December 2, 2011

Yoga and Blame; Lessons from Prison

Photography by Robert Sturman.

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series on elephant.

It is a strange aspect of the human condition that we try to solve things that are uncomfortable by making them disappear.

It is perhaps an even stranger physics of the human heart that nothing that we engage in or experience can be escaped. And this leaves us in quite a dilemma. Yet it is this dilemma that yoga addresses and the admission it invites us to make: that we cannot escape the moment, that it is all there is, that there are some things we just can’t lock up and some things from which we just cannot look away; but there is freedom, if we can bring ourselves to see it, in that each moment is of our own making.

The institution of American prisons are a microcosm of our society that reflect our tendency towards a logic of separation and blame. James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project who has been teaching yoga classes at San Quentin for the past 10 years, said in our recent interview, “It’s pretty apparent to me that the way we as a community deal with a lot of our social problems is to make them the problems of somebody else.”

We have less than five percent of the world’s population, but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, with 2.5 million citizens currently in prison.

Another way to look at this number is 1 out of every 100 adults are behind bars. So you would think this would make us one of the safest nations on the planet, right? Not exactly. Our recidivism rate, of roughly 65%, remain relatively unchanged. Why is this?

One answer is that our correctional system, especially since indeterminate sentencing took effect in the late 70’s, prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation; a stance which necessitates the belief that those who commit crime are bad and belong away from the law-abiding citizens (who are good). Yet a total of 7.2 million people in America are under correctional supervision, including probation and parole, while we as taxpayers pay an average of 60 billion dollars a year (45,000 to keep one person incarcerated for a year in New York) to fund a system that offers offenders a 65% chance, once released, that they will return. So it is difficult to say whose problem this- in the war between the good and bad people. It is difficult to say exactly who is who.

James Fox at San Quentin teaching his class for life-sentenced students. Photo by Robert Sturman

One of the essential teachings of yoga is that nothing occurs in isolation. It offers us an understanding of every action in the universe as inter-woven into another, and that there is no “I” that is separate from “you.” Therefore yoga offers an essentially radical response to the concept of crime and challenges our prison system’s philosophy of punishment. In the place of the accusations of punitive justice, yoga offers a belief system where healing harm is a matter of healing all parties involved, and just as no crime takes place in isolation, no healing of its harm can take place when viewed through the narrow lens of retribution.

This is where a Yoga practice comes in. Human beings commit crimes, not criminals. Prison addresses the criminal. Yoga addresses the human. 

In James Fox’s eyes, yoga is a practice that stands in contrast to the looking outward that typifies violence and addiction. It instead offers a look inward that brings about healing and recovery. “Yoga,” James says, “is a practice of self-realization,” and one that he believes offers a vital beginning for achieving peace on a large scale. “How does yoga contribute?” he asks, “It contributes to the sensitization of an individual, of sensitizing them to themselves. They begin to experience greater sensitivity to, and compassion for others. Because once you arrive at a state of compassion”, he says, “you can’t be separate from people anymore. You can’t just be out for yourself.”

Stephen Liebb, San Quentin. Photo by Robert Sturman

Anneke Lucas, who started the New York branch of the Prison Yoga Project, was wholeheartedly moved when she first saw this photograph of Stephen Liebb with his eyes closed, hands folded in prayer. She had a 20 year long asana and meditation practice and knew only a little about American prisons at the time, but this single photograph drew her in. “In his face I thought I saw the lines of someone who’s living a very difficult and harsh life, but at the same time there was such sweetness in that photo.”

Anneke is now working closely with James, as well as other teachers, studios and re-entry programs in the area, to establish the Prison Yoga Project in New York, which she hopes will evolve into an “army of yoga instructors” who are trained to go into prisons to offer the mindfulness-based yoga, as well as connect with and offer their support to re-entry programs. Her ultimate vision is for the Prison Yoga Project as a whole to become a national organization.

Just recently, Anneke flew out to San Quentin and joined James in leading a yoga class. While there, she met Stephen Lieb in person and now, over a year later, her take on his photograph is very different. She says: “I wouldn’t react to the picture the same way as I did the first time. I think there’s an element of pity that I experienced when I looked at that photo, but Stephen is not a pitiful person. I’ve gotten to know him over the phone, for an interview, and finally in person, and he is strong and quite beautiful. Empathy? Yes. There’s a difference.”

During our interview Anneke emphasized how welcomed and comfortable she felt in the class at San Quentin, comparing the level of intention and focus of the class similar to the energy one might expect to find in a monastery. Of the prison population she says, “there are all levels of consciousness there, but there are all levels of consciousness in the world as well. I found the level of consciousness in the class to be  extremely high. I feel privileged to have been there.” (To read a full- article about Anneke’s experience at San Quentin, click here).

Student in James Fox's class, San Quentin. Photo by Robert Sturman.

A true democracy is founded on the belief that people can change. A yoga practice is founded on the belief that in order to change, you must start where you are. This makes the practice of Yoga within a prison a revolutionary, but also a truly democratic act. It offers students the opportunity to experience themselves, with the belief that this is the first step towards addressing the harm that has been done to others. This practice that questions victimhood and looks instead at the role each of us play relates a counter-culture inside the prison walls; a culture which flips the mirror inward to reveal the self-responsibility involved in both healing and harm. To see oneself clearly, after all, is one of the greatest callings of yoga and the freedom from our own prisons one of its greatest promises; no matter what side of the walls we are on.

This upcoming December 3rd and 4th, James will be offering a special two day training at Ashtanga Yoga New York, which will be specific to teaching yoga in Prisons and rehabilitation facilities. The training is open to anyone interested in bringing yoga to underserved populations, particularly the incarcerated, and will include practical information about working with prisoners and prison staff, strategies for establishing yoga programs in unique environments, hands-on instruction in specific asana, pranayama and meditation practices and discussion on the benefits of yoga for emotional and psychological issues. The cost of this training is $195 with a limited number of available partial scholarships. For more information and registration visit http://tiny.cc/ioftt.

In addition, this Friday night December 2nd the Prison Yoga Project will hold a fundraiser at Sacred Yoga Studio in Brooklyn, which will include a question and answer session with James at 7, followed by music and dance, starring Duke Amayo, the lead singer of Antibalas. There is a $10 suggested minimum donation with all proceeds going directly to the Prison Yoga Project. Visit www.sacredbrooklyn.com for more information, or email [email protected].


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