Yoga Behind Bars is a nonprofit organization based in Seattle offering yoga and meditation classes to men, women and youth in jails in Washington State. At the heart of the organization is a group of dedicated volunteer yoga teachers who lead yoga classes behind bars. We have asked eight of them about what they have learned from their experience leading these yoga classes. Here is what they had to say:
I’ve learned that our jail house bars are made of concrete, steel, misunderstanding, and unskilled suffering. I’ve learned that yoga offered with palpable presence and sincerity has the energy to transform a room of disharmonized, protective, wounded men into trusting, playful, engaged brothers eager to get in touch with the sacred within. I’ve learned that when an inmate’s curious heart watches itself without judgment or expectation it is quickly greeted with expansion and truth. I’ve learned that no amount of sugar or shopping can invigorate or hearten me like going to jail. The privilege of being invited in to where people can’t get out to share my nervous system and this tradition is beyond the beyond. I’ve learned that when our life situation peels us down to the real and the raw, and we’ve lost the energy of resistance, the translucent glow of grace generates like a new skin.Hasna Atry (King County Correctional Facility)
I teach in the King County Jail. One thing I keep learning over and over teaching in jail is to never judge what a student is gaining (or not), or think I know what a student is experiencing during class. Time and time again, the students who seem the least receptive and open during class actually prove to be the ones who are experiencing the yoga on the deepest level. As teachers, we can get lulled into thinking we “know” how people are responding and what they are experiencing, but we truly don’t. Their journey is truly their own – not ours. Sometimes the most compliant and eager students who look “good” and seem to be getting it are really only working in the shallow waters, whereas the ones who are difficult, resistant and battling through the deep waves, even maybe fighting the yoga a little, are having the most profound transformations. One quick story: A few weeks ago I had a student named Miguel*. It was tempting to quickly judge Miguel – he was covered with intimidating prison and gang tattoos all the way up his neck and onto his face. He had tattoos on his eyelids and tear drops on his face. He seemed angry, withdrawn and hardened. During practice, he didn’t appear receptive – in fact I sensed some hostility from him. I assessed and judged him as a student I failed to reach and frankly, would have forgotten him. But to my surprise the next week, Miguel walked into the room while I was setting up. He looked concerned and urgent. “Hey what’s up. I remember you from last week.” I said. He responded earnestly: “I am really disappointed because I can’t come to yoga. There is no room. The officers called the lower tiers first and I’m on the upper tier. By the time they got to my tier, it was full. I want to tell you why I am not here.” I was shocked – I had judged him and thought, as the teacher, was privy to the quality of his experience. Again, I was so wrongGwendolyn Payton (King County Correctional Facility)
*name changed for confidentiality
The privilege of teaching the maximum-security incarcerated teens at Echo Glen over the years has taught me that offering yoga with kindness, humility, and dignity can coax even the hardest hearts into being open to the simple tools of healing that yoga offers. Being seen as divine souls and feeling sacred, safe, and cherished is a new experience for these children, many of whom are considered lost causes, throwaways, if you will. Practicing meditation, challenging asana, pranayama, and deep relaxation in a space that suspends shame and judgment and offers a bit of humor and camaraderie truly brings a light to every cell. As a young student expressed while in child’s pose recently: “This feels like heaven,” reminding me that pure joy can be found in the darkest of places!Bonnie Dike (Echo Glen Children’s Center)
It was the evening of a New Moon… which is what I told the men as we began class. I opened the class as always by asking what they needed tonight. As we went around the circle I heard the usual physical issues, low back pain, shoulders, knees, etc. I had one student say that he was suffering from a broken heart and was hoping for some spiritual healing through Yoga.
This led me into the discussion of the New Moon. I told them that the New Moon was a time of turning inward, self reflection and setting intentions to create new patterns and habits. I shared with them how a quiet, meditative Yoga practice is perfectly aligned with the power of the New Moon and I talked a bit about the spiritual and meditative aspect of Yoga as opposed to the typical physical practices that most of us are familiar with. Within a few minutes the men were asking questions and then began a conversation, almost among themselves, about spirituality and the ways that one can connect with a higher power. I just sat there in awe of the conversation. They spoke in turn, did not contradict or interrupt each other and seemed to really be engaged in listening to each other.
Needless to say, we spent most of the class doing a very gentle, introspective type of class with a lot of intention work. At the end of class the energetic state of the group was profoundly different.
Every time I leave this class, I have the overwhelming desire to come back, again and again to continue the work. I am constantly reminded that each and every person I encounter in life has something to teach me, and in particular, in the jail, that my heart can be open in the most unlikely of places.Julie Dean (King County Correctional Facility)
Teaching yoga in any setting is a tremendous and powerful experience, but teaching yoga behind bars is a gift. I give five hours of preparation for class, arriving, teaching and commuting back home.These women give me their attention, their trust and their lives for ninety minutes each week.
Behind Bars we are free of the distractions that pervade life on the outside. Things are clearer and less muddled. There is only that gym full of women who are there for the purpose of doing yoga. Some may not even know what yoga is but they make a choice to show up and that is huge. If we just keep showing up the rest falls in place. This is a fundamental truth both behind and outside of bars. I hold their curious, sometimes nervous, precious lives in my care for ninety minutes and it never fails that I walk back to my car knowing that in the end… I was the student.Jill Newsome (Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women)
As the very wise Rainier Maria Rilke once said, we have to “live the questions.” My experience teaching behind bars has spurred a deeper one for me: What is freedom?
We’re all doing time in one way or another. The only real freedom comes from an internal place, independent of outer conditions. One can roam the wide world with no restrictions and be incarcerated within. One can be surrounded by people, and yet exist in solitary confinement. One can be locked in prison and be as free as a bird. It’s absolutely humbling.Janell Hartman (Monroe Correctional Complex)
Each time I teach at Washington Corrections Center for Women or Monroe Correctional Complex, I am grounded in the essential gift of the yoga practice: through body and mind joined we can open, accept and understand. Through awareness of the body’s alignment and energy pathways we connect with the mystery and power of all life and death. This brings a clarity and a peace that is of the origin and the infinite. I am deeply, deeply grateful for experiencing what this means to these incarcerated individuals and to remember what it means to me. Vanessa Skantze (Washington Corrections Center for Women & Monroe Correctional Complex)
Each time I teach a Yoga Behind Bars class, I remember why this type of rehabilitation is so important. Being present is crucial when one is confined in a cell for the majority of the day, often contemplating why they made “that” mistake. I often ruminate at the trails of life and my students encourage me to be grateful for each moment. I have the opportunity to improve the daily lives of my students by bringing them an hour of peace and feel extremely lucky to do so. Ferrah Roberts (Echo Glen Children’s Center)
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