Prison – I can’t wait to go back

Via Benjy Wertheimer
on Apr 16, 2011
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Behind Bars

Early in the spring, we went to the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) and offered kirtan to a group of men imprisoned there. In many respects, it was one of the most profound practices I’ve ever had as I travel down the path of a western kirtanwallah, and I find myself struggling to put the experience into context.

When we arrived at the gate to the prison, it was immediately clear that we were not making our offering in anything remotely resembling our usual yoga studio/sacred space venues. The towers with the armed guards, the layers of fences with stacks of the most formidable-looking barbed wire I’ve seen, and the unswervingly serious demeanor of the guards served as constant reminders of just where it was we were going.

I learned many things even as we entered the complex – one example of which was how our audio and power cords could be used as tools to facilitate an escape. Apparently they were some of the most desired objects around for would-be escapees – not something that I usually consider as I set up our sound rig. We had to do a very thorough inventory of all such items on the way in and on the way out.

As we entered the compound, traversing layer after layer of gates, guards, iron bars and cement, we eventually came into the main hallway of the facility – the most sterile, forbidding landscape I have ever seen, with seemingly endless concrete walls, painfully harsh fluorescent lighting, and a sharp, hard-edged reverberation that impinged mercilessly on the ears.

We made our way down to the chapel, which took my breath away as we entered. The contrast could not have been more stark – here was a deeply rooted sacred space in the midst of what felt like a living Hell. The collective energy of people in the harshest of circumstances focusing on the Divine was utterly palpable, and these vibrations supported every moment of our offerings there.

Perhaps the best way to summarize my experience is that I recognized that, at the core, these men were absolutely my brothers. The small group that came to our kirtan included Shawn, who had written to me some time ago, thanking me for the Soul of the Esraj CD, as it had given him a means to transcend the onerous fact of his long-term incarceration. In my conversations with Shawn, who started his twenty-year sentence at the age of 18, I saw and felt the reflection of the Divine, and recognized a man who had clearly been using his time in prison to fully confront his demons at a deep level – in a way many of us on the outside may never do. In a very real way (as one of the Siddha Yoga teachers who volunteered at OSCI pointed out) he had recast his life as an inmate into that of a sadhaka in an ashram. I can easily imagine how we might have forged a deep friendship if we both lived on the outside.

Many times Heather and I have experienced the profundity of the silence right after a chant – particularly when we’re in the company of a group that is focused on transformation, such as a yoga retreat or meditation intensive. Such a silence has a depth and intentionality that is unmistakable. I don’t think I was prepared for the power of the silence among the group of inmates – it was almost overwhelming.

Particularly at the end of our closing chant (Baba Hanuman), I was barely able to fight a stream of tears welling up inside me. And these tears were a curious amalgam of joyful and sorrowful – joy that sprang from the depth of the devotion and practice, and a deep sadness when I remembered where I actually was.

Here was a group of men giving themselves to the practice with a resolve and surrender that is extraordinarily rare, inspiring tears of joy. Juxtaposed with that was the pall of heartbreak and the realization that we were in the midst of a group that society had written off … and written them off for criminal acts that any of us could have committed under certain circumstances. Here was a collection of lives that had come to this place and time through a series of poor choices or tragically life-altering moments – each of these men had given in to emotion, to greed, possibly to just a split second of misalignment and were now paying the price with the most precious gift of all – with their all-too-short time in this life.

Nowhere was the irony of this made more clear than in my conversations with a young inmate who had served 18 months in Iraq. At first he seemed distant, hard to reach, uninterested … until he heard the sound of the esraj.

His body language shifted from a stance of defiance and anger –“Go ahead … just TRY to make me feel anything” –  to one of curiosity, cautious opening, and eventually full engagement.

After our kirtan, he told me of how he had heard the poignant sound of an instrument very much like the esraj numerous times while he was out on patrol. His first response to the sound had been fear, but as the hours and nights turned into weeks and months on patrol, the instrument he heard in Iraq came to be a soothing balm and familiar friend in a world rife with lurking unexpected dangers and explosions of violence.

It is frightening to recognize that he was jailed for exactly the kinds of actions that he had been trained for as a soldier. In one case, violent and destructive acts are honored as brave, patriotic, and selfless. In another set of circumstances, it is cause for lifelong incarceration. It raised timeless questions in my heart about the crazy ways we will justify the horrendous acts of war, how we will take murder, violence and destruction and glorify them contextually even as we throw individuals into a marginalized trash heap or execute them for committing precisely the same actions.

One of the obvious but more prosaic differences between this kirtan at OSCI and our usual experience is that the participants were almost all men – the only exceptions were the chaplain and the other volunteers in the prison who had joined us.

We met a number of men with bright presence, a rare degree of vulnerability, and a clear desire to truly engage with us: one man arrived very early and told us both of his love of music and his Lakota ancestry, another inmate made it very clear that he wanted to get an esraj more than anything he could recall, and yet another young man plied us for information about our local schedule so that he could make sure that his sister on the outside could know about our events around Portland.

One conceptual phenomenon that has intrigued me from very early in my life is that of thresholds. What, for example, is the line which separates genius or insight from insanity? Or what is it that will allow one of us to spontaneously and irretrievably commit some horrendous act that, if we’re honest with ourselves, nearly all of us have contemplated at some time?

Yet another threshold involves how we would classify ourselves on some kind of spiritual continuum, where different systems of religious belief present a clear and seemingly irreconcilable chasm between theological vantage points: Do we start from the assumption that we are consciously evolved and intimately connected to the Divine – yet humanly flawed – or are we inherently evil, shackled to Original Sin, with only tantalizing flashes of goodness, kindness, or divinely inspired awareness?

Coming into the unmistakably black-and-white world thrusts these kinds of questions in my face in the same stark way that the cruel fluorescent lights filled the bleak halls of this Oregon prison. I realized that I had taken in just enough of the American pop cultural notion of prison that I was not prepared to feel such a sense of connection with the men serving time here. I expected total hardness, mistrust, even animosity. Yet I can’t say that I have ever felt more gratitude for our musical offerings anywhere, and the vulnerability and self-disclosure I observed blew away my preconceptions …quietly, gently, inexorably.

I can’t wait to come back.

It’s my hope that, having read this article, you might want to explore how we can make yoga, meditation, kirtan and other practices available to people incarcerated in a system that seems far more focused on making a profit on the underpaid work of inmates (many of whom are jailed for victimless crimes) than on positive transformation or meaningful and enduring rehabilitation.

Two organizations facilitating this in the Pacific Northwest are Living Yoga in Oregon and Yoga Behind Bars in Washington.

Other organizations include the Yoga Prison Project , the Southern Arizona Prison Project , and the Human Kindness Foundation Also highly recommended is Anneke Lucas’ brilliant article Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga? and JC Whitted’s  Prison Yoga Project page on Facebook.

In the time since I originally crafted this article, I have become aware that the inmate Shawn McWeeney, who so impressed me with his presence, initiated the College Inside Program at OSCI, for which he won the Peabody Award.

Finally, thanks also to Anneke Lucas, here is a list of Teacher Trainings (TT) that are available for people who want to become directly involved in working with incarcerated and at-risk youth:

For info in New York, check out

A TT manual can be purchased at

Online TT’s (by Webinar) taught by Fleet Maull and Kate Crisp, The Path of Freedom Integral Peacemaker Training (mindfulness meditation). Next training begins April 25, 2011.

Boulder, CO residents who’ve completed the above training can follow an apprenticeship to teach mindfulness awareness skills at Lookout Mountain Youth Correctional Facility:

In Los Angeles, beginning April 3, TT begins with Hala Khouri and more.

TT’s all around the country through Off The Mat Into The World:

Based in Los Angeles, Jailhouse offers TT’s nationwide.

New Leaf Yoga in Toronto accepts teaching volunteers, more info at

Street Yoga has nationwide Teacher Trainings and programs in Portland, Seattle and New York City.

In San Francisco, Youth Yoga Dharma offers TT’s. Here’s the link:

Om4Youth – teaching yoga & art to at-risk youth (Canada) offers TT’s:

For yoga teachers with prior experience working with at-risk youth: The Art of Yoga Project – for teen girls in the California Juvenile System

In Portland, OR, you can register for volunteer Teacher Training with Living Yoga:

In Seattle, WA, you can upgrade your 200-hour certified TT with volunteer training with Yoga Behind Bars:

Upcoming TT’s in North Carolina, Detroit and Toronto, offered through Krishna Kaur’s organization Y.O.G.A. For Youth: meditation and Kundalini yoga:


About Benjy Wertheimer

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Benjy Wertheimer is an award-winning musician, composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist equally accomplished on tabla, congas, percussion, esraj, guitar, and keyboards. Benjy has toured and recorded with such artists as Krishna Das, Deva Premal and Miten, Jai Uttal, Walter Becker of Steely Dan, virtuoso guitarist Michael Mandrell, and renowned bamboo flute master G. S. Sachdev. He has also opened for such well-known artists as Carlos Santana, Paul Winter, and Narada Michael Walden. Benjy is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed world fusion ensemble Ancient Future. / Beginning his musical studies at age 5, starting with piano and later violin and flamenco guitar, Benjy has studied Indian classical music for over 25 years with some of the greatest masters of that tradition including Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Ali Akbar Khan and Z. M. Dagar. Along with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, Benjy was a contributing composer and member of the Zakir Hussain Rhythm Experience. / For over five years, Benjy scored music for the internationally syndicated NBC series Santa Barbara. His CD Circle of Fire reached #1 on the international New Age radio charts in 2002. Now living in Portland, Oregon, he now tours around the world leading kirtan with his wife Heather (as the duo Shantala). /


19 Responses to “Prison – I can’t wait to go back”

  1. Please join me in welcoming Benjy to Elephant as a regular contributor. You can see that his resume above speaks for itself.

    Love this first article, Benjy.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. Renegadecd says:

    Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Vicki Tarrant says:

    Beautiful article Benjy.

  5. Thank you for this touching article. it is clear that offering kirtan to the inmates at the Oregon State Correctional facility was a very moving and rewarding experience for you. I applaud your efforts and strongly encourage others to follow suit. The healing power of sacred sound can be so effective in contexts like this, where people are naturally seeking relief. The vulnerability you lent yourself to proved rewarding in the end when you received such enthusiastic gratitude. I know what fertile grounds for entering deeply into human hearts prisons can be, as my dear, deceased friend Syama Priya Dasi, was herself such a pioneer in taking yoga into prisons: a service her generous heart began to devote itself to over 20 years ago. In fact, she had many thankful recipients of her efforts reside in the Oregon State Prison! She used to write over 200 inmates a month, and even sent some of them instruments with which to perform kirtan. Upon her passing, many wished more souls would step in to bring yoga to prisoners. Your article reassures me that when the human spirit is in need, the universe provides, for your are indeed continuing where my dear friend left off, so to speak. May you indeed return to the prisons with your beautiful music, and your own generous heart and all that love that you pour into each and every kirtan! A beautiful yoga indeed!

  6. Carol Horton says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your experience in such a clear and accessible way. I wish that I could get every person in the country to read – and be open to understanding – what you are saying. What a different and better society it would be.

    But in the meantime, sharing to my social networks – hope others do the same!

  7. Sofia says:

    I really enjoyed your article, thank you so much for sharing your practice and your insight! Another great place in New York to do teacher training is the School for Compassionate Action. They bring yoga & meditation into at-risk communities.

  8. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  9. jbnorton says:

    Dear Benjy,
    Thanks so much for this beautiful article and for bringing the light of Shantala's music into the darkness of the prison, and thanks for directing readers to concrete ways they can turn their compassion into action with the list of trainings and organizations. I look forward to more of your eloquence here on EJ.
    Love to you, Heather, and Barkley!

  10. Thanks, Bob! I am really honored to be contributing to Elephant Journal, which has long been a source of inspiration and insight to me!!

  11. Catherine,

    I was very moved to read your post – in particular your words about Syama Priya Dasi and her pioneering work in the prisons. It gives me even more fire to return to the prison … and reminds me, with certainty, that whatever I may think I'm offering to these men, I am the greatest beneficiary – sharing this practice with them gives my heart a gift immeasurably larger than any effort on my part …

    Thanks again for your inspiring and eloquent reply!

    With love & gratitude,

  12. Thanks, Carol, so much for your kind words and your support! Bless you!!

  13. Thanks, Sofia! Do you know the best url to connect to the School for Compassionate Action? I'd love to share that with the readers.

    Many thanks,

  14. MUCH love back to you, Jane … hope to see you this fall when we head east! Just to warn you fairly – Barkley has gotten even cuter, and resistance is indeed futile …

  15. Lindy says:

    my husband and I worked with the Prison Project bringing yoga and meditation to incarcerated men on the east coast for two years. he did his work from the inside and I did mine from the outside. Amazing results.

  16. Wow … that sounds incredible!! I'd love to hear more about how you offered your work from inside and outside – sounds like an amazing story …

  17. Thanks, Anneke! Truly having had the opportunity to share kirtan with these men has been tremendously inspiring and, in many ways, life-changing. Particularly with respect to what you say about the courage, spiritual insight, and humility that I've seen … I feel drawn to examine my inner landscape more deeply than ever.
    Hope our paths cross in person soon!

    With loving gratitude,

  18. […] my class simply to have something else to do rather than the usual. But what I quickly realized was some inmates will still choose to remain in their “prison” rather than change. Perhaps this isn’t as shocking to you as it was to me, but seeing that […]

  19. Vito Deford says:

    Great blog! Sorry to change the subject, but, since this is the time for New Year’s Resolutions, I’m looking for a great Nashville persona trainer to get me in shape. Have you heard of any good ones? There’s a new gym called Next Level Fitness, but I’ve only seen a few reviews. Here’s the address of this new Nashville Personal Training Gym, 1917 Church Street Nashville, TN 37203 – (615) 329-2747. Let me know your thoughts! Thanks!