As a result of a collaboration between Create QuanYin and CORE (Community Oriented Re-Entry) there is a nascent yoga program at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla. I heard of the program through the director of Create QuanYin and today attended an almost six hour orientation at the facility in preparation for co-leading yoga beginning with the last Saturday of this month.
The orientation began at 8:30 a.m. and the actual orientation portion, led by Sgt Allen, went for ninety minutes. He handed out multiple Policy and Procedure statements related to attendance, restriction of items that can be brought into the facility, workplace violence prevention, civilian code of conduct, and a Civilian Handbook. He made his points with humor, humility, and highly apparent dedication to both the people who work and volunteer there as well as the people for whom this is their residence due to not being able to make bail or not being given the opportunity to make bail.
Most residents are there for the short-term from a few months to two years, though there are people who have much longer sentences, and the reasons people are incarcerated run the gamut. Sgt Allen made numerous points, the most relevant for me as a volunteer were to be constant and consistent in how I interact, and to develop a rapport but not a relationship.
This morning after breakfast I could feel my heart beating in anticipation of the orientation, having only a minimal idea of what to expect. My friend tried to prepare me by saying “they will try to scare you.” Curiously, the orientation did not scare me; it was the physical facility – populated with barbed wire and checkpoints – that had more of an impact. The orientation was in the headquarters and not in the jail; my first visit in the jail will be at the end of the month.
The second part of the orientation consisted of about ten minutes filling out a form, followed by lots of waiting while 18 of us were fingerprinted and photoed for id badges. I had conversations with a number of people including two nurses who already work there, a recent graduate of John Jay who wants to be a PI (Private Investigator) and will be working in the commissary, and Alan, another yoga teacher volunteer who I had shared emails with prior to the orientation. Alan told me about Liberation Prison Yoga and the two-day training he took through the organization, which he highly recommends.
I have just two concerns about leading yoga. The first is that for the past two plus years I have been leading practice with a community where we all know each other, and this will be my first foray in a long time leading yoga for people I do not know. My other concern is that there is no public record (for the yoga teachers) of what is done each week. Other than a general monthly theme, I do not know how the practice has been building and what the participants are familiar with. I mentioned this to Alan and he said it seems that each teacher does their own thing when leading yoga. I am glad to be co-leading with a friend, and even gladder to be seeing her this weekend so I can get a better sense of the flow!
Although I made the decision to become involved with leading yoga in the jail before talking with my Aunt, I take to heart a comment she recently made to me. She said the two most difficult parts of aging (she turns 87 in just a few weeks) are losing friends to death or cognitive impairment, and no longer feeling she is making a useful contribution to society. If I hadn’t already made my decision, her sentiment would have provided a gentle push.