Doing Time In Timelessness – The Yoga Of Prison
by Sarahjoy Marsh
The first principle of yoga is Opening to Grace, opening to the mystery that is living itself through our lives. Saying yes to this mystery, we say yes to the full parti-cipation with life: each inhale, opening to the winds of Grace; each exhale, bowing to the ocean of this mystery. From this viewpoint, all I see around me becomes the divine mystery, manifesting itself in these many, many forms. Seeing the world this way gives a poignant and sweet sense of intimacy with everything, a boundlessness of heart.
Rilke once said, “…The infinite—what is it? If not intensified sky… you are hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming…”
When we know that we are the bound-lessness, the sky through which birds roam, and the great, deep doorway for homecoming, every action becomes a gesture of this intimacy, a gesture of home-coming. This is why I teach in the prison, and it is what I hope to offer there. I’ve been teaching a weekly, sometimes biweekly, yoga class at a local correctional institution for the past year. The classes began in the TV room of Unit 2.
On the first night, I walk onto the unit in my new sweat pants, assuming, rightly so, that tights would not be in order. I am immediately sized up, though I only stand an inch over five feet tall. I tell the officer why I am here. He announces the class to the bustling unit of card-playing, walkman-listening, hair-styling women. No one changes stride. I ask the Officer to turn off the TV for yoga class; we are going to have yoga in the TV room. I go in, by myself, as women walk out past me. I put down my yoga mat. And then with nothing more to do, I do what I often do when I am nervous. I do yoga. I stretch into Prasarita Padottanasana. As I stand with my feet three feet wide, bent over at the hips, my head on the floor, breathing deeply, a couple women ease into the room. Impressed, they’re checking me out. Finally six women come to stay for class. We say hello, introducing ourselves by first name. No other biographical information is expected or given. I have no idea what their lives are like. In fact, the only construct I might use to imagine what their lives are like is based on TV, media, movies, etc., from my childhood. Somehow my conscious mind knows this won’t be helpful—and I manage to meet them with an empty mind. I feel neither sorry for, nor afraid of them. Because I haven’t generated ideas about their situation at all, I am able to meet them in a freshness that allows me to speak as I always do, from my heart. I tell them that when we are in class, we will be in class together, meaning together. We are here to support each other. The only require-ment for them is that they respect them-selves. They can like or dislike yoga, or me, or each other, or the food in the cafeteria—but in yoga class they will come with respect for themselves and their bodies. Everyone nods. And so we begin.
The unit holds 70 women. 64 of them are just outside the TV room talking, laughing, doing laundry, shouting across the unit to the officer. The lights in the institution are incredibly bright. The TV room has windows on all sides, with a view of the unit, the hallway, and the institution. There is a TV hanging from the corner wall; the room has no other furniture, no decor at all. Blank. For me, it’s a noisy place; a too-shiny, bright-lights place; a cold, still, blank-room place. No soft music, no blankets, no yoga mats, straps, or eye pillows. No incense, none of the usual yoga trimmings. We have only the essence of yoga here—an invitation to homecoming. The first class goes really well, all in all. The women walk out looking tranced and relaxed. Literally, though they wouldn’t tell me for some time, they became entranced with yoga in our very first meeting.
Despite all of the possible distractions of unit life, or perhaps because of them, the women who came to yoga class were able to focus remarkably well. They asked me incredible questions for people who had never heard of or done yoga before: questions on the anatomy of breathing, and how it helps you relax; questions on strength and relaxation, and how you can develop both at the same time. At the end of the first yoga class, while they are relaxing on the floor, I guide them to experience each breath as a gift. The breath offers itself to life, to each of us, unconditionally, be we rich or poor, young or old, within the walls of prison, or on the outside. The breath is a reflection of our innate vastness and freedom, like the sky “hurled through with birds.” And it is our doorway home. As unconditional as the breath is, we come to realize, so too is our innate freedom. It is this freedom, I tell them, that can never be taken away. It is this freedom that is so overlooked and forgotten. Here I invite them to let each simple breath remind them of the freedom and homecoming that lies within. I tell them I will see them next week.
And indeed I do. The same core of women come to yoga class two times a week. They are always ready when I arrive, sitting on their mats in the TV room. The TV is usually turned off before I get there, since yoga is a regular event now. They are eager and inquisitive, soaking up everything I can share about yoga, the language of yoga, stories about yoga, and so on. As we progress through yoga poses, they watch themselves getting stronger, feeling more balanced, breathing more deeply. Reports are even given about how so and so used the breathing practice to help out in a heated situation with the woman in the bunk next to hers. And how breathing before bed is helping them to sleep better at night—as they focus inside, the noise of the unit fades, and they can hear the still, quiet place in their own hearts.
The joy they have for yoga becomes contagious, as they often bring a friend, and regularly recruit the newest unit resident to come along too. A natural mentoring begins to happen as the ‘regulars’ teach the new women about the structure of class… where the mats go, how they should lie down to begin, that it all gets easier with practice, and what the word Namasté means.
The truth is we are not just having a yoga class when we do yoga together. The women are finding a circle of support. We are a community while we are together. We laugh hilariously, moan about hamstrings and bedsprings, sit quietly in gratitude and cheer each other on.
People often ask me if how I teach in the prison is different than how I teach outside of the prison. Granted, the location is very different, the level of education is also generally different, the level of exposure to yoga and meditation is definitely different. But the longing for freedom, the deep calling to connect with the mystery, to feel at home in our own hearts, the longing to understand the deepest, most illusive aspects of ourselves—these longings are the same. The way I teach in prison is exactly the same way that I teach outside of prison. Except that I don’t wear unitards or give out my phone number. I do not take lightly any references to the anger, confusion, rage and frustration that the women in prison often report about their weeks, their day, the interaction they just had. I am sensitive to everything they share. And I respond to their concerns from the same yogic heart that I respond to my own. I don’t censor myself in my teaching, nor in my life. I flow between being candid, being a sister, being a guide to the timeless wisdom of yoga, and being a friend whose life is unfolding with grace.
People ask me what I hope to teach these women. Sometimes people who hear about these yoga classes get riled up and supportive of the differences I must be making in these inmates. Sometimes the talk turns to recidivism, crime rates, education, prison crowding, the misnomer of the word ‘correctional.’ At the moment, I have almost no comment on these social, political, and cultural ailments. The truth is, I don’t hope to teach these women anything. I don’t profess to know how the world needs to change, I only want to be in service to its highest dharma. In these prison classes, I only hope to come together as sisters on the path of life. And if the practice of yoga touches their hearts and bodies as it has mine, each woman’s inner transformation will naturally guide them to their highest dharma. Each time I walk into the prison, I enter their community. And for the short period of a yoga class we step into a circle together that reminds us of our innate worthiness, our innate freedom and our inter-connection with all life.
Sarahjoy Marsh is a founder of The Sanctuary, A Center for Yoga, in Portland, Oregon. Dharma and Healing Arts. A former member of the Breitenbush Hot Springs Community, she now makes her home in Portland, Oregon, where she is dedicated to the heart’s awakening through yoga and meditation. She can be reached at 503-552-9642 503-552-9642 (552-YOGA).
Living Yoga is a non-profit yoga outreach program sponsoring weekly yoga classes in the jail and prison systems. For information, call 503-552-YOGA. To make a tax deductable donation, make checks payable to Acts of Compassion, PO Box 19472, Portland, OR, 97219.