Why prison? And maximum security mens? Lucky them....Do you wear yoga pants?
Those are the most common responses I receive when I tell others about my most recent project. And no, I wear trackies and a baggy jumper abiding prison dress etiquette.
I thought I would share my experiences teaching yoga on the inside.
How did you get involved?
It’s a good question. The truth is I don’t really know how I got on to this. I remember at my yoga teacher training a discussion about how we can share our experiences of yoga. We looked at the areas of the world where yoga was accessible and what yoga means to different areas of society. For me, yoga is the ability to connect to my breath, body and mind and create a positive change for my mental health and wellbeing. The physical effects of a strong yoga practice are secondary for me, however they are a welcome addition. The western yoga market is saturated. There are teachers and studios everywhere, and for Auckland city-goers a class on every corner if you have $20 to spare. I was beginning to think abut the individual that can not afford these classes or feels that they may be restricted in some way. This can range from anywhere to a busy schedule, to body image, confidence trying something new, the stigma behind yoga or their location.
I know that many charities are fortunate enough to host yoga and meditation classes- perhaps at a hospital, school, or for other health departments where yoga could be key to someones recovery . An area that I thought would be the least accessible for a multitude of reasons would be a corrections facility.
Do people question your decision to help criminals? Do the prisoners deserve this? You are guying up your valuable time.
For one part of me, I wholeheartedly agree. We make our own choices in life that lead us to where we are today. During my research, what stood out to me was the way that yoga in prisons DID impact the wider community. By the inmates creating a understanding on breath, mindfulness and self awareness and by having interaction with their units and a member of the community (me) it allows them to use not only the hour we spend together to consider their behaviour and actions, but take this further off the mat.....
It may be the way they speak to their child on the phone
Take deeper breaths and pause before activating flight or flight mode
Understanding calming the nervous system
Mobility in the body
Simile in the hall at another inmate or staff member
Reminder that we are all human
How did you choose to teach at Aucklands maximum security mens prison, not at a ladies or low risk?
I knew there was yoga in NZ prisons and that the YEPT existed but I didn’t know how to go about it. After a few emails I was in contact with Mt Eden Prison and Auckland Prison. Talking in further detail with the volunteer coordinator at Auckland, I felt safe and supported and she really wanted to push to get my classes up and running. Her support made my decision to teach there fairly straight forward.
Could you just walk into the prison?
They do a police check on you and when you are cleared can start the induction. It was a 2 hour work shop that was designed to inform you on all aspects of the prison. This ranged from security aspects, how inmates could make weapons from a ballpoint pen, how to speak to prisoners and the risks involved emotionally and physically by entering the corrections facility.
Probably the only time I want a ‘mug shot’ and my prints taken in a corrections unit!
I initially was assigned to a unit on Fridays, which ended up being cancelled due to no young females being allowed on site- even when escorted. I was a bit disheartened but also thankful that the team was so onto it and able to judge if the situation was safe. It’s easy to get caught up in what you hope will be a positive session and to try and block the reality that you are amongst some of New Zealand’s most infamous men.
How did the classes go?
With the nature of the environment you have to take classes day by day. I have had 2 calls due to lockdowns where I haven't been able to enter the prison. The classrooms can vary from a small room down the hall or has been in the eye of other prisoners in their mess at break time. This is where I really have to practice what I preach and use breath techniques for my own sense of calm and collected before I can dream of influencing the prisoners to follow suite! The disruption that a outsider can cause in the prison is huge, particularly a female yoga teacher. The staff did their best to make sure I was hardly visible. They would show me the cameras I was being watched on and quickly get me into the teaching space. If I was seen by other prisoners, often they would be banging and screaming on the glass at me, pretty scary stuff if I’m honest. They were perfectionists at intimidation. At times, I would be surrounded by up to six guards and always had one guard in the room while I taught with a few outside.
Teaching in this environment altered the way I taught for sure. I had to ooze confidence and use a strong and steady voice. I was also wearing a holster with a radio, ready to communicate in any emergency. This altered the practice physically and mentally too. I adjusted my asana so that the inmates spent most of the time on their back or seated. I wanted the practice to be mindful and not as visual as other classes. Ideally, the students could go inwards on their own practice with their eyes shut and feel through their own bodies, moving in a mindful and meditative way. It’s worth a mention that the range of movement varied far more than those attending a yoga studio regularly, or even had a regular and active life. They were in a cell 23 hours a day. The ages in my class varied from about 18- 65 (at a guess). Their joints were stiff and their muscles tight from inactivity. We did a lot of pranayama (breath work) and I could almost see layers shedding off them with their exhales. Very impressive since there was often yelling, banging on the walls and someone in trouble with the guards. Their faces the end of class kept me coming back. There was a softness to them and a visual reset that was very moving. I can’t comment on how long that lasts or any of their actions thorough the day. The present moment is what counts for these classes.
After word around the prison got out that there would be a new yoga class for inmates, staff wanted to get involved too. Staff have never had the opportunity to participate in onsite classes and so we developed a programme for them! I think staff classes are equally important as the prisoners- although their experiences within the facility couldn’t be more different, both are faced with endless challenges, a strong will and gritted teeth. Staff have their break in shifts and for those around they had the option to come to yoga with me for one hour before I taught the prisoners.
Will you continue teaching here?
Unfortunately I can’t commit to teaching weekly now as I am travelling with work again. The classes were during weekday work hours and I had a few months where I could juggle my work to make them fit. I hope to teach when and where I can and will continue to support the YEPT where ever I can, even if I’m offshore. I have learnt so much and grown through this experience in so many ways. I am equally as thankful to these men as they were to me at the end of each session.
***Images shared from Yoga Education in Prisons Trust Website (link below)