivism, crime rates, education, prison crowding, the misnomer of the word “correctional.” At the moment, I have almost no comment on these social, political, and cultural ailments. The truth is, I don’t hope to teach these women anything. I don’t profess to know how the world needs to change, I only want to be in service to its highest dharma. In these prison classes, I only hope to come together as sisters on the path of life. And if the practice of yoga touches their hearts and bodies as it has mine, each woman’s inner transformation will naturally guide them to their highest dharma. Each time I walk into the prison, I enter their community. And for the short period of a yoga class we step into a circle together that reminds us of our innate worthiness, our innate freedom and our inter-connection with all life.
Runnin’ and Bein’ Still
The first night Sherisa came to yoga class, she was wired and nervous. She told me she’d been bouncin’ off the walls, and was hopin’ yoga could help. “What’s got ya’ bouncin’?” I asked. She just found out she’s leaving in 30 days to go home, she’s graduating from her Women In Community Service program, and gonna be livin’ with her sister and brother-in-law. As class gets going, it’s clear that Sherisa has a hard time focusing. We spend the first 5 minutes just centering, breathing, relaxing, getting in touch with ourselves. As the more active yoga poses begin, I get to hear about Sherisa’s past experiences with drugs and her current experience with liver pain and other drug-related health problems. Her talk gets Tracy going on about her drug highs. I let them speak freely for now. As we ease into a difficult standing pose the room gets quiet. Out of the silence, a sincerity arises, from which Tracy says “I’m sure glad they got me on that last run.” Sherisa adds, “I’m glad I ain’t runnin’ anymore.” We come out of the pose and change sides. “This feels way better than runnin,” she says, “I gotta get grounded.”
Class moves about like this tonight. I choose poses that ground their attention in their bodies. The conversation has never centered on drugs before, and I wouldn’t want to censor it now. I simply let the yoga carry them. At the end of class, Sherisa’s in savasana (relaxation pose), eyes wide open, looking around like a child at the amusement park. To herself she says “Whoa.” To me she whispers, respectful now of everyone else’s quiet, “No drugs ever felt this good.” And after a long pause, “I never felt this good!”
We sit quietly in meditation for a few minutes at the end of class. I tell them the greatest high they can ever have is from being grounded in the center of their own beings, connected to themselves. Coming in to their hearts and bodies this way, they will find the source of freedom and happiness. They fold their palms at their hearts; bowing to honor each other, we say “Namaste.”
It’s at this point in class that a new student, beaming with the trance of yoga, will ask “What? What did they say?” I always invite Rachel, the most consistent student, to answer them: “Namaste means I honor the wisdom and radiance within you which is also within me.” (Our lay person’s translation.) To which I add: “When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, then we are One. Then we know our sisterhood. And we have respect and gratitude for each other.”
As I walk out of the prison tonight, the sky is wide open, the air is quiet. I have a strong glimpse of what sisterhood means, of what it means to be a part of something larger than myself. I have the sense that the women in class touched in to this as well. I drive home in quiet, feeling connected to the lives around me.
Who’s Winning Anyway?
When I get to class tonight, there is lots of upset. Rachel had a run-in with an Officer over when she can do her laundry. This is the second week in a row that the turmoil of prison life feels thick.
Just last week, as a group, we got reprimanded because the women were wearing their shower shoes to class instead of their running shoes. They were upset because they felt like it was just one more power trip. That one, however, could have been enough to make us lose our yoga privileges. In that skirmish, I got to see just how important yoga class is to these women. It wasn’t so much what they said, as in the passion with which they said it. Each agreed that, be there a war over which shoes to wear or having yoga, they would raise their white flags and put on their running shoes.
When I come in tonight, with tension in the air, we spend the first 15 minutes of class talking. Rachel feels like the power struggles are all for the pleasure of the Officers to win. What really pisses her off is that these power plays come at times when she’s doing really well. As she is generally a bright mark in the class, it surprises me to see her this upset. She consistently offers encouragement to others, asks really relevant questions, brings new inmates to the class and maintains a positive attitude more easily than most of the women. She even practices the yoga poses in her free time. Since I have known Rachel, I would say she is on a steady incline of “doing well.” She’s lost weight, grown stronger physically and mentally, and is managing a healthy level of self-discipline in many aspects of her life, though she is in prison. A year later, she is also the only woman who came to the first class who still lives in this institution, the others having been released. She’s seen a lot here, and is a familiar face to the Officers. All of these things added together make her confusion and hurt run deeper. Tonight she expresses her feelings about the Officers and the power struggles she experiences in the every day, many times a day, life of prison. I can’t help but hear how little support she feels she receives from these Officers, the people who daily have the chance to notice, recognize and encourage her achievements. Simply put, she doesn’t understand why they can’t just leave her alone when she’s doing well. “Why do they have to play these games with us? They’re always winning,” she tells us. “We’re like pawns in the game just for their enjoyment.”
I look right into her eyes, and the eyes of the other women. “Whatever the circumstances are within or around you, no matter if the officers are right or wrong here, I don’t know. But what I do know is that when you stay firmly connected to your own center, your center of wisdom and kindness, you will be winning in every situation you find yourself in.” There is no longer a battle, I tell them. And we can never really know why one person acts cruelly, another with kindness, one with wisdom, one out of ignorance. But what we do know is that the one who acts with kindness and wisdom is winning in every situation. The greatest losing you can ever suffer, I tell them, is losing yourself.
They lay down, and we exhale into the floor, beginning to unwind for tonight’s yoga class. It’s a strong class. Everyone brings focus to each pose, and they are taking their breath sincerely. We practice two of the warrior poses that they have learned. As we do these strong, steady standing poses to each side, I remind them that the greatest warrior is the one who stands in her own heart, the one who doesn’t need to go into battle at all.
Dignity and Outrage
This week when I arrive, there is a definite air of distress in the units. Our class has moved to a classroom downstairs to give the women more quiet, and to allow women to come from the other unit. My process now is to come in, walk up to each unit, gather the women who want to come to yoga class, and escort them down to our classroom. It is tense on the units as I arrive. I let the officers know why I am there and then I am immediately greeted by Susan. She wants to know if she can come to yoga class, and asks if it’s okay if she’s overweight and out of shape, and what about this and that, and the other thing . . . . After I tell her, “Of course, you can come!,” she confesses that she’s been checking me out for the last few months. She’s become assured that I’m somewhat normal, and that I seem nice. Susan then tells me what a lousy day it’s been on the units, what with the raid and all.
It was noisy enough on the unit that it’s not until we get down to the classroom that I understand to what Susan was referring. Today they had a raid on Unit 2.
With this in mind, I begin them with simply breathing and centering. I invite them into the sanctuary of their own hearts, into the place in them that can never be taken away, disrespected, or shamed. In this mysterious life, many difficult situations will come, sometimes without rhyme or reason. I invite them to live in the dignity of their heart’s truth, to live in the freedom of self-respect, so that no matter what comes and goes, no matter what others think, or appear to think, there is a seat of dignity, kindness and wisdom that is theirs. It’s not to stand above others, for that would be playing the other side of the coin. But simply to abide in love and dignity.
The yoga poses I choose tonight are carefully thought out. I don’t want to choose poses that expose too much vulnerability. And I don’t want to move so slowly that their minds wander into the events of the day, their minds have already been stewing all evening. I choose strong standing poses, shoulder openers, and sun salutations. Heather asks me about sun salutations. And when I tell them that the sun salutation is the body’s way of praying, of giving thanks, the room grows quiet and more sincere. Through the sequence of the poses, the outrage dissipates. A brightness begins to surface in the room, as when the sun comes through the end of a storm.
I am impressed with their willingness to give in to the yoga. Just as the breath gives itself to us unconditionally, I tell them, so, too, the yoga poses give themselves to us unconditionally. The more we give ourselves to the practice of yoga, the more it gives itself to us. And when we open ourselves fully to this, or commit ourselves to taking refuge in this, in this celebration of yoga, we get in return the greatest and sweetest gift we can ever find … the freedom, dignity and compassion of our own hearts. It is from this seat that all our actions become gestures of kindness for ourselves and others.
At the end of the class, we sit quietly. Susan, the newest student, says “This feels so normal.” I respond that yoga should feel normal, like breathing, eating and sleeping. She changes the emphasis of her statement, “No, I mean, this (pointing to herself) feels normal. I feel normal. Not like prozac or group counseling or anything at all. I just feel like a normal person. It’s amazing,” she continues. “I mean really I could cry. To rejoice and to cry.”
I walk them back to the unit, noticing that they stick a little closer together on the way back, bonded somehow by the day’s events. A tender-heartedness is in the air. Susan asks me how she can hold on to this feeling, how she can keep this as she goes back to the unit. As I answer, I see understanding in her eyes. “Don’t hold on to this feeling. Instead, let it hold you. In every breath, taste your innate freedom, your ‘normalness.’ It’s in you always. We are just lucky tonight to share it together. Every time you find yourself forgetting, come back to your breath. Your breath is given to you completely, unconditionally. As fully and freely as you open yourself to it.”
Before we get into yoga class tonight, the women are sharing their strategies for keeping track of how much longer they’ll be in prison. Liz will be leaving soon. It is actually her anxiety about leaving that sparks the conversation. She says she can’t bear to think of what day it is, nor to torture herself with counting the days. Rachel strategically counts only every ten days, so that she crosses off a third of the month on her calendar at once. A gratifying swoosh through ten whole days! Melinda only counts Mondays. She has 17 Mondays left. Mary has been counting only retroactively by how much weight she has lost, totaling 44 pounds so far. (Of all the counting schemes, I am least sure of how Mary’s works, except that she is determined to lose 50 more pounds before she leaves. So her method is working for her as an inspiration not for counting lost time, but for counting each step to regaining her health.) Theresa counts only the days between visits with her husband, starting over at one after their weekly visit.
How many of us are counting out the unfolding of our lives? The number of children, houses, cars, numbers in the bank, job changes, days in the week, days before Christmas, numbers of calories, grams of protein and sugar, the number of pounds to go before we will like ourselves on our vacation, the number of days of vacation, the years before retirement, the years before we get our driver’s license or graduate from college, and so on. There are innumerable ways in which we evaluate ourselves and measure our distance along some invisible path. The real freedom isn’t in finally measuring up, but in letting go of measuring altogether. Sharing this vantage point with these incarcerated women sparks interesting conversation. In many ways, they understand the rawness of giving up all systems of measurement and cutting yourself free. In fact, that’s how they describe the moment when they will leave the regulations of prison life. They equally seem to understand that to the extent they can stay comfortable in that unknown, they will stay free of prison. It’s when they take on their old identities and habits that they will either be imprisoned by their lives again, or actually legally imprisoned again. They are all clear that they want to be free. They are not quite sure what that will mean. But is any of us?
From time to time, one of the women in class is released from the institution. I am always honored to hear that yoga, relaxation and breathing are part of their self-care plan. At the end of class tonight, Theresa announces that she is confident that with yoga, she could stay off of drugs. In fact, yoga will be her new habit instead! Liz, who will be leaving in 40 days, has written yoga into her care plan, and has already researched yoga instruction in the town where she will live. I blush as they tell me that I am their “yoga hero.” We joke about designing a cape with a big Y on it!
A Jailed Innocence
I have mixed feelings in writing about these classes. On the one hand I want to share the joy I find in teaching classes to these women. It’s not the joy of being of service, though that’s part of it. It’s more the joy of being with these women in their innocence and openness. It’s as if they are mid-way in a stream, changing current, and we are each buoyed by the others’ triumphs, be they stronger abdominal muscles, or greater self-kindness.
On the other hand, I hesitate to write because somehow just writing about it can never describe the experience of how we are together. On paper, it is difficult to express the connectedness that transforms us all in Classroom 4, where the women from Unit 1 and the women from Unit 2 and I come together for yoga. There is a sisterhood that is palpable.
When I walk through the halls at the prison, my eyes don’t make distinctions between this one who is free and this one who is incarcerated. My eyes don’t see this one who was wrong, or criminal, or evil, or angry, or lost, and this one who has it together. I have the sense of walking into a community, of which I am a part for a short while every week. I have this sense of watching these lives unfolding in their individual streams, yet converging in the great ocean of life. Having lived in community for four years myself, at Breitenbush Hot Springs, I have a sense of what it’s like to roam the paths (in my case) or to roam the halls (in the case of this prison) with each person playing their role in the community. Inmates, officers, social workers, visitors, counselors, ministers, a yoga instructor. There is a whole village going on in the prison. Which of us truly knows our freedom? Who of us is incarcerated by our own minds and hearts?
Rumi once said, “Fish don’t hold the sacred liquid in cups, they swim the huge fluid freedom.” When humanity learns this swimming, then ideas of self and other, of freedom and incarceration, begin to fall away. When humanity discovers this huge fluid freedom as its very nature, there will be no need for “corrections.” This freedom is self-correcting. For now, may we simply open ourselves to the possibility of this fluid freedom, and follow the deep calling home.
Out beyond ideas of right-doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.