A little over two weeks ago I attended an orientation at the Westchester Correctional Facility. The sign in the photo is at the entrance to the campus, which also houses a recycling center, medical center and medical college. (Photo taken from my car while waiting for a traffic light on my way home, as I was uncertain about the photo policy prior to arrival. Turns out the only place pictures are not permitted is inside the correction facility.)
The plan was to meet my wonderful friend and yoga-teacher-training-colleague in the parking lot 20 minutes prior to yoga so we could follow-up in person to our telephone preparation. This was her fourth or fifth session so she was also able to answer any of my lingering questions, though by this point the preparation at home caused more butterflies than any other part of the practice. Sleeveless, form fitting, low cut, hoodies, anything orange, all were not permitted. Post earrings and wedding bands are the only allowed jewelry. No headbands or metal hair barrettes. I was acutely conscious of how I dressed, changing tops three times, switching bras, and realizing that once an outfit was settled upon it could be worn for every session to come, no more having to figure it out! (Picture taken when we were back in the parking lot ready to head home.)
We are not permitted to bring any bags into the facility and it was recommended that we use clear plastic containers to hold keys, license and any other “pocketbook” items. These would be locked in a locker upon arrival, before being given access to the rest of the facility. Our id cards had to be worn on lanyards around our neck while in the building.
In addition to the butterflies related to getting dressed, I was also a tad uneasy about the prospect of being buzzed into small holding spaces between two doors – buzzed in, wait for the door behind to be closed, then buzzed out into a hall – a process we had to go through twice. Perhaps because I was with a friend, it turned out to be no big deal. After the first set of doors we went to the Administrative Office to pick up the sign-in sheet though it turned out there were none and we wound up using a blank sheet of paper. From there it was down the hall to an elevator to the 4th floor, down another hall where we said a cheery hello to a correctional officer, then down another short hall where we were buzzed through another set of two doors before finally arriving in what my friend had told me was the mental health wing.
I looked up a definition of “cell block” and found that “dormitory” was used to explain the layout. Dormitory makes me think of college or the YMCA, yet it does provide a sense of how the space is organized. We had been buzzed through to a side room with phones on the short end of the room, a windowed and locked (to the chagrin of one of the men) half basketball court across from our entry, and to our left the hall to the larger area. At the end of the hall was a slightly larger congregating area where a corrections officer had a small desk overlooking the actual cell block area, which is at a right angle to where we entered – imagine the entire layout as a letter L and we were buzzed through at the base of the L.
Egads, the cell block is just like every movie portrayal. There are two floors on each side of a rectangular space, the top floor has screening to prevent jumping down to the first floor. There is an open “plaza” on the first floor between the two sides, and this is where we practice yoga. The men set up the space by bringing out the mats, including mats for us. They are required to keep their socks on, though my friend and I went barefoot.
Anywhere from five to nine people practiced yoga with us. I knew in advance that at some point some of them would be called out for medicine, and they had the choice to join in or not, and to come and go as they wanted. The men ranged in age from what looked like in their twenties to mid- to late-sixties. Everyone was respectful and willing to give yoga a try. Indeed, many of the men have been attending the Friday and Saturday sessions since our program began in the summer.
This month’s theme for practice was self-compassion and self-kindness, and we repeated this two or three times during the session. Usually one of us would guide and the other would provide one-on-one assistance either verbally or, after asking if it was okay to touch someone, by firm but gentle touch. For instance, one man asked if I would help guide his leg during the “Figure 4” stretch (also known as a piriformis stretch or Supine Pigeon Pose.)
Ultimately, this was a yoga practice, plain and simple. Yes, there was a bit more energy in the space than typically found in a yoga studio or the community center where I guide practices. Yes, each yogi was wearing the same orange pants and shirts as everyone else. Yes, we were all initially there in that space for vastly differing reasons. But for that hour we were all in that space for one reason, to practice yoga. What brought any given person to practice was also varied and something we would never know. Something to do? To relieve boredom? Wanting to stretch? Hoping to calm and relax? Another reason? It didn’t matter to us. The men were there and so were we, all to practice yoga together.
Towards the end of practice I read a poem in reflection of the dual themes of self-compassion and self-kindness.
Born Again In Radiance
by Danna Faulds (from Go In and In)
Who can resist that first,
optimistic moment of dawn –
the dazzling sliver of light,
sun rising, rounding, making
the profound shift from
promise to presence.
Every possibility contained
in a single instant; light
linking us to vastness,
light reaching back to the
formation of stars, light that
will not let us forget that we
are daily born again in radiance.
The men clapped at the end of the poem, which was read prior to the final minutes of meditation and Savasana. Was it out of politeness or because it resonated or some other reason, I don’t know, but I like to believe that something in the poem meshed, even if it was just accepted as a performance.
The men thanked us at the conclusion of practice, we all signed in on the blank sheet, the men put the mats away, and just like that practice was over. One man asked if there would be yoga next week. Alas, there will be a brief hiatus as the person who organized our volunteering has submitted a proposal that would result in a small stipend for the volunteers. Most of us do not have any desire or need to be paid, we just want to be there sharing practice with the men. My colleague’s response was simply that October’s schedule has not yet been determined so she could not provide any further information. When I first learned of this hiatus my heart sunk though I am optimistic that I’ll be able to return with my friend in the near future. Our organizers understand that the sharing of yoga is more important than the exchanging of payment.
My friend and I spent ten minutes in the parking lot talking about our experience. Our hearts truly soar at being able to share yoga. We are able to come into contact with the men, unlike the experience they have if and when visitors come. We are agog at the physical conditions – the cells – in which the men live. We realize that they are incarcerated for a slew of reasons, most of which are intense, sometimes horrible acts. Yet we also know that circumstances have so much to do with why people commit crimes.
My friend and I were born into middle class families and our lives are considered middle class. We had opportunities that thousands of people do not have because of where they were born or the circumstances into which they were born. And in the United States more money is poured into creating jails and funding the military than into education and any number of programs for helping to build strong, healthy communities. There is a tremendous divide between Americans as to the hows and whys government should even be involved in trying to alleviate poverty.
My friend and I know we will not solve any of this by sharing yoga with the men. We simply hope that during the hour we share on the mat their psyches have a respite. And perhaps they begin to carry that respite off the mat and into their lives. It is what we hope for any yogi we guide through any yoga session.
Above is what I learned by doing. However, prior it was important to me to find answers to questions, primarily among them how to cue people living in prison and how to better understand people living with trauma.
At Liberation Prison Yoga there was this helpful article on The right use of commands. From Prison Yoga Project I found a description for a Typical Class for Prisoners. I also purchased their book A Path for Healing and Recovery, as well as donated a copy for a prisoner. In addition, the organization that provided this opportunity is looking into a one-day training for all volunteers so that we may have a better understanding of who we are practicing yoga with. Besides Liberation Prison Yoga, other possibilities for training include Exhale to Inhale and the Crossover Yoga Project.