What I Learned Teaching Yoga To Male Inmates
“There are no Throw-Away People”—Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati
When I first entered a maximum security men’s prison to teach yoga to inmates, I was fresh out of Prison Yoga Project training and only a year out of my first 200-hour YTT. I had a Masters of Rehabilitation Counseling, so I thought I had it under control. I was going to go in and save these men—teach the forgotten and shunned of society a way to be “better” people. I put myself above them, which I’m now ashamed to admit. What has happened over the last four years has humbled me and taught me more than I could learn in a yoga teacher training or ashram about what yoga is. While some of my teachers have been Swamis and established Western yoga teachers, my greatest gurus have been the men I teach in prison, and my yoga journey has brought me to a place I never thought I would end up.
Yoga Behind Bars
I still recall my very first visit behind the razor wire. There was no evident physical danger. The inmates I passed in the yard were kind and considerate, even chastising the correctional officer for not offering to carry the yoga mats for me. I remember being embarrassed for him but saw the inmates’ point. Right then and there, I realized that I held a special place in the eyes of inmates—I had their respect. As we walked down the long sidewalk to the SIB (Self Injurious Behavior Unit), I could sense inmate eyes on me. It was a hot September day in the South, and I had been commissioned to teach yoga to some of the most dangerous inmates in our prison system—self mutilators serving life sentences for heinous crimes.
As I wound my way through the razor wire and heavy iron doors that closed behind me, I was escorted outside to the “yard” made of concrete, containing several individual recreational cages. The four shackled inmates were brought down one at a time, placed in the cages like animals, uncuffed and handed a yoga mat. I taught class as a noisy motor groaned behind me and the sun baked me—at least the inmates were shaded. They were polite and followed all directives. When class was over, they were escorted out the opposite way they were brought in. I never once felt fear; it was more of a fascination, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t experience an ego boost. I was doing something most people would never entertain; in fact, most people would never see the inside of a prison in their lifetimes. It was an adrenaline rush.
The next Monday, I had received a call from the Director of Inmate Services. I had been restricted to the women’s prisons. Assuring me that I had done nothing wrong, she shared that an incident had happened the day after I left. She didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask any questions. I’ve learned in the world of corrections not to ask questions. I am simply to go in and do the job I have been entrusted to do and leave the questioning out of the equation. For the next several years, I taught in the three women’s institutions in our state.
Teaching in Men’s Prison
I did not return to teach in a men’s prison again until September of 2016. Three years had passed, and this time, an inmate’s brother had contacted me, appealing to me to help start a yoga program at his institution. Apparently, whatever issue that had happened in the SIB unit was no longer a concern, and I was happy to have a second opportunity to work with men.
These new students were a new group of men transitioning out of long-term lockup. While they were not self-mutilators, they were an interesting array of inmates serving time for anything from armed robbery to murder. I had been teaching female inmates for the last several years and with more experience and more humble intentions was excited to come back into the men’s prisons. What I discovered were not murderers or armed robbers but yoga students who hold deep compassion and goodness in their hearts, who are hungry for someone to give them time and attention and, yes, compassionate and unconditional love. What they have taught me and continue to teach me are valuable lessons in my yogic journey.
Sometimes our Sangha can be Found in the most Unlikely Places
As a white, middle-class, college-educated woman, most would expect my tribe to be found in pricey, suburban yoga studios. The truth is, I never fit in at studios, and I was even “let go” one time from teaching at one. While I wasn’t aware of my Svadharma at the time, the incident was actually leading me where I needed to be, not where I thought should be. We are not all meant to be studio teachers.
Vairagya (detachment) is More than just Decluttering of Physical Space and Material Items
Vairagya is letting go of the emotional attachment when an inmate who you’ve taught for months is transferred to another institution. The grief can be huge and indescribable. I’ve had to learn to detach emotionally, using the Chidikash heart space, or place of compassionate detachment, to deal with losing a student.
Nonjudgment Must be Present
As Ma Jaya encouraged everyone to see each other as a child, I too, must see these inmates in their child selves. I can’t see them as convicted felons, and for that hour and a half, I must see them as children. When we see anyone as a child before trauma and life took away his innocence, we can avoid judgment. I am not completely devoid of judgment, but I can be as close as possible to devoid for 90 minutes.
I’ve Learned to Tame my Ego (somewhat)
When I first started teaching in prisons, I did it because I thought it would be cool and perversely glamorous. Just look at Orange is the New Black. The thought of going in and teaching dangerous men and women was an adrenaline rush, offering me a high. As I continue on this journey, my intentions are more compassionate and less self-serving. Sometimes embarking on a journey for seemingly shallow intentions can lead us to deeper spiritual growth and a better understanding of ourselves.
We are All Reflections of Each Other
We all have a past and have done things which we aren’t proud of. Some of us have committed acts that could have landed us in jail. For us to see any separation between those who are behind the bars vs. those who aren’t is judgment. We are all living in a prison of some sorts, whether physically or metaphorically. Recognizing that we are one helps build compassion and community. As a close friend shared with me one time, we are all each other’s guru. We don’t need to travel to India for us to find our gurus. Just look around. Your gurus are standing right in front of you.
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