I couldn’t sleep. I was finally going to do the thing I’d been waiting for.
When I got to the parking lot I was feeling good, excited, curious, nervous, and a little scared. You learn what to do if there’s a riot, if you’re taken hostage, ya know all the things that scare the shit out of you and although you try to put those things in the back of your mind it’s left a nice little imprint. I got there early so I sat in my car listening to music trying to erase any preconceived ideas I had. I had never actually been in the unit where I’d be teaching. I didn’t know what it was going to look like, smell like, feel like. It’s hard to erase these ideas that are planted in your head. We’ve all seen the movies or tv shows with prisons and jail. You can’t go a week without Shawshank Redemption being on some tv station and if you were alive in the 90’s you probably saw Natural Born Killers and those prison scenes stick with you. All these scenes create a memory and realistic or not, unconsciously you have a view of prison life and prisoners. It's not easy to erase a lifetime of thought patterns especially if you don’t realize or don’t acknowledge that you have them. So, I sat trying to be completely present and void my mind of the story I had in my head. I was so surprised I was able to do so. It’s something that I practice but it’s a muscle like anything you have to train constantly. Becoming a yoga teacher does not mean you have mastered squat but if you pay attention you realize how much you haven’t mastered. The fact that I actually walked in being completely present was thrilling and I worked to make sure I remained that way.
I waited in the lobby for the man I’d been exchanging emails with over the past 2 years to come get me. I had no idea where to go or how to get there so I had to pay attention. He was buzzed through the multiple doors, and I was surprised he was so young and handsome. There it is, that subconscious idea I had in my head. Through emails and his job title I had painted a picture of an old white man probably looking a bit like Tommy Lee Jones and I hadn’t even realized it. He kept repeating the directions since next week I will be going up on my own and I get why. Although it wasn’t difficult it was all new and still intimidating. Your brain in times of stress loses some information. Details are fuzzy and we may only remember things like a smell or a feeling. When we sense danger our limbic system takes over, diverts blood and oxygen to the muscles and floods the body with adrenaline and cortisol. Systems that are not crucial to survival shut down and the part of the brain that stores memories is offline. This information may seem a bit out of place here but it’s not. It has everything to do with yoga and the need for everyone to have this practice available. More on that in a bit. We went up to the office where I’ll sign in then finally to the unit I’d be teaching. Nothing! It looked nothing like I thought it would. The officer on the unit, physically beautiful! Not the image often portrayed by the unattractive manly looking woman in movies. The unit itself was nicer in some ways but still cold and foreboding, not a place I’d like to live or even spend a night. He continued to show me around and explained again how to get out as I’ll be doing that on my own after class and soon he left. Holy shit he left! I was ready.
One woman started to gather all the woman that wanted to practice and of course they wanted to practice in the yard. The yard is a cement space “outside” with a ceiling, walls on 3 sides and a fenced wall from top to bottom several flights above the ground. While you notice the air is different it is not really like being outside, but you take what you can get. We set up the mats and one by one they trickled in until finally 10 women were on the mat. I looked around and thanked them for letting me come to practice and made eye contact with each person. One woman stood out as what you would imagine just because of the tattoos indicative of having been in prison. The image in your head beyond that is probably inaccurate. I will not go into any details about the women here, that is their story to tell not mine.
I was surprised how open and willing they were. Prison beds are hard on the body. The constant stress of prison life takes a huge toll on the body. The facial expressions and joyous exclamations as they moved and felt their bodies in ways they didn’t expect put the biggest smile on my face. We laughed at the groans caused by a stretch and giggles that came out went straight to my heart. All of a sudden the possibilities, the relief yoga could bring to them came rushing at me in hopeful questions, “What can I do for my lower back, I hurt my neck, my shoulders, my leg, I have frozen shoulder, I have a bullet by my spine, my wrist is sore, my chest hurts”.
“Wait what? A bullet where”? Just like that I was snapped back to where I was. Teaching a class in prison is like teaching anywhere just different surroundings. They are just people. When you see people I mean truly see them, you don’t see their physical appearance, their clothes, their actions, or their words but see them. It was the most honest moment of my life.
It took me to go to prison to truly understand what Namaste meant. Again, it’s one of those moments where you realize you didn’t fully get something and when you do, it’s powerful! The word Namaste is fashionably passed around, stamped on t-shirts and reusable grocery bags. It’s a beautiful thing to strive for and I believe the more you say it, like a little reminder, the closer you can become to actually feeling it. If we are honest with ourselves we all carry judgement and biases. We’re human, it’s ok, our job is to work to become better. That starts with getting uncomfortable and really looking at yourself. You may not like what you see but that’s the first step to change. We’ve had a lifetime creating beliefs, by society, by the things we watch and read and the people we spend time with. We didn’t learn these things cerebrally and we won’t unlearn them that way. We do the work. Step out of the circle of regurgitated information you agree with, talk, listen, and learn from people who aren’t like you. Absorb something that you don’t agree with or understand and just let it sit. I got uncomfortable, I found something there.