I’ve had my relations with prison.
My brother served six years; my ex- brother-in-law served time on and off for a few years.
I visited him each time he went in.
My stepbrother’s son is presently in prison for 15 years.
My ex-step son served time in a work furlough arrangement; I took him a bucket of chicken every weekend for a year (his favorite food, not mine).
My husband’s father served time in and out of the pen, and a friend of mine’s brother is on death row at Pelican Bay.
Surely, not something most yoga teachers talk about during class. Given my connection to prison through others you would think I’d never dream about being in prison, or think of it as a freer place to live than on the outside.
Yet there was a time when I contemplated committing a heinous crime, one that would ultimately land me behind bars, at least for life, with no chance of parole.
It was a long time before I was able to share this dark side of myself because I was deeply ashamed of having these feelings. I was ashamed of meditating on how to poison a banana smoothie, or how to push that certain person off a cliff while walking our dogs.
Out of fear, ignorance, and insecurity, I didn’t think about the simplest solution, to leave. Most abused women don’t.
When those awful thoughts would creep in, and serious contemplations surfaced, I’d return to my yoga mat. I can honestly say not only did yoga save my life, but it also saved the life of another.
I had been watching one of those, “Lock-Up,” shows. The women were laughing and playing backgammon during their social hour, and it seemed they had come to a true state of acceptance and actual peace with one another and their life behind bars.
From my view, the hard times they were experiencing on a day-to-day basis seemed better than my current situation. I fantasized about joining them, about going to prison, becoming really good at backgammon and teaching yoga to the other inmates.
Each time the thought to kill my ex surfaced I grabbed my yoga mat, practiced postures, calmed my mind, centered my awareness on my breath, and eventually arrived comfortably enough for meditation. I’d study the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the science of joy, and truly a blueprint to finding peace.
I came to understand one of the yogi’s ten commandments, ahimsa, non-violence, as codified by Patanjali. Every time a dark thought rose, I’d replace it with a happy one.
I began to practice non-violence in my thoughts and replaced my angry ones with compassionate ones.
After each yoga practice, I felt I could breathe again. I grew towards accepting my dark feelings with compassion rather than with judgment. As I witnessed my body changing through the repetition of the practice I came to see how I was also able to control my mind. These changes ultimately led me to understanding, and embracing, the courage it took to leave him, rather than continuing to live in my self-made prison.
There were no bars, I could’ve left anytime I wanted, but it took witnessing the changes my yoga practice had created in my body, mind, and spirit to see that I was free to leave.
Virginia Slims cigarette ad used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and I have come a long way. I now know that I could never bring harm to another, let alone take another’s life. I know I’ll never kill another person in my mind, as I so often did back then, and yoga taught me how deeply that darkness was for me.
I’m sure there are numerous people in prison feeling such depths of darkness, and even more.
When people say, “Yoga changed my life,” I smile knowing that meditation saved mine. Had I not learned the postures, so that I could sit comfortably long enough to sit with what I was contemplating, I may very well have ended up in the pen.
Meditation, and the study of the Yoga Sutras, knocked sense into my, then, senseless mind. My meditation practice allowed for space to enter in between my thoughts.
I began to respond to life, rather than merely reacting to it.
I would never have thought then that I would actually begin the process to teach yoga in prison. This December I am going for training so that I can teach yoga for those incarcerated. Though this time I will enter as a free person, share all that can be gained from small spaces, through the mind and body, by sitting and being with one’s greatest companion and teacher, the breath.
I’ll enter prison, though not as an inmate, but rather as a civilian wanting nothing more than to bring peace to prison, to people who are locked away, for crimes I just as easily could have committed.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise