On Tuesdays, I go to prison to practice yoga.
“The yoga teacher is here!” the corrections officer yells. Ten inmates scurry out of their cells and file into a teeny-tiny recreation room in the women’s prison. One woman grabs the chairs. Another grabs the CD player. I settle into a seat, surrounded by my friends in their tan jumpsuits.
We practice pranayama breathing techniques. We have a moment of receptive meditation. We follow the direction of a seated yoga CD. They call me their yoga teacher and I call them mine. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned from their practice:
1. Freedom isn’t what I thought
In the name of freedom, I’ve touted the benefits of quitting oppressive jobs without warning, moving to places without any plan, leaving confining relationships and taking an afternoon—no, an entire week—off from responsibilities just because. I thought that true freedom was the ability to change circumstances. I was wrong.
Freedom has nothing to do with circumstance. In fact, chasing new and different circumstances can distract from real freedom. The inmate yogis are free, and it’s because they’ve faced themselves head-on. They’ve learned to identify, release and replace old patterns that no longer serve them. Personal transformation is the greatest freedom we have, and that type of work requires an inward focus.
2. Saying yes is easy
My yoga teacher chants at the beginning of class and invites everyone to join. Like many other students, I used to close my eyes and wait for him to stop. I don’t know Sanskrit. I can’t produce all of those strange, unfamiliar sounds. And, what does the song even mean? I would do the same thing with new or difficult poses. Twisted arm balance? No thanks. You could find me in child’s pose instead.
The women’s prison yogis are teaching me to say yes. I have a regular routine of pranayama breathing. I can’t explain the “how” or “why” of it very well to my friends, let alone teach it with any sense of authority. I introduced it to my class anyway. We now practice forceful kapalbhati breathing and we chant OM together in unison. I never really explained the ”how” or ”why” of either practice, but the women participate wholeheartedly with joy and pleasure.
3. Space Is not my friend
I used to arrive extra early at the yoga studio to reserve a spot that was as isolated as possible. I wanted space to sprawl out, and I didn’t want to have to overcome the presence of too many other neighboring yogis. What if a guy sits beside me, and he looks at my breasts at the wrong moment? What if it’s a toned and bendy woman and her perfectionistic approach irks me for the next hour? The fewer neighbors, the better, I thought.
In my prison class, the community experience is unavoidable. We’re smashed in a room the size of a two-person cell, and we accidentally touch and regularly communicate during our practices. I never found as much pleasure in stretching my arms up high in a sun salutation as I do now, when I can bump the student next to me and our eyes meet to share a smile.
4. Silence isn’t golden
Our yoga studios are fortresses of serenity. Students complain when the music is too loud or too fast. Others can’t locate their Zen if the teacher forgets to play the harmonium during savasana. People want the conditions to smell, look and feel just so. That way, they can really relax.
In my prison yoga class, there’s a constant symphony of distractions: dogs bark, corrections officers yell, inmates argue, toilets flush, the CD skips and not one student bats an eye. My students show me that yoga isn’t about finding refuge in a perfectly manicured setting. It’s about finding a sanctuary right where you live, however chaotic that place may be.
5. It’s not about postures
When I began practicing yoga, I couldn’t cross my legs because my hips were so tight. I wasn’t used to taking care of my body, and it showed up in different ways, including extra weight and serious inflexibility. As the pounds started falling off and I could finally strike a pigeon pose comfortably, I thought I was making progress as a yogi.
In prison, there isn’t enough room for mats, so we sit in chairs. And I’m not a trained yoga teacher, so we follow directions from a CD and it’s the same flow each week. Our poses don’t change, and most of our bodies look the same as they did when we started. But in that room, yoga is working on us. When we open our eyes after savasana, all of our eyelids hang a little lower and more relaxed than they did when we started. And we’re all working on yoga, because we each notice the difference, and we take a moment to breathe deeply and appreciate the calm together.
Author: Meredith Lee
Editor: Evan Yerburgh