We started our detention yoga class with mats in a circle, stress relieving pillows in hand, energy all over the place. After explaining how we could experience being in the present moment by focusing on the pillows and taking deep breaths, the girls committed to do the practice for 1 minute.
The gym was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. When 1 minute was up, I asked what they noticed. The girls begin sharing their struggles, worries, the thoughts which have been haunting them since their incarceration. We discussed noticing how a single thought can lead to thinking. We talked about experiences where our thinking sparked feelings. We shared about times when our feelings impacted how we reacted to situations and how we interacted with other people.
I explained that it's possible to use breathing, movement, and focus to experience something beyond our constant thoughts and the subsequent feelings. As an example, I told them about the first time I did yoga.
Essentially, I got my ass handed to me. I'm not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn't quite that level of exercise. It was one of the most challenging situations I have ever put myself into (purposely). But I didn't quit. It took every bit of my focus, but I was able to finish the class. When the end finally came and final resting pose was queued, my body went SPLAT on the mat and my mind was silenced. I had achieved my first of many yoga highs. It felt like heaven.
During the class, because I had to be so focused on every tiny detail of what my body was doing - for the first time in my life - I was able to be completely free of the constant stream of seemingly uncontrollable thoughts which were always racing through my head. And THAT'S what got me hooked; the first taste of what it's like to be fully present in the present moment. No thoughts of yesterday, no worries about tomorrow, just the right now. The only moment I was in was the moment I was in. Wow, what a rush.
“You mean... I don't HAVE to think? Holy shit! Give me more of that!"
In time, with continued practice, more was revealed. For so many years, I had allowed my thoughts and emotions to rule my attitudes, dictate my actions, and impact my relationships. Yoga showed me another way. Now I know that my thought process is just that, a process. I can allow this process to enslave me or I can choose to override it. I learned how to use breathing, movement, and focus to make my mind a servant instead of allowing it to be my master.
The girls were curious, asked questions, and offered insightful observations. By the end of our open discussion, they were eager to experience the power of yoga for themselves. All three girls committed to do their best to breathe, move, and focus. They agreed to back out of anything that caused pain and to challenge themselves to keep going, even when their thoughts told them to give up.
35 minutes later and the gym was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. The girls were splat on their mats in their own unique ways, eyes closed, breath calm, bodies still. Perfect exactly as they were without having to change a single thing. Their final resting pose was accompanied by a guided body-scan meditation and the gentle sound of Tibetan singing bowls.
Conversation at the end of the class
Girl 1: Where did you go during the rest?
Girl 2: I was remembering when I had my baby. I don’t know why, but that’s where I was.
Girl 3: I didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t thinking about anything. For once! I’m so relaxed!
Me, turning to Girl 1: So, where did you go?
Girl 1: I was sitting on my porch.
Me: Is that something you like to do?
Girl 1: I don’t have a porch.
Me: Wow. How did that make you feel?
Girl 1: Real good. Even though I don’t have a porch, I was sitting on it, and I knew it was mine. It felt real peaceful.
Immediately after her response, the detention center staff announced it was time to get up, get quiet, get in line, and get back to the cell block. As they walked away, I invited them to use what they learned from this experience any time. I smiled and waved goodbye.
Though I will return to the facility next week, due to the transient nature of the juvenile justice system, I know I will probably never see any of these girls again. There is no sadness for me in this statement, only a sense of peace and acceptance. This is my purpose. I will continue to serve it.
Transformation Yoga Project, a non-profit (501)(3), serves people impacted by trauma, addiction and incarceration though trauma-sensitive yoga.