A magnificent Monday memo:
Yoga is truly the music of the heart. This morning as I was preparing for a stellar yoga class in Group Rm #2 the inmates, escorted by custody officers, walked in one by one, grabbing a chair to sit down in a circle as we do every week. They were sighing, huffing, and puffing in an overwhelming collective heir of frustration. This was unusual as most of them look forward to Monday morning yoga and meditation and typically arrive in good spirits.
I asked, “What’s wrong guys?”. During each individual one minute check-in the inmates told their personal account of frustration with being treated like animals. This morning had been especially bad.
This group in particular are labelled and set apart as “PC-Protective Custody”—primarily made up of gang drop outs, gay, transgender, those with enemy concerns of any kind, and sometimes the inmates whose case involve some sort of sex crime (including indecent exposure or drunk in public). They are protected from the general public because of safety concerns for obvious reasons. Because they must always be separated they are frequently held in small holding tanks for many hours until their doctor’s appointments, sometimes 30 of them stacked on top of one another in a small room no bigger than 6 x 12 with nothing more than a door and a toilet in one corner. One 15 minute appointment may at times take upwards of 4 hours of waiting waiting waiting in this tiny dark and stuffy windowless room…
Every time a PC inmate has an appointment in the infirmary they must be awaken before the sun rises, herded like cattle in the bitter cold of the morning, and often treated with extreme hostility by some custody staff who decide to label them all in one box as “child molesters”—sometimes pushing them up against the wall, antagonized and ostracized, often being called derogatory names like “fruitcake” and “Faggot” or “pieces of shit”. Their homework folders and pens are snatched away, their monthly visits to canteen taken away for whatever reason, cell “tossed” and searched, etc etc. Everyone in their unit gets punished for one single person’s violation. If a makeshift shank is found in one cell or a fight breaks out between 2 inmates this could mean modified programming and no showers for a week. Resorting to bird bathing in their sinks. This is the way they live everyday.
Today, they were more than frustrated. Passionately describing how horrible life is in PC and how they’d rather go into isolation where at least they are given some human dignity and guaranteed canteen visits. Some of them voiced that they wanted to start a fight to escape their hell hole and go into isolation.
Tensions easily rise. As tension builds, inmate conflicts spark up at the single raised voice. It has happened many times. This is how many huge riots break out in the chow hall resulting in multiple injuries form unleashed and bottled up inmate angst. Unfortunately this has led to the untimely death of some inmates. Being here is the true test of the human capacity to channel and practice patience and resilience.
As they were telling me their stories, I began to think about how I wanted to lead the class. My curriculum, the music I had prepared for meditation, etc etc. A light bulb went on in my head and I thought to myself, “Fuck it”. The class agenda went out the window.
One inmate jokingly asked to hear Jay-Z during yoga today. I said, “You want Jay-Z? You got it.” I turned a Jay-Z play list on sound cloud at that very moment. They were all taken aback by their honored request.
After a few shoulder rolls, forward folds, and breathing exercises as a warm-up I had them each wrap their arms around their bodies in a self-hug. I demonstrated the self-hug to monster pose that I had made up on the spot. Head cocked back, arms wrapped around shoulders and 1-2-3 release on the exhale thrusting the entire body forward into “monster pose”. RAWWWRRRRRRR! They needed this. Which each roar I encouraged them to bring their hands into t-rex claws. Channeling the inner 5 year old. RAWWWWWWRRRR! One more time. They loved it. They laughed hysterically and they let their bottled up negative energy out in each monsterous roar. One last time…RAAAWWWRRR! Bellies full of laughter at the silliness of it all.
Back to standing balancing poses, warrior series, a few modified sun salutations, uktakasana. Lighten up, don’t forget to breathe. Smile! Bring your right arm up and touch the sky! Hold it there for 5 more breaths. With each breath-allow your anxiety to melt away and inhale love, patience, loving kindness. In their sweat and struggle to hold their poses, I could see their faces lighten. Forehead lines soften. Eyes fluttering lightly as they started to accumulate greater awareness of their bodies and of their hearts. The one opportunity in their week to listen, reflect, and to just be.
Jay-Z and Beyonce dueted us into reverse triangle and finally into chair forward fold, savasana and a short guided meditation. The dialogue just flowed out of my mouth:
“Imagine you are wrapped in the arms of someone you love. Allow their warmth surround you. Relish in this moment. Know that you can achieve this feeling at any time during your day. Drown out your worries and surround yourself with their love. Acknowledge your truth and reveal yourself full-heartedly.”
For this moment, they were their true selves. They marinated in their heart’s desire to open up and flourish. They breathed in lung fulls of air to the beat of Jay-Z and exhaled a lifetime of frustration and anger. One. Breath. At. A. Time.
I can’t say enough about how humbled I am for the opportunity to be a part of the lives of these incredible human beings. I am constantly reminded of their immense resilience, ability to pick themselves up with each traumatic event (and there are many each day) and rise out of bed despite the harsh realization of their fucked up reality. One inmate in class today mentioned that he has 8 life sentences yet he shows up to class every week in an effort to learn and grow in his personal journey.
This morning was a defining moment in my life on so many levels. Unbeknownst to them, they gifted me with their incredible presence. At the end of class I reminded them that they can obtain their own truths at anytime. It is only a matter of channeling their consciousness in a direction that focuses on their beautiful and most authentic versions of themselves. Sometimes all it takes is a little monster roaring and Jay-Z to help them along and keep their hearts singing. :)