I’m 54 and have been practicing yoga since my 20s when I was in drama school.
Yoga has assisted me through two childbirths and helped me retain sanity through one divorce. There were a few traumatic events I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived without my yoga and meditation practice.
I started working at Living Yoga as the Development Manager two months ago, diving straight into organizing the Yogathon and Gala while confident in my knowledge of the life changing effects of yoga and meditation.
As part of learning my new job, I have to go visit the community to see what Living Yoga actually does. I have to put boots, or in my case, sneakers on the ground.
Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the Women’s Medium Security in Wilsonville, is first up. I’d been warned that “it’s really intense”, and “will freak you out.”
I thought I was ready. I’ve seen the shows “Orange Is the New Black” and “Locked Up”, thanks to my teenaged sons.
I mean, for crying out loud, my husband worked as a mental health specialist in Oregon State Penitentiary Super-max for two years. I have heard all of the stories. I figured I had this.
I receive specific instructions about what to wear, what not to wear, and how to behave. No tight yoga pants, no blue, red or lime green colors.
No touching, no phones, no under-wire bras.
I scour the Lloyd Center for baggie grey sweatpants. When I finally find a pair, I buy them a size too big, just to be safe, and drive down to Wilsonville.
Lorene, the teacher I’m shadowing, is a gem. She’s been teaching this class for over five years. Lorene is the most committed, lovely, calm volunteer you will ever find.
As we walk in the Spartan lobby, the larger-than-life guard greets her with familiarity before turning to look steadily at me. I can’t swallow. I know he can see everything I did in the 80’s…ack!
He speaks, “So, you finally come to turn yourself in on that warrant?”
I’m almost positive I’ve never been arrested. With this giant man glaring at me, however, I’m not so sure. My life flashes before my eyes like it’s my last moment on earth. Can I edit out my years in New York City before he puts me in a cell?
But his eyebrow is slightly raised. He’s totally yanking my chain by seeing how the newbie reacts. I think. I hope. I take a chance and come back with a confident, cocky, “Yeah.”
“It’s about time,” he says as he slowly cracks what I assume is his smile. He goes on to assure me that when everything goes horribly wrong in there and some inmate tries to “shank” me, he’ll be the one to save me.
I exchange my ID for a red laminated “Visitor” tag. A piece of paper with my name on it is handed to Lorene—my “leash.”
Once the first massive “sally port” (a steel plate and thick Plexiglass gate) grinds heavily shut behind me, that paper, my “leash”, is the only thing that will let me leave the facility.
I have nothing on me, nothing to distinguish me from an inmate. Except somehow, I’m vainly certain I don’t look anything like an inmate. I do feel awfully naked without an ID or iPhone.
The floors in the twisting and echoing empty corridors were amazing—the shiniest I’ve ever seen, which is an absurd thing to notice. Bare concrete buffed and polished with care and pride.
After about the 16th steel sally port clangs behind me, I have thoroughly lost my bearings.
We make it to the unit. Through open doorways, I see women sitting in a common area. The tables and benches are bolted to the floor. They’re laughing and talking, just as I was doing this afternoon in the lunchroom at work.
Except they’re all wearing big dark blue t-shirts that say “INMATE” across the back and there are a couple of security officers standing at the periphery.
Lorene gets a CD player from an officer and we head to the multipurpose room. It’s a carpeted classroom lined with whiteboards.
Remnants of communal therapy work are still evident as large butcher-block papers are taped to the walls with encouraging slogans on them: “We will use our voices to express our needs”, “I’m making Peace with my Past”, “Freedom is within my reach” with women’s signatures carefully written across them in pink and blue and green marker.
The women start to file in. I don’t know what I was expecting.
Angry? Tough? Dour?
I do know that what I wasn’t expecting were these bright eyed, smiling women walking in, chatting with each other and heading straight to the metal cabinet filled with yoga props.
A few notice me and, realizing I was new, walk straight up to me, and stick out a hand with a “Hi! What’s your name? Thanks for coming!”
“I’m Robin. I work for Living Yoga. It’s my job to raise money so that we can have these programs and classes.”
They stopped in their tracks. Spontaneous applause erupted.
“You do?!” “Thank you!” “Bless you!” “Thank you!” “Thank you!”
I feel humbled. I really haven’t done much yet.
I sit near Laurene and look out at the class.
Sitting in front of me is a spindly older lady with square glasses and grey hair in a severe bun. She places her hands on her heart in silent gratitude and nods to me.
She could be any grandma at the grocery store, the mall, on the Max, or in a restaurant. I wonder, “What in the world did this nice lady do to end up in here?”
I begin to have an argument in my head—part of me is dying to know what the inmates had done to end up in prison, while the other part does not want to know.
This part of me wants to give the gift of allowing these women, for just one hour of the week, to be in a place where they’re not a last name or a number.
For one hour, allowing them to just be a person doing yoga.
One hour of not walking around with “The biggest mistake ever made” emblazoned on their forehead. Because that’s what it must be like.
Some are defined by a single mistake that will impact them forever—“I’m ‘The woman who drove drunk and killed a pedestrian.’” Do they ever get to replace that story?
I think back to my life flashing before my eyes in the lobby when the guard was messing with me.
What if I had to walk around with everyone knowing the huge mistakes I had made before I even had a chance to introduce myself and present a better me?
Because I’ve made a bunch of huge mistakes. I just never happened to get caught and there, but for the Grace of God, go I.
The ladies in the room were me. How many times have I driven with alcohol in my system?
How many times have I been enraged with someone, but had just enough impulse control not to act on it?
How many times have I not behaved with integrity, or hung out with wrong people, been in the wrong place, just not at the wrong time?
God, I am so fortunate. I just didn’t know how fortunate until I sat with women who weren’t so lucky.
The shapeless navy INMATE t-shirts and red polyester shorts fade away. All I see now are faces—lovely, clean, women’s faces, free of make-up, free of pretense, just yearning to catch my eye for approval, or a moment of honest connection with another woman.
The class is over.
The infinite me sees the infinite in you.
And then, I am mobbed.
Not in a scary way. Women are respectfully waiting to ask me to bring a message back to everyone involved with Living Yoga.
“Please, can we have a Friday class too? We’ve checked and this room is available,” and “There’s no visitors, so we have nothing to pull us away.” “Please can you ask if we can have another class?”
I promise I will ask.
There is an unending outpouring of gratitude for the one class a week they do have.
The requests go on and on for more classes and workshops.
Then there is the last woman, the grandma who had sat in front of me with her large square glasses. She starts strongly and confidently, “Robin, when you take your impressions back to Living Yoga, please tell them I’ve been coming to class for five years,” She pauses and her voice chokes, “Please tell them this class means the world to me.” She just stands there, nodding, tears streaming down her face.
It takes everything to not hug her. But I was told we can’t touch them.
They’re not allowed touch, any touch.
For years and years, they’re not allowed any kind human physical contact.
I’m just like her, and she’s just like me. Except I have a piece of paper that’s going to let me back out of those gates tonight. And I get to go home to the warm arms of my husband, while she’ll be sleeping in a cot in a room that never sees darkness. And I have my choice of yoga classes all day long, any day I feel like going.
I promise her that I will tell everyone at Living Yoga. I promise I will tell everyone.
This class means the world to her.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Karissa Kneeland/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo Credit: Aisha Harley