Surprised by Peace by Traci Housman

(from Yoga Therapy Today, Spring 2011)

When I met Nancy I was in a very dark and transitional place in my life. I had left my life behind to move to a new town, where I married my teenage sweetheart. A year later, I found myself in jail, not understanding how I let my life get so out of control. I was mourning my husband and still trying to understand what had happened that night. I was broken and disconnected. I was lost and searching for meaning, trying to find a purpose in everything that was happening. As I began to accept that I was in captivity, I reached out for answers.

The jail offered several groups and classes that inmates could sign up to attend. A few of the older ladies in the jail had been attending a class called, “Relaxation Techniques.” I asked about it and was told it was basically a Yoga class. I had never done Yoga, but I had always been curious about it. There was a class limit of five people; I put my name on the waiting list and soon found myself in my first Yoga class.

That was when I first met Nancy [Ed. Nancy was a longtime facilitator in PDN’s Jail program for women in Boulder).

We sat on Yoga mats in a circle on the floor. We took turns telling how we were feeling at the moment and letting Nancy know if we hand any injuries to be aware of. She began talking about metta, lovingkindness. Each lady had her own story and level of stress, pain, and ability. Nancy started us off lying on our backs and doing some exercises that worked our abs. I was surprised at how quickly my muscles were being activated. I was used to crunches and sit-ups, but these seemed much more effective. Next, we started doing some poses. They were all foreign to me, but her directions were clear enough that I could fumble into each one. Everyone was laughing as we stumbled around trying to find our balance. But throughout the class, she always reminded us that there were modifications to the poses that would allow anyone to gain benefit.

At the end of the class, everyone commented on how much more relaxed they felt. How their bodies felt healthier. Some were able to maintain that feeling once back in the main jail area, while others were immediately pulled back into the never-ending drama of jail life.

For several months I continued to attend the weekly class. I enjoyed the physical effects on my body. I had a back injury that had plagued me for fourteen years that seemed unnoticeable to me after the class. The stretches were intense, but when paired with the focus on breathing that was practiced during the stretches, I found my muscles were able to relax more into the stretch and I received much-needed relief (especially considering the uncomfortable metal beds at the jail). I also focused on the metta teachings. These were practices that kept my heart in the right place. Too many people in the jail become bitter and angry and even aggressive. It was very difficult to be in such close quarters with so many people going through so much stress, but the techniques taught in the classes allowed me to interact with people and accept their behaviors without feeling triggered myself. I was able to find a place of peace within myself.

There were times when a completely new group of women attended the class, and each time, Nancy was able to meet everyone where they were at. Several women entered the class feeling like it would be unattainable, that they were not equipped to reap the benefits of Yoga; but through her kind words and thoughtful training, I watched self-esteem and self-worth blossom before my eyes. For so long, I had believed that Yoga practice was for those privileged few…not for me. But Nancy introduced us to the idea that Yoga was something that everyone deserved to have in their life.

Toward the end of my nine months of incarceration, I began to discover the fitness benefits of Yoga. I had always done regular exercise and considered myself to have a strong body. I soon learned that Yoga offered a level of fitness that I had never explored. Once, after being given more specific feedback on the technique of the poses, I found myself breaking a sweat within ten seconds of a pose. Breathing was again taught to help keep me focused on my body. It was truly like being able to take a vacation inside of my own body. I could be surrounded by aggression and chaos and yet be in a safe, calm place within myself.

It is amazing for me to look back and see how I have been so privileged to have met Nancy at such a difficult time in my life. The focus that I was able to attain during such a traumatic period was impressive. The ability to simply “let go,” when so many times in my life that was easier said than done, just became automatic at times. I had a new-found practice of slowing everything down inside of myself so that I could process what it was that I was feeling, and tune into a connection with everything around me that I was not aware of before.

In addition to my own experience, I observed so many women experience different levels of their own growth. I watched people who have never known another way of thinking, consider new possibilities and try new ideas. I watched them open to something different. I watched women who had insecurities about their weight find pride in themselves for the energy that they exerted in class. I watched girls who would respond to stress with aggression, simply choose to let go of a situation. As I have said, it is amazing to look back and see what Nancy brought to the environment.

Once I had been released and started the next chapter in my life, with its own set of challenges, I could feel that I was drifting away from that place inside of myself that found connection. Fortunately, I reconnected with Nancy on the outside of those walls and was invited into her instructor program. I am learning more about the concepts and techniques that held me in dark times, and I am excited that I will be able to bring this to people in the future. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have met Nancy, to be learning from her, and to have the chance to share this knowledge with people who desperately need it in their lives. These people aren’t even aware of how much they could benefit from the teachings, just like I didn’t know.

Now, nine months since my release, I continue to be amazed at the progress that takes place in me. Sometimes it is a trickle, and other times I am flooded with it. At times, it is a physical progress. All of a sudden my body finally understands how to coordinate the muscles and I just “get it.” Sometimes, it is on a more connected level. Spiritual, if you will. I can be struggling with emotions or an interaction for whatever reason, and something inside my heart just opens up to the big picture of it all, and for a moment, I am able to step outside of my own protective walls and simply accept what is. I cherish every moment that I am given. I journal it each day, which is a part of the instructor training course. And I am learning about the physiology of Yoga poses in connection with the anatomy of the body. The most exciting part about it is the realization that I will always have more to learn, further to reach, and deeper to go into every doorway that Yoga practice has opened inside of me. For as crippling as some of the moments were that brought me to where I am now, I can’t help but be grateful for every moment of my life.

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