By Claudia Smith
The class begins under fluorescent lights that cannot be turned off, on a usually cold tile/cement floor, on a variety of worn out or stained mats, with students scattered around tables and benches bolted to the floor. The population frequently changes, new students appear weekly, classes might be small (10-15) or large (up to 35); ability can vary from A-Z. At least once during the class, no matter what is happening, everyone has to count off. During a recent class, an exterminator with a tank and a wand wandered through. The students intently observe any distraction, the rules are cardinal, and students are hyper-alert to unusual sounds, changes, footsteps. Startling to me at first, but now a common occurrence, students often get up and leave throughout the duration of the class. Perhaps most challenging, in this class touching of anyone is not allowed. This is the setting for the weekly class I teach at the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Community Corrections Center, a women’s prison in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
NWACCC houses about 100 women with sentences up to 2 years, no violent or sexual crimes. A large number of the women have been victims more than they have been perpetrators. Community Corrections Centers have a strong focus on rehabilitation, and I have a lot of administrative support here. There are many dedicated volunteers and a wide variety of programs and counseling available. I didn’t decide it was a place I wanted to teach. A few years ago, a student of mine offered that, should I be interested in a volunteer opportunity, there was a strong need for a movement class here.
Teaching in prison, for me, is unlike teaching anywhere outside bars. I also think that teaching in prisons varies enormously depending on many factors. For example, the length of the sentences, the type of crimes represented, men vs. women, the size of the population, and the type of facility. I started out with an idea of what I would offer based on information I got from an excellent Prison Yoga Project training I attended and from reading about yoga in prisons. Learning about trauma-informed yoga was invaluable. Understanding sequences that worked in other prisons was helpful. Once mats were donated and funds contributed for blankets and eye pillows, I started teaching a practice centered on what I had learned. Following the practice of others and trying to implement their sequences wasn’t working, however. Ultimately, through a lot of trial and error, the content of the class evolved. Possibly not to the ideal, but it’s what I have to offer, what I feel I can best deliver, what I have found works with this particular population in this setting. I lead a practice of Foundation Training (as there are frequent complaints of back pain), followed by gentle mobility work, and concluding with about 20 minutes of Yoga Nidra.
Despite the limitations of the space, walking into it is to enter a different world, noisy but without outside distractions – no windows; only me with them in this space at this time. What is most important is that I show up and I see them, I make a genuine connection. It has not been easy, but not because of the prisoners, because of me. There is no room in this place for privilege, entitlement, disingenuousness, talk about anything past or future, the minutiae of life, motivational phrases you might hear in a studio yoga class, or me as expert. I am always challenged to keep it real. The end of the class is not always uplifting; it’s a return to reality for them. I can see a change in them if I forget that, when I’m off base – eyes diverted, less communication, a subtle dismissal but a significant one.
They might not come to class for the reasons I’d prefer, but they come. They are curious, bored, restless, inattentive, experienced, drained, energetic, intrigued, distant, gregarious, silent, or completely attentive. The nature of the group is always changing – the tenor of the day makes a difference. If it’s been a particularly noisy group or not, you could hear a pin drop during the meditation/relaxation. It’s like water in a drought. I often think about the significance of helping just one individual.
What I aim for is being real and present, trusting the movement to be enough, focusing on breathing and its sensations. Less is more. What I say to them, I say to myself, with a belief that we are all seeking redemption from something.
In this class, we know nothing about each other, but it is a place of grace and gratitude. We’re all doing the best we can. I sometimes leave knowing I missed the mark that day, feeling that it was okay but something was missing, and sometimes it feels like it worked. No matter whether I hit the mark or not, they show gratitude, tell me the ways it works in their days, what it means that I come, and how it has helped them. It’s a constant, ongoing challenge and opportunity; a microcosm of life. The phrase that best embodies it for me is one of Ram Dass: “We are all just walking each other home.”
This article was originally published in Ozark Mountain Yoga Mindful Living Magazine.