I Teach Yoga To People In Jail — This Is What I've Learned
Ten stories above Centre Street in New York City, in the southernmost tower of a jail known as The Tombs, there's a supply closet housing an IKEA bag filled with yoga mats. Each week for the past year and a half, I've made my way up to that closet through security and gated checkpoints to collect these mats for class.
Whenever teaching in a jail comes up in conversation, the script goes like this: "What is that like?" Then, I inhale to begin a response, but even more questions follow: "I mean, how did you...do they...I've never thought..."
I get it. For the past 40 years, we've been sold a very specific idea of what yoga spaces, and practitioners, look like. We're used to seeing open spaces with polished wood floors. Sometimes they're quiet, or sometimes there's soft music trickling through. For the most part, everyone starts together and does the same thing—cue by cue, through a predetermined sequence culminating in a gooey, blissed-out savasana.
We find liberation together, not alone in a salt bath.
It's different in jail. I trained at Liberation Prison Yoga, a non-profit organization that facilitates trauma-conscious programming for people interested in teaching in jails and prisons. Here, start and stop times are not always so formal. Savasana happens if you're lucky. There's no silence and definitely no soft music. But a lot is there. A lot does happen. And there's a great deal I've learned by engaging in this work:
1. Yoga really (really) isn't about the poses.
Sometimes this is a person's first time doing yoga, and frankly, the whole idea of yoga is intimidating. So we make up a lot of goofy movements. We don't have bolsters or blocks or straps, but we do use the railings, chairs, tables, and walls. Sometimes we've only got 20 minutes together, a fight just settled down, and a quieting meditation is what's best for the moment. If it were just about postures, it wouldn't work. What's important is that there's an invitation to soften and slow down.
2. If you're teaching, it's not ever about you.
There's a sense in a typical studio that a class centers around the teacher, which creates an imbalance in a group's power dynamic. We set up mats in a circle. By simultaneously going inward, and holding space for others to do the same, we are creating a space in which there is no single teacher except for the one inside each of the participants. No one person is more important. (Except for when Wendy Williams is on the TV—then she's more important.)
3. Sacred space is wherever you intend it to be.
From the street to the transgender unit where I teach, I pass through a metal detector, two elevators, and seven locked gates. Then, class happens in the middle of a sometimes very happening, noisy dorm. What makes our space special is simply the collective will, the intention of presence for oneself and one another. I remember a meditation where it was especially raucous, but my co-teacher just kept guiding us through a visualization of warm sands and forgiving waters. It was not her but a group that was willing to be present, vulnerable, and open that made it possible and sacred.
4. We could be doing a lot more listening.
Too often, we just talk. Yoga teachers are not therapists, but we are all, as humans, capable of allowing another person to feel seen and truly heard. Many times after a class, it's like a dam opens and a student's story comes pouring out. That story may involve a trauma or how they have experienced oppression. Everyone has a story. Listening is radical. And feeling heard can be revolutionary.
5. It's not about being happy.
Or grateful. Or blissed out on yoga highs. If that's where you're at, awesome! But that's exactly it: It's about honoring where you're at. Lovingkindness meditations or gratitude meditations have their place; it can be complacent to place too much emphasis on positive thinking, which often slips into spiritual bypassing. This work is about knowing you're a beautiful, infinite blue sky, yes, but also learning to honor yourself when it's actually just downpouring.
6. But also it's not so serious, either.
One of the teachers I've worked with is a big fan of full-body wiggling. Sometimes we fall out of a pose, laugh at how ridiculously uneven our bodies are, and move on. Sometimes, there's inside- or outside-world drama that needs to be talked out. We'll be in a warrior pose, breathing in, breathing out, and, "OMG, did you see the latest cover of Vogue?" It's important to hold space for the whatevers! It's all good!
7. This too shall pass—we just don't know when.
I might see a student for several months; I might see them for a single session. In jail, we don't know when the last time we'll share space together will be. After this particular unit was suddenly transferred, one student I had seen every week for almost a year did not move with the group. There were no goodbyes, and it's likely I'll never see her again. On the flip side, there was another woman who came to class for four or five months. We thought each week would be her last, but the court dates kept getting pushed further back. There's so much we can't plan for. Treat people kindly.
8. A forward fold can flip your world.
I once worked with a woman who was coming to the mat for the first time and was convinced she was "bad" at this. As the group was moving into its first forward fold, she stood there, brows raised, hand on hip. "Nah, I can't do that." Thirty seconds later, I look over and her hands were on the floor, legs straight. Then, pop! She was back up. "OMG, did you see that?" Yes, I saw that—the total flip of her own narrative. I saw the total rewiring of what she was capable of and a new sense of what is possible. Yes, I saw that. Narratives can change. People need to make their own discoveries. It doesn't have to be fancy.
9. Well-being is an enormous privilege.
We find liberation together, not alone in a salt bath. For those who are buoyant, for those who are well off, it means showing up and fighting for others who have been barred from that privilege. It means owning the privileged aspects of your identity, democratizing wellness spaces for more equal access, and fighting for the social and legislative change necessary to lift up all people.
10. Meditation is a radical thing.
This work does not replace social workers, housing programs, and policy needed to counteract centuries of systemic oppression. But I have seen enough times, in or after meditation, a moment of release—of dropping into self. Meditation can be a bit of a medicine for the incessant stress and a tool for seeing oneself sans judgment. Sometimes it's just a flash, but for a moment, there's sometimes a little freedom, which is revolutionary. Inner world to outer, it's my honest hope that this work imparts tools for greater collective well-being.
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