February 8, 2011

Yoga and Forgiveness in Latvian Prison. ~ Ilze Jece

A yoga workshop in a Latvian women's prison. Photo by Ilze Jece.

Stretch your body and transform your mind.

I recently spent over four months working with three prison groups in a women’s prison in Latvia supported by the Louis August Jonas Foundation, delivering workshops on personal development, holistic health and compassionate communication. I incorporated yoga and meditation sessions into my work to help the women stay emotionally and physically fit, empower them to transform their old ways of being and encourage them to relate to themselves and to others in a more compassionate manner.

By providing the women with the chance to experience a personal bodywork session—to find than inner place of peace and love, to get to know the importance of a healthy touch to the body and soul—we all forgot that we were behind bars, losing our present reality in drifting meditations, humor filled conversations and acrobatic trust exercises. We sang, laughed, shared stories and dreamt together, forgetting all our emotional and physical baggage.

Many in the outside world doubted what I did. I was not understood, condemned for my work. They would have rather I chose to work with abused children, women, men, animals—but not with those “who deserve it the least.” Throughout the project time, I discovered more and more the great power that lies in being able to forgive and let go of any judgment that arose while working with prisoners. As I was delivering these workshops, I thought of how these women had life stories I could only guess at—could imagine, but never fully understand. Some of them probably committed a crime that I would judge as a horrible act of violence.

But if I thought in these judgmental terms, I wouldn’t have be able to teach them anything, or have open conversations with them. I would certainly never have been able to fully trust or feel comfortable being around them. Thus I had to let go of the mind and lead the workshops with my heart, maintaining the best intentions in any situation that appeared in the process.

Some of the women I massaged were probably HIV positive, as I frequently saw the lasting imprints of drug injections. Many had a great number of scars covering their bodies, and had fear, anger and distrust in their eyes. Thus I had to learn to let go of any judgments, keeping an open mind and holding a space for the women to be free to be themselves.

Whenever I saw their smiles, heard their laughs, heard their stories, or listened as they silently whispered to me their fears, I could not doubt the transformational power of love and acceptance.  After each workshop, prisoners reported a feeling of peace and strange joy that benefited their daily survival in prison. Yoga brought a calmness and harmony to their behavior towards cellmates and prison staff, but most importantly towards themselves.

As I discovered more of an entirely new world inside the prison walls, I also learned about the world outside. I became familiar with the social and educational system that breaks down the confidence and dreams of individuals, with society’s inability to be compassionate enough to help and serve our communities, and with our greed and ignorance to what is going on in the world.  I also witnessed the amazing beauty of the human spirit, realized my ability to find joy in simple everyday things, and learned the importance of simplicity and the power of faith.

Sometimes I think that these months in prison have enriched me much more than it did any of the women I was working with. The experience brought virtues of patience, trust and forgiveness into my life, reminding me of the power of service and the kinship of woman and man.  I was encouraged to find more freedom in my head, more openness in my heart and a complete joy in living.

Prison is full of women who dream and are able to re-build their lives and transform the habits. The question is: are we able to let go of their past and accept them as an equal citizens, neighbors, co-workers, and friends? Are we able to connect our hearts to theirs and welcome back into our communities, trustfully and sincerely?

Ilze Jece is a dedicated social change worker and passionate holistic therapist. Working as a trainer and facilitator she delivers various workshops on sustainable development, social justice, community development and youth participation. As a law graduate she is interested in exploring human rights issues within the environmental and social justice movements, and has campaigned all over the world for change. As a holistic therapist and body worker she has worked in hospitals, prisons and various educational settings, creating interlinks between our well-being and the choices we makes towards creating sustainable and peaceful communities.

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