What's it like to practice yoga at a detention center?
Imagine rolling your mat out on a dingy gymnasium floor, the film of filth brightened only by the unflinching glare of overhead fluorescent lighting. Open your imaginary ears to hear the incessant chit chat of staff members as they loudly socialize while you try to close your eyes in order to tune into your breath. Feel yourself startle as a walkie talkie unexpectedly comes to life in a burst of static and a metal door slams upon a sudden exit. Try to tune out the insanity around you when a fellow teenaged inmate starts a screaming match with a guard. Challenge yourself to shift your eyes away from the chaotic and violent scene to find a focal point for your gaze as said peer has to be physically restrained and removed from the gym by three additional staff members.
Once the space has settled back into as close as it can possibly come to serene, imagine letting all that has happened - and all of the distractions that will continue to occur - to be let go. See if you can be present enough to close your eyes and find your victorious breath. While a bully mocks you from the sidelines, be brave enough to invite your hands to prayer position at heart center and set an intention. Phrase this intention as a positive affirmation statement in the present tense. Believe that, even in the face of hopelessness and imprisonment, you already have the capacity for your heart's truest desire within yourself. Silently speak this affirmation to yourself in an "I Am" statement and repeat it to yourself three times with three breaths. Example: Inhale and think, "I am." Exhale and think, "free." Inhale and think, "I am." Exhale and think, "free." Inhale and think, "I am." Exhale and think, "free."
Now, let's transition into balance postures. Try to focus on a drishti as the uncertain world that is a juvenile detention center continues to be just as unpredictable as ever around you. Remember that you are committing to the breath, not necessarily the physical attributes of the posture. Remind yourself that balance poses aren't really about staying in balance, they're about how we react when we inevitably come out of balance. As you struggle and fall out, you are tempted to give up, but your instructor encourages you to come back to it. She does this with deep empathy because her own life experience has taught her that anyone who has survived a traumatic childhood in the system is strong enough and has been through too much in life to let anything, much less a silly tree pose, keep them down.
After completing another series of challenging standing postures, your ill fitting prison jumpsuit is soaked with sweat. You're more than ready to cool down and take rest in a final relaxation pose. You invite yourself to your back upon the mat and immediately begin to worry about closing your eyes. Will you be safe? You don't like to be vulnerable, especially in this hostile environment. Is it ok if your mind won't shut off? What if you can't stop worrying about your court date next week? Are you even doing it right?
Your instructor assures you that she will be sitting up the entire time in order to watch over the class. She tells you that keeping your eyes open is always an option and says you're free to take your final rest in any position that is comfortable for you. She speaks softly as she leads you through a trauma sensitive guided meditation and body scan. After some time, you sense your breath deepening and are able to imagine it washing over you like an ocean wave. The tide rolls in and the tide rolls out as your body slowly begins to feel heavy and supported by the earth below you. Then, just as your eyes grow heavy enough to softly close, an ear piercing fire alarm sounds. Your practice has been apprehended by the reality of life behind bars. You spring to your feet and follow the appropriate procedure. Your instructor watches as you file out in formation and hopes that, at the very least, you leave carrying a small piece of the peace you were able to cultivate during the one weekly prison yoga program you have access to.
After reading this true life account of a day during the month of July 2016 at Lima Juvenile Detention Center, perhaps you will have a greater appreciation for your freedom and the privilege of your own personal practice. If so, please consider making a donation to support our continued work introducing the power of yoga into the juvenile justice system.