October 1, 2011

Teaching Yoga in Jail: Bittersweet Magic Behind the Barbed Wire Fence.

Creative Commons License photo credit: geezaweezer

I taught yoga in jail for the first time yesterday.

Or, more accurately, I got my first intro to teaching there by assisting the beautiful Jenny Boeder, who teaches at Yogaview, one of the best studios in Chicago.

I met Jenny through Yoga for Recovery (YFR), which is expanding into a full-fledged nonprofit from a small core of volunteers who’ve been teaching yoga in the Cook Country Women’s Detention Center for three years. I connected with YFR through Street Yoga, whose excellent training I took earlier this year.

“How was it?,” my husband asked when I came home.

Good question.

Savasana Under Lock-Down.

The first word that came to mind was “bittersweet.”

Both of the two back-to-back classes that Jenny and I taught went exceptionally well. They were at capacity (10) and the students were really engaged. By the time everyone was lying in Savasana, I sensed that same palpable magic that I always feel at the end of a really good yoga class.  As I closed my eyes and breathed together with everyone else, I surfed the powerful wave of peace and spaciousness that we’d created.

But then, the students left – as a group, under guard. Jenny and I collected our I.D.s and walked outside. Through the thicket of security guards, many of whom seemed slightly startled, pleased, and curious to see the two of us – who looked like we’d dropped in from a parallel universe (which, effectively, we had) – passing by.

We walked through a bleak courtyard with high walls topped with menacing spirals of barbed wire cyclone fencing.

And it cut my psyche, just a bit.

I got just a little, tiny glimpse of the reality of incarceration. And that was painful enough. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have that be my everyday world.

During the break between classes, Jenny and I had talked about how most of these women were likely in jail because of nonviolent offenses like drug possession. (And statistically, it’s true: about 80% of women in Cook County Jail have been charged with non-violent crimes.) “Like nothing that we didn’t do in high school,” said Jenny intently, wearily, indignantly. “I mean, did you feel like any of those women seemed like they needed to be locked up?”

Risk and Hope

No – I didn’t. There’d been no vibe that felt threatening whatsoever. Quite the contrary: Instead, what I’d felt was a degree of openness to the deeper dimensions of yoga that far exceeded what I’d experienced teaching most of my studio classes.

Which didn’t surprise me. It was very much the same as when I’d taught yoga at Sarah’s Circle, a drop-in center for homeless women, last year. In part, I think this is true because these women are willing to take a risk. They’re stepping out of their usual routines and doing something that for them is radically new (not surprisingly, most have never done yoga before). And they’re taking that risk in the hope that it’ll prove worthwhile – who knows, maybe even bring them something positive.

As an over-educated white girl from the suburbs who’s never been in serious trouble with the law, never been homeless, and never had any close friends or family imprisoned, I feel like I’m making something of a parallel move from the other side when I teach in a jail or homeless shelter. Because I, too, am choosing to step out of my usual world and into a radically different one in the hopes it’ll prove worthwhile – and, who knows, maybe even be really positive.

And I can honestly say that in my experience, it is.

To me, teaching yoga to under-served, socially marginalized populations such as women in homeless centers or jails feels very worthwhile. And, in a weird, bittersweet, and paradoxical way, it also makes me feel more peaceful and centered, and less fearful and anxious.

Experiencing Yoga

Of course, it’s important not to romanticize “serving the poor.” We also need to be thoughtful about where we can truly be helpful. A certain amount of training and life experience is necessary to work sensitively with groups of students that will undoubtedly have much higher levels of trauma than those of us from more privileged backgrounds are used to.

At the same time, however, I think it’s important to celebrate the fact that teaching yoga in a jail or homeless shelter can be positive and uplifting.

“Really, you’ll see, it’s fun,” Jenny and the other experienced teachers told us newbies at our first Yoga for Recovery meeting. “While there’s always issues, the students are great.”

And it’s true. Though for me, “fun” and “great” are just placeholders for an experience that’s much more meaningful.

That bittersweet experience of feeling embedded in a collectively generated magic of positivity and peace, and then walking out through that barbed wire fence back to the reality of a society in which those same women and I are radically divided by race, class, education, and culture – that, for me, is yoga.

Much as I wish that it were not the case, it’s simply true that there’s a huge social chasm separating me from the women in Chicago’s jails and homeless centers.

At the same time, it’s also true that when we both step out of our everyday worlds and meet in the neutral space of a yoga class, we can co-create an experience that transcends those differences, generating an energy that I believe – or at least hope – is healing and energizing for us all.

Yoga for Recovery is looking for volunteers! If you’re a female yoga teacher in the Chicago area, please contact Lisa Duncan at lduncanvh [at] aol.com. If you don’t live in the area but are interested in learning more about this type of work, a list of good resources can be found here.

This article was originally published at Yoga Modern. To read more articles about seva or teaching yoga, visit YogaModern.com.

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