For the third year in a row, I've participated in a program that brings attorneys and judges (as well as others) into a women's correctional facility in Delaware, with the aim of providing tools to help the women there have skills to make it on the outside. The first year's program focused on lots of practical work. I taught a single yoga class and the reviews were positive. I left being grateful for the opportunity to teach a practice that people could put to use right away. A practice that people could use to help them while they were in prison.
The second year I taught two classes. I was fired up to share all my theoretical knowledge of how yoga works for addiction and trauma. I was met with blank stares. The program involves dividing women into groups, and then sending those groups to different programs. So not everyone wanted to be there in the cold gym, with the yoga teacher. And at times, I was standing in front of 50 women, some of whom were serving time for minor crimes, some of whom were in for assault. The second year's programming started with a visit from the governor and his wife. At the end of the morning's session, the inmates had an opportunity to ask questions. As you can imagine, they advocated well for better access to services, like 12 step programs and education. They were fired up, and then sent into a gym to do yoga. Not my most receptive audience. Quite different from sleepy suburbanites rolling into a 7 am class. By the afternoon class of that second year, I ditched my plan and taught as much of a straight class about breathing and movement as I could. They loved it.
This year the program focused on expressing to the women that they had the opportunity to change. That if they changed, if they worked to heal the wounds that brought them to the prison, they could thrive. The women were presented with the idea was that once a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it can never change back into a caterpillar. As with the year before, I had a group of women, some who wanted to be there, some who didn't. This year, we had mats donated by the women's section of the state bar. I asked the women to sit on the mats, and literally feel the mats under them as support. To feel the support of women they never met, who they never would meet, who wanted to do one simple, small thing. Given the experience the year before, I pared down my teaching into even simpler work. Because most of the students in the prison have never done yoga, and only a handful have even seen it on TV, the class had to operate like a beginner's workshop, which meant keeping the class as simple as possible. Imagine teaching a class where students think coming into a table top pose is challenging. Where they have little time to move during the week, so that folding forward and lifting half way up is a miracle for their lower backs.
At the end, we did a mediation again on feeling the support of the mat, of the women outside the prison who supported them, who wanted to see them change. As the women slowly sunk into their mats, softening even under the harsh glare of the bright overhead institutional lights, a CO barked out orders for count on the loudspeakers.
It's funny to me though, being thanked for teaching again by the organizers. To me this is a huge learning experience. As a teacher, I can get so wrapped up in planning a creative sequence or finding a theme I can weave through the class in a soft way. Teaching in prison reminds me that we all need the basic stuff. We all need to breathe. We need the simple things of feeling supported. Feeling like we can change. That we have some tool that can help us navigate the broken pieces in our heart. Each time I walk out of prison, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have learned how to show up as a teacher in a more and more authentic way.
We all are working through our own liberation. How many yogis out there have Ganesh statutes or chant for removal of obstacles? How many of us walk through life carrying stones of the mistakes we've made, the people we've hurt or failed or didn't show up for. How many are trapped in addictions to things other than drugs, like work, or restricting food, or finding some new way to win the shiny brass ring of achievement - like we could level up in life as if it were a video game.
The big differences in teaching in prison are obvious - no one is going to interrupt your soft, quiet meditation to announce to inmates its time to line up. None of your students are going to interrupt you in the middle of teaching to remind you to put your visitor badge back on, with real concern on their faces. The big stuff is easy. Facing the small steady beat of fear that stays with you once you hear the metal doors to the outside slam shut when you enter, the beat of fear that says "I really hope I can leave again," that part is easy. Showing up to teach people who've been failed and failed again, with your small offering of yoga is the hard part. Showing up in an honest and authentic way to teach is the hard part. Allowing yourself to be ready to have all your pretty tricks stripped away - like the killer playlist or the really amazing flow you figured out - and facing students so hungry for yoga you can actually feel it is the challenge. And its why I can't wait to get back in and do it again.
- Maggie Juliano
About the Author: I've been doing yoga for 23 years. Honestly. There are times I've been totally burned out on it, overwhelmed by commercialization of it, and other times I've had my breath taken away by how transformative a simple practice can be to people that are hungry for it: in prison, in treatment centers, anywhere. So I blog about everything I love, am thinking about, am inspired about and am doing with yoga.