What I Learned While Teaching Yoga In A Women's Jail

Written by Chellis Ying

Photo by Stocksy

As we wait for the guard to escort the six inmates back to their dorms, one of the woman says, "They wake us up at five." She has tattoos up her arms and brown stringy hair.

"Five?" I ask, "Why so early?" During my orientation to teach yoga in the jails, I was told not to divulge any personal information about myself, in case an inmate was freed and looked me up. I'm relieved for the opening to talk about something as innocuous as wake-up times.

Another inmate chimes in, "We have chores, they fill us with jail cake, and then we head back to bed and get fat." She lifts up her maroon-colored shirt and pinches her pale belly.

"I need to get fat," interjects another inmate. She has dirty blond hair, clear white skin, and only upon this comment do I notice that she's more slender than the other girls. "How much do you think I weigh?" she asks. I have no idea, I tell her.

"When I came in, I was 97 pounds," she says. "It was the meth." She shares this without any shame, as if telling me her favorite cupcake flavor. As a married, college writing professor, whose only exposure to meth is watching five seasons of Breaking Bad, I'm surprised by my first thought: But this girl is so beautiful. How could she be addicted to meth?

She shares that she was shocked by how intense meth was. She took her first hit and never stopped being high for seven months. She lost weight, she lost her teeth, she prayed to get arrested, and then she did. She found herself on the floor in a maximum-security prison, in and out of consciousness, sobering up for the first time that year.

"Why were you on the floor instead of a bed?" I ask. She shrugs her shoulders. "I guess they were worried I might die." Two male guards interrupt our conversation. One tells the girls to line up single file, which they do immediately and obediently. These women don't like rules, but they know that in this place, they must follow them.

"Bye," the pretty girl says with a youthful wave. "That was really cool."

When the girls leave, I take a seat. I'm relieved. The truth is, being in here scares me. When I think of women's jails, I imagine Piper in Orange Is the New Black being burned a swastika sign by a Hispanic gang. This is partly why I'm here. It bothers me that there's a huge population of Americans that I only know through dramatized entertainment.

When I first learned about our broken criminal justice system, I was plagued by the statistics: 716 people out of 100,000 are incarcerated; 5 percent of the world's population lives in the United States, and yet it is home to 25 percent of the world's prison population. I am fully aware that volunteering in a jail once a month will not improve this systemic problem, but I have this strong desire to make a connection with the people behind these statistics, to turn the numbers into real faces.

Before this, I shadowed another yoga teacher in a sequence that didn't resemble any class I'd ever taken in my 12-year practice.

She repeated, "breathe in, breathe out," moving her arms up and down. Afterward, we walked to our cars, and she explained to me that it was a specific style of yoga for women who had undergone trauma.

The simple repetition was a way to repair the lost connection between the left and right brain. She said that instructing these women with too many directions was often alienating to them.

In my studio classes, I have the tendency to focus on anatomy and proper alignment and share scientific studies on mindfulness. When my mom took my class, she said, "Nobody talks as much as you." I'm a sharer. I'm a talker. That's why I teach. But in this jail, where I'm not even allowed to divulge my last name, I find myself awkwardly tongue-tied.

Two guards escort the next class in. Six girls dressed in the same maroon-colored suits immediately stare me down.

"Hey," says a young black woman with long braids.

"Hey," I say back.

Another inmate cringes. "I've never done this yoga thing."

Typically, in a yoga studio, I'd tell the new practitioner to listen to their body, focus on their breath, everything in a yoga class is optional, and the only reason to be here is to treat themselves and have fun. This advice doesn't seem relevant in this concrete room with no windows.

"Don't worry," I say. "You'll be fine."

The inmates practice yoga in the carpeted activities room with large dry erase boards and long plastic tables and metal chairs stacked

against the wall. The room is on the second floor. A narrow stairway separates us from the closest available guard.

After the women sign in, spray their mats, and stagger for space, I instruct them to lie on their backs and close their eyes. I lead them

through a pranayama exercise, encouraging them to slow down their breath, inhale and exhale consciously, fill their bellies, lungs, and

ribs completely. Most follow my instructions, but a girl in the corner lies on her back with her eyes wide open.

She doesn't look around, which is common among the fidgety. She looks up at the halogen lights, deep in her own thoughts. Her hands open and close into fists.

For the next 45 minutes, I lead the girls through a gentle sequence of twists, forward folds, and heart openers. Immersed in the

language of yoga, I'm not anxious or afraid.

At 37, my yoga ambitions are no longer about floating into the perfect handstand, or folding my body backward into a question mark. Instead I'm happy to have a consistent practice that's injury-free. I teach one to five yoga classes a week, depending on my college grading schedule.

Yoga students ask me when I'll be added to the schedule, but I like being a sub. When I sub, I stay humble. Instead of owning a

class that's popular and full of students, or developing an Instagram feed full of "likes," I'm merely a messenger of a practice that has

long supported me.

In the women's jail, the girl who had stared at the ceiling can't stop twitching. She makes a joke with the girl next to her. She sits

up and crosses her arms, then releases a frustrated sigh. Finding stillness is challenging enough among regular practitioners, and I

think about how impossible it must be for someone with a substance abuse problem. Not that this girl does, I remind myself. Being in

here is a practice on not assuming to know anybody's story.

I remind the girls to slow down their breath. I tell them that scientific studies have proved that meditation and yoga can improve

their ability to stay focused, feel less anxious, and increase their empathy toward others. I'm probably talking too much. I'm not as

knowledgeable about trauma therapy as the teacher I had shadowed. But I want these women to know that what they're doing right now is really good for them. Through the language of yoga, I'm telling them there's hope.

After the class ends, the girls help me put the activities room back in order. They roll up their donated mats. We unfold the tables and

chairs and place them underneath their color-coordinated arrows. One inmate says that everything, even the tables, have rules to follow in here. Two guards pick up the six girls, who line up single-file.

I follow them down the stairs. They walk down the gray hallway with their fingers interlaced behind their backs. They don't speak. They

don't laugh. They're about to turn the corner, and I wonder if one of them will look back and smile at me.

If this were the end of a television show, the inmate who couldn't stop twitching would look back at me and mouth the words, "Thank you." I'd see her disappear behind the corner, feeling a sense of fulfillment, completeness, and an appreciation for a philanthropic job well done. I'd share this message with the world, and, in turn, a massive following of teachers would volunteer to teach yoga in the jails.

But this is not a TV show. This is not a movie. None of the girls turn around to thank me or smile at me.

They turn the corner and retreat to a mysterious corner of the cement building where they eat jail cake and count down the days.

I turn in my paperwork. The guards take their time letting me out of the main gate. I exit into the parking lot, blinded by the intensity of the sun after three hours in a room lit by halogen bulbs. I get into my car and think about how it's four o'clock on a Friday afternoon, and I have the option, the freedom, the inalienable privilege to do anything I please. If I did anything today, I hope I gave those women just a hint of this feeling.

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