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Why Yoga for Women Prisoners?

By Rob Schware for the Huffington Post, September 24, 2012


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Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My teacher, Kathy Donnelly, director of the Yoga Center of Columbia http://www.columbiayoga.com/ , established yoga programs and taught for several years in both of the prisons where I now teach. Her example inspired me and her connections gave me a way to step into the work fairly easily.

Teachers like Kathy and James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project continue to be a great inspiration to me, but truly the greatest motivation comes from my on-going contact with the vibrant community of incarcerated women. I teach public classes, but nothing fills me with the same deep sense of purpose and integrity that I get when I teach behind bars. The vast majority of women serving time will eventually return to the communities in which we all live. It serves not only them but all of us to provide them with whatever tools we can to help assure their successful reentry into the world.

Is there a standout moment from your work with the women in the prisons?

I had an experience recently that moved me. I arrived late (having been stuck on the highway for more than an hour behind a wreck). Being on time is a simple courtesy that should always be followed. It takes on an additional level of importance when working with people who may have experienced decades of chaos and repeated betrayal. I have a responsibility to be reliable.

Instead of going through the anxiety and list of explanations that I had been writing in my head, I entered the class to find the women already part way through their practice. I was greeted with joy and expressions of relief that I was OK, and I was offered a seat in the circle. There was a moment when the woman who had been leading the class turned to look at me, asking what to do next. I was able to say I’m not ready, but you seem to be – can I take your class? She spoke once again to the full circle and I took the class along side the other women, softening into the breathing practice and releasing tension as I followed her invitation to move. I was touched by her grace and deeply moved by her sense of empowerment.

It’s unusual for the prisoners to be allowed to start an activity without the teacher being present. As I left I thanked the officer in charge for letting them go ahead without me. She replied that she thought it would be OK since yoga always seems to calm everyone.

What did you know about women in prison before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them and how have those assumptions changed?

I knew that they were women and that I am a woman. I assumed that, despite differences in our circumstances, we would be more alike than different, and I assumed that it was really more about yoga than about me or them.

What I did not expect was the depth of connection, receptivity, and dedication to the practice I would find in the students. I knew that I would learn about them, but I did not know that I would learn so much from them. Teaching incarcerated women has presented me with many challenges to the way I think, teach, and live in the world. I have learned never to underestimate the capacity for healing and growth, no matter what the source or the circumstances.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?

In prison-based classes I work at reducing the hierarchical structure common to most studio classes. We set our mats out in a circle. I practice alongside the women. I emphasize their capacity to do this with or without a teacher. I start every class with a discussion – every voice is given equal weight and the women are invited to focus on their own ability to listen to their intuition and to heal themselves.

I teach very gently and slowly, with a strong focus on reducing anxiety and grounding.

I know this is controversial, but I also use touch a great deal in these classes. I believe it is a hugely important part of healing for the women to experience touch that is appropriate – non-violent, non-sexual. I don’t really do adjustments but I teach a lot of partner poses so that women have the opportunity to both give and receive healing touch.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I don’t generally know what the women have done that has led to a prison sentence. It’s not really relevant to a yoga class. However, I’m not naïve. I teach in maximum security facilities. I am aware that some of them must have committed acts of great brutality. Some of the women have chosen to tell me their stories. They are not pretty and they are not excused. Their stories had not shaken my core belief in universal worthiness.

A while ago a woman walked into my class whose face I had seen plastered all over the papers in connection to an exceedingly brutal crime. I did not have the chance to even look in her eyes and sense her humanity before I knew her name, the details of her crime – and it sickened me.

As we moved through the class I had to keep finding my breath. I felt rocked back on my heels. Could I really see her as worthy? Was I capable of holding that faith?

I have a regular meditation practice, but I probably meditated more in the following days and weeks than I have ever done before. I have never been so grateful for the familiarity of the practice.

Eventually a very bare, stripped down sense of worthiness emerged for me. It does not always contain the sweet joy that I had previously assumed was necessary, but it was and remains consistent and present. For her, for myself, for my daughters and for the rest of humanity, I hold that sense and that space. She continues to attend classes, offering her support and receiving the support of others throughout the practice. I believe that to be of value.

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