What is the purpose of incarceration? Some would argue that it is to punish inmates for their trespasses against society. Yet others would argue that it is to teach these maladjusted people the ways of acceptable behavior, to give them the tools they will need to re-integrate back into society, better for their time spent in prison. To give them a realistic chance of staying trouble-free with no fear of reoffending and becoming another statistic of recidivism.
I’d like to think that Yoga Behind Bars, a non-profit, believes in the latter. To help offenders become better. I say this because I am a recipient of their kindness.
I have been incarcerated for just under 26 years. Way back in 1994 while I was at the Washington State Penitentiary I got involved in a yoga class. Mostly just to get out of my cell and have something to do. Our instructor, Sandy, was a volunteer and she never missed a week. She was always positive, helpful and had a word of wisdom for you if you just listened.
I practiced yoga off and on for the next 20 years. Using it as a way to stretch out after lifting weights or to ease back pain and relieve tension.
Over the years I was transferred to Stafford Creek Correctional Center. While there I was offered a chance to participate in an upcoming yoga program. Its purpose is to teach its students how to become yoga instructors. I have taught a lot of fitness-based classes so I jumped at the opportunity to expand my knowledge.
Many incarcerated men from across the state put in their applications to be considered for the [Yoga Behind Bars (YBB) Teacher Training] program. 12 men were selected; I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate.
Those who were in other institutions were transferred to Stafford Creek, where it was understood that after the training was completed they would transfer back to their parent institution to begin teaching what they had learned.
Trying to explain the level of training I received is a difficult thing to do. I had thought that I knew what yoga was and that I had my life in order, only to find out over the next 6 months how wrong I was, on both accounts.
The training that I received was set up to be one weekend each month of intensive instruction. I took what was taught that weekend and worked with it for that whole month to make sure I had a correct understanding of it.
Our class had two primary instructors, Laura and Dawn who are truly awesome people. Each weekend focused of a different aspect of yoga. We were introduced to new instructors that would augment the session’s topic.
Rosa, the director of YBB, talked with us about the reasons YBB was interested in prisoner reform. She told us that YBB is an organization rooted in social justice, and is committed to breaking the cycles of suffering us prisoners face in our personal lives. YBBs values are love, respect, safety, integrity, generosity, community, hope and social justice. Rosa made a believer of me, that the individuals who make up the volunteers of Yoga Behind Bars are true to these qualities.
Chris came and taught us about meditation. I learned from him that the asanas, or the physical practice of yoga, is only 10% of what yoga really is. That we practice asanas so we can sit in meditation. He challenged my perceptions of yoga causing me to look deeper and learn more.
Teresa and Nari instructed us on racial and social justice. While I had a hard time grasping the concepts of white privilege, I saw the need to be more compassionate in my manners and speech towards others. Both Teresa and Nari did a wonderful job at making me look hard at myself and perceptions, and in the end they helped me become a better person.
Gordon taught us about how to teach men. How to recognize and work with the types of injuries that plague men in prison. Mostly hip, knee, shoulder and back pain. Men have an attitude to try to out-perform the person next to him, but Gordon showed me how to recognize and prevent overt competition in our students. He also taught me some compassionate ways to get my students to tell me about their pain and injuries without direct questioning.
Rainey, she is one of the most energetic and fantastic persons I have ever met. She definitely believes in what she is teaching; it shows in every fiber of her being. She also spoke of meditation. She has a unique way of using our physical (asana) practice to enhance our meditation. A way I hope to embody in my practice, and then to convey to my students. Bianca taught us about therapy and trauma-based yoga. I learned how to offer modifications to my class to keep it accessible to all people regardless of ability or limitations.
Claudette, an intense in your bubble kind of person, was great. She taught us the power of our voice. I really enjoyed her exercise of finding our natural pitch. She would stand to the side of you, having you perform an om, at uulum, in order to find where your voice naturally falls. It has helped me use om in my classes.
Our class also met with Sera Bernard from Seattle Weekly and Liz Pleasant from Yes Magazine. They interviewed some of us teacher trainees what we saw our pull as. I saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community by giving my fellow inmates a positive outlet for their energy. To be able to give them a life skill that will help equip them to life back on the streets.
As I mentioned Dawn was one of our primary teachers and she was there for most of our training. Dawn has a way with her yoga practice that I enjoyed. She could instruct you to the edge of your ability without making you struggle. She taught me to recognize when someone is n an uncomfortable or painful position and how to modify it so that it is more accessible to that individual.
Lastly and definitely not the least, was Laura. She was compassionate and caring. She was there every week, event through a cold once. She was always ready to answer one of our questions or to help us to better our practice. There is a wording that she frequently used that I have appropriated into my practice of yoga and life. She would say “do this, so that”. These four words are a lesson in and of themselves. I use them daily in and outside of my yoga practice.
All of these wonderful people reminded me what it is like to be cared about. None of them looked at me as a criminal, but rather as a person. This has had a huge impact on my life.
Bursting with all of this new knowledge and a 100-hour teacher’s certificate I volunteered to transfer away from Stafford Creek, which has an established yoga program, to Airway Heights with the help of Garridan, another graduate to start the yoga program there.
Now, almost a year after my teacher training with YBB, Garridan and I are teaching our second class at Airway Heights. It is a big hit with our fellow inmates, and most of our students keep coming back to learn and practice with Garridan and I.
YBB continues to be a part of my life, even though my training is over. They are engaged in teaching us to constantly improve our skill level.
We now have a YBB mentor, Sarah, who has trained with YBB. She comes into the prison to assist us, watch us in our classes and provides positive feedback to enhance our teaching.
I am proud of the training and continued support that I get from the volunteers at Yoga Behind Bars. It is because of them that I have the ability to make a positive impact on my fellow inmates lives. I have been given something that has the potential to affect in a real and positive way all who are touched by incarceration. Inmates, their families, friends and our communities.
So I ask again. What is the purpose of incarceration? From my unique perspective of being a prisoner, and one who has spent the majority of his life in prison. I’d say that it is to habilitate or reform us inmates into positive upstanding citizens.
Organizations like Yoga Behind Bars, and people like its volunteers make this idea more than just a possibility, but into reality.