Monday mornings: for the past 4-5 months or so, I voluntarily show up to teacher my first class of the day on the first day of the week. I drive to a part of town I had never been to before I started and never go to at any other time of my regular life. I bring only my driver’s license, Yoga Nidra book, and yoga mat. I walk through a metal detector while my yoga mat and Yoga Nidra book slide through the airport-like scanner. After trading my driver’s license for a badge, I wait anywhere from 5-20 minutes for my escort who winds me through a maze of hallways and ID-activated elevators and through doorway where one door slides closed and locks before the other opens, to the 3rd floor. I make my way down the hall to a locked room, I push tables to the periphery of the room and stack chairs out of the way and wait.
When my students arrive, we exchange greetings like “hello,” “good morning” and the occasional “how are you,” which feels uncomfortable considering their circumstances. Though, I guess we all have better and worse days…
The only thing I officially know about them are their first names – not what they did or how long they’ve been here. Not how long they will be or where they will go next (not that they would know, if I asked). What I un-officially know is that they’re all there because they may (or may not) have done something illegal, they’re awaiting decisions about whether they’ll stay there (and for how long), be sent to prison (and for how long) or if they’ll be released back into the life that is continuing to go on around them, outside of the walls of the building. I also know that they all have experienced severe trauma in many forms and throughout the duration of their lives and, my guess is, that none have had any support in helping to process the trauma and chaotic situations they’ve come to know as “normal.” They’ve done bad things, some much worse than others, and they’re also victims of shocking experiences. Both are true. Neither are excuses.
As they unroll their mats and I ask them what they need and how they want to work. The answer is always tired… tired… no energy. That, and “back” – low back, mid-back, upper-back. So, we usually spend 20-30 minutes with a simple asana practice with the hopes of alleviating some of the tension and discomfort in the body as well as to begin to help them strengthen their attention, gain some self-awareness, and to begin to sit with discomfort. Some women do the whole thing, many move the floor after the first few minutes, laying down and sporadically doing some of the movements that the group is doing.
Eventually we move into a Yoga Nidra practice. The 30+ minutes of guided, deep relaxation with systematic direction of consciousness is how I’ve chosen to use the bulk of our time together. One hour of yoga nidra practice is the equivalent of 4-hours of deep sleep, so giving these ladies what works out to be like a 2-hour deep sleep feels like the greatest offering I can make. Though they’re not supposed to sleep, many end up rolling their sides, arms tucked inside their jumpsuits, into the fetal position where they fall deeply asleep. Occasionally, we work with meditation.
Towards the end, I always ask them if they have questions or experiences they’d like to share. Often 1 or 2 will share. We talk about feeling rested, about being exhausted, about not know what to expect. We talk about how pretending we’re not feeling an emotion is really actually suppression – which I compared to trying to hold a lid over a steaming pot of water and, in recognition, one woman compared to having a lighter explode in your face while smoking crack; different truths describing the same internal experience. We talk about how our thoughts and internal stories are often habitual and how they can affect us for days, weeks, and years even after the event has happened – how we perpetuate those experiences by reliving them over and over again… shaping our current reality. One woman saw clearly a story that she’s held onto since 1984.
My hope is to continue this work. To continue utilizing the tools of yoga and meditation to help these women increase their self-awareness in some capacity, to begin to see how their internal reactions and responses are shaped by their experiences and to see that that’s not the only possibility, to guide them – even if momentarily – toward experiences of themselves that are other than what they’ve known so that they can begin to break free of behaviors and actions that harm themselves and others. This is the pursuit of the ultimate freedom.
Tomorrow, I will begin pro bono life coaching with one inmate. We are condensing as many sessions into a short period of time because we don’t know how long she’ll be at the jail before being moved to another correctional facility or how long after that before she’ll be back home with her children. Her wish is to find a way to release the pain, the rage, the intense reactionary habit so that she can show up for her kids and teach them by example. My wish is to help her do that.
If you are interested in learning more about my work at the City Jail or if you are interested in financially supporting this work so that I can extend my reach to more women, please donate at www.gofundme.com/inmatecoaching or, as always, if you have questions reach out to me via email – firstname.lastname@example.org