Article from: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/02/yoga-in-prison/
I recently spent over four months working with three prison groups in a women’s prison in Latvia supported by the Louis August Jonas Foundation, delivering workshops on personal development, holistic health and compassionate communication. I incorporated yoga and meditation sessions into my work to help the women stay emotionally and physically fit, empower them to transform their old ways of being and encourage them to relate to themselves and to others in a more compassionate manner.
By providing the women with the chance to experience a personal bodywork session—to find than inner place of peace and love, to get to know the importance of a healthy touch to the body and soul—we all forgot that we were behind bars, losing our present reality in drifting meditations, humor filled conversations and acrobatic trust exercises. We sang, laughed, shared stories and dreamt together, forgetting all our emotional and physical baggage.
Many in the outside world doubted what I did. I was not understood, condemned for my work. They would have rather I chose to work with abused children, women, men, animals—but not with those “who deserve it the least.” Throughout the project time, I discovered more and more the great power that lies in being able to forgive and let go of any judgment that arose while working with prisoners. As I was delivering these workshops, I thought of how these women had life stories I could only guess at—could imagine, but never fully understand. Some of them probably committed a crime that I would judge as a horrible act of violence.
But if I thought in these judgmental terms, I wouldn’t have be able to teach them anything, or have open conversations with them. I would certainly never have been able to fully trust or feel comfortable being around them. Thus I had to let go of the mind and lead the workshops with my heart, maintaining the best intentions in any situation that appeared in the process.
Some of the women I massaged were probably HIV positive, as I frequently saw the lasting imprints of drug injections. Many had a great number of scars covering their bodies, and had fear, anger and distrust in their eyes. Thus I had to learn to let go of any judgments, keeping an open mind and holding a space for the women to be free to be themselves.
Whenever I saw their smiles, heard their laughs, heard their stories, or listened as they silently whispered to me their fears, I could not doubt the transformational power of love and acceptance. After each workshop, prisoners reported a feeling of peace and strange joy that benefited their daily survival in prison. Yoga brought a calmness and harmony to their behavior towards cellmates and prison staff, but most importantly towards themselves.
As I discovered more of an entirely new world inside the prison walls, I also learned about the world outside. I became familiar with the social and educational system that breaks down the confidence and dreams of individuals, with society’s inability to be compassionate enough to help and serve our communities, and with our greed and ignorance to what is going on in the world. I also witnessed the amazing beauty of the human spirit, realized my ability to find joy in simple everyday things, and learned the importance of simplicity and the power of faith.
Sometimes I think that these months in prison have enriched me much more than it did any of the women I was working with. The experience brought virtues of patience, trust and forgiveness into my life, reminding me of the power of service and the kinship of woman and man. I was encouraged to find more freedom in my head, more openness in my heart and a complete joy in living.
Prison is full of women who dream and are able to re-build their lives and transform the habits. The question is: are we able to let go of their past and accept them as an equal citizens, neighbors, co-workers, and friends? Are we able to connect our hearts to theirs and welcome back into our communities, trustfully and sincerely?
The last day in prison is here. It was sad to say goodbye to some. Wondering how they will take forward the gift of these months we spent together in the workshops. I would have liked to stay in touch, but know very well that it is a goodbye for now( never mind the safety rules I undersigned, before I could come to the prison- not to tell any contact or personal information- well I screwed it a bit, because I told them much personal information- how I am suppose to make people trust me, if I cannot reveal myself and trust them?)
Thou I would be very moved to meet some of them after they come out(some in 6 years or more). There are many emotions, reflections, some disappointments and so much joy at the same time. We really can never guess what is the influence of our existence in this World, how our presence changes the way things are, how our actions influence they way things will be in near or far future. I wonder how this project will assist them to make more healthy choices for themselves and the World we are living in? Or will not. At least they had some good time stretching, talking, laughing. And for now, for me, it is just enough to make me happy and satisfied.
For me personally, it was a journey into the different World behind the prison fence. Into different hierarchy, behavior patterns, order. Almost like visiting another country, where you are trying to observe customs, but will never really understand, what it means to live there, be part of this culture. And then there is me, singing songs about love and addiction to joy, making them stretch in strange poses, bringing in initially non-understandable way of teaching(more or less what you call non-formal education), talking about that every moment is a possibility to create a new life.
I was very careful in bringing it in, in order not to scare people off. But after these months I felt that they have got some insight into my "culture" or "way of being", just like me in theirs. And then I requested them to doubt me, question me, because I don't represent the absolute truth and nothing does. Only deeply in our soul we will know what is the best, what is our current truth. And all I was asking them was to hear the voice of one's soul, one's heart. To bring in compassion and love for themselves, to regain trust in their own beauty and ability to do good, serve and be served.
We all are looking for the same thing, we are having very similar needs and we all want to live in a safe and enjoyable World. But the essence in building this safe and enjoyable World is everyone of us. Be it a businessmen, gardener, postmen, mother-to-be, grandpa at his eighties or prisoner. Recognizing that we want the same thing is very hopeful. Never mind that we are caught in our own misery and have done horrible things in past. Who has not? I have. You don't necessarily have to kill somebody not to contribute to the World that is peaceful and enjoyable. All you have to do is to hurt somebody with your chosen word that hurts. A lot. And thus, I think only then, when we will recognize that we all strive to survive and be happy, we will be able to open up many conversations on how to meet these needs for everybody, without throwing nuclear bombs or putting knife in somebody's chest.
I am very aware that World is more complicated and this sounds very naive. But I cannot see the peace in the World, when I keep abusing others around me, when I don't learn to create peaceful and enriching relations with others, when I pass indifferently avoiding beggars, trying not to see other things, I prefer not to see. But when I decide to live with integrity, recognizing my ow pain and pain that is present in the World, I seek for ways to enrich my life and ultimately- the World.
Many doubted what I did. Not understood and even condemned. Sometimes and indeed quite often, I overtook these doubts on my work in prison. But whenever I saw the smiles, heard the laughs, heard their stories, listened when they whispered me of their fears and glanced with one eye on them during the meditation, I could not doubt that my task has been fulfilled- to enrich the life of another, to serve, to get my dose of joy and pass it forward to you.
Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry. ~Lyman Abbott
Yesterday one of my most committed yoga students from prison leaned forward to me very close and whispered " It is very uncomfortable to say, but I often want to beat up people, just hit them in the face. Especially it gets complicated when I want to beat up my cell mates, because after the fight, I just cannot walk away, I have to keep living with them". Then we both laughed, because indeed it can be complicated situation if you constantly want to beat them up. And then we talked about some possibilities to put our reactions on pause and seek for the cause in our own needs being unsatisfied at that current moment, seeing alternative and more compassionate ways to satisfy them.
But at the same time, when I think back to out society outside the prison bars, how much we fear our anger, how much we fear all negative emotions, rather then thinking them as very positive signs of us being alive, being sensitive and aware of what is going on in ourselves. It might be not yet a conscious process, but still a process.
I would rather tend to believe that anger holds a lot of energy and transformation power, just like many other emotions, which can be described as negative. For me they are catalyst of change. It means that the person is not indifferent and willing to express themselves and their pain, in direct or very indirect ways. It means that there is passion for life, first sign of vitality and motivation to live. No surprise that I find this student to be very committed and motivated. Although bothering sometimes with her loud voice and side-behaviors.)
Prison is a very strange place, where probably also me would get mad at some point about everything around, sell-mates, guards, hypocrisy and my own self. There is constant risk of too much accumulated energies which we are sometimes unable to release without physical workout and mental break/ solitude. Thus for many prisoners attending yoga is escaping from the tension space into finding their own power to balance and transform. Thus I wish that all those practices- non-dogmatic yoga and meditation, non-violent communication, self-care and community service shall be in agendas of all prisoners, if they really want to rehabilitate a healthy individual. Indeed they should be into agenda into everyones life.
Thus for me anger can be a beautiful start from where we transform the lives of ourselves, strongly deciding upon guiding principles and values that matter the most. It can be great work still ahead of us, but seems like anger is a sign of our ability to be powerful enough to survive through these winds of change.
With the great thanks of Darta Veismane (http://daaarta.daportfolio.com/)
I would like to share with you some beautiful insight into the yoga project.
Often I do think that there might be a great possibility that this project is transforming me much more then any of the young woman engaged in this program. In these months so many horizons have widen, opening new understanding of society we are living in, opening my heart to more compassion and empathy to prisoners, developing my skills in working with very complicated groups and excluded individuals.
I do not know and care less what is the reason(crime, guilt etc.) behind their presence in the prison. Rather seeing that human being with the very same basic needs- longing heart for care, understanding, acceptance, passion for music, painting, dancing, reading, dreams for re-building our families, finding enjoyable work, overcoming our dependencies on drugs, unhealthy relationships, our own weaknesses.
What saddens me is the realization that these young women could have had not gone so far to come to prison, if not for their previous experiences in growing up in alcoholic, aggressive family, impersonal orphanage etc, isolated from the celebration of their human nature and deprived of possibility to experience care and loving relationships. Every day we do encounter those families, children, strangers in need, yet not do much to celebrate our brotherhood and ability to assist each other in finding more joy and happiness around.
Every crime shown in TV is represented as unexpected surprise and showcase. But I do strongly believe that most of those situations are very foreseen, yet ignored. Everyday I do meet many people disconnected from their bodies, unable to sense the long exciting diseases in their bodies, recognize the mind-body connection and influence on their overall wellbeing. We keep running in our lives in the big cities looking for things that in the reality we can find only deep within ourselves, in forests, in high mountains, in conversations with our beloved people or strangers passing in and out of our lives. And here I don't pretend to have the right theory on how to live and what is the right way to be. But I do get very scared on seeing these disconnections increasing in many of the World countries, and in me. Even I do feel much harder to connect with people fully with my heart and presence, searching for some distractions and easy way out of the problems.
Thus I feel that numerous transitions and transformations are happening with me due to unique experiences in the world of prisoners. Recognizing more and more the value of creating peaceful, trustful and accepting environment around me, connecting with people I meet everyday, encountering for the very first and maybe also very last time in my life, appreciating their presence and simply celebrating the different perspectives everyone brings into my life. Looking and seeking for the moments that celebrates our humanity and humanness towards each other. Because there is loads of it in each of us, and we are so ready to share it at these very challenging times. I am sure.
I was indeed very surprised how eager and motivated were the prisoners to work with affirmations. Every morning and night reminding themselves of the possible wonderful and positive world they can create in and around themselves.
"Every thought you think every word you say is an affirmation All of our self-talk or inner dialogue is a stream of affirmations. We are continually affirming subconsciously with our words and thoughts and this flow of affirmations is creating our life experience in every moment. Affirmations are short positive statements targeted at a specific subconscious set of beliefs, to challenge and undermine negative beliefs and to replace them with positive self-nurturing beliefs."
Choosing the postcard from the pile of cards and writing down 3-5 affirmations on the others side. I suggested them to hand them somewhere very close to bed, so that before the start of the day and towards the end of the day, they can remind themselves of the power we have to create the world we want to live in, transform the way we behave, the way how our conflicts resolve, the way we see ourselves and the way our health regains power over existing diseases.
I was delighted to hear ex-drug addicts passionately repeating the affirmations on freedom from drug addictions, willingness to be loved and learn love, ability to deal compassionately with their families, daughters. There was even affirmations on wellbeing of cats that have stayed home and probably missing their owner. Willingness to get closer relationships with their loved ones, hope to go out of prison sooner and relate better to their inmates. We have had many empowering discussions of our divine power to make choices of how we want to live our lives and rebuild our realities.
In recent weeks one group responded of lightness and ease they have regained on the issues concerning their affirmations. Like freeing them from emotional baggage that has been carried since they have come into the prison, or since much earlier in their lives.
"When you affirm your own rightness in the universe, then you co-operate with others easily and automatically as part of your own nature. You, being yourself, helps others be themselves. Because you recognize your own uniqueness you will not need to dominate others, nor cringe before them".
This week, I had an amazing pleasure to fuse yoga lesion together with the healing and soothing sounds of guitar and voice of a wonderful young musician. Ruta Kergalve was both teaching several songs to the three groups of women and with her melodies leading them into deep shavasana meditation.
I was very delighted to see how fusing musical expression into this project gives young prisoners another form of different reality. So they called it to be the best workshop so far. Looking forward to hear more about their after feelings and emotions. Here see it by yourself:
" We all have deep desire to touch and be touched- to give and receive nourishing physical touch and to have our hearts and minds touched with inspiration in ways that help us remember who we are- Spirit embodied."
Having done several massage sessions with the young prisoners, i could not not-see some very common patters in all of them- inability to determine pain and suffering. Whenever asked what is that they feel inn various places in their bodies, they cannot describe anything more then "It just hurts". I wonder if anybody has honestly ever asked them how they feel and how they can be helped to have less pain and more joy in their lives. Most of the girls, young women, already grown-up women are coming from orphanages, socially disadvantaged families or high income-low comforting families. They have definitely been in great deficit of nourishing touch and active listening and understanding. This can be also a very root reason why they have ended up locked behind bars, unable to connect with their inner selves, unable to empathize and surrender to their own pain, actively engage in creating their own lives and fulfilling dreams.
I cannot stop emphasizing how essential the touch for heath, entire wellbeing of one human being, may it be child or already grown up. Touch is most primal way of relating. When we are touched, we feel ourselves and know we exist. Touch provides physical sense of safety and containment while nourishing us on many levels.
While living in North America, I profoundly felt how people are disengaged from touch, thus creating a very unhappy and needy society. While working in yoga studio, I received so many calls from men willing to get massage with the "happy ending". More and more discovering that within a 'modern' societies whether touch is sexual, or there is no touch. There is another friendly touch- but still it always felt a bit awkward and still quite distant. Now, I am generalizing, and I would do a big mistake calling all North Americas nations to be touch-deprived and emotionally malnourished. But there are general patterns in the modern society that I cannot avoid seeing. I wont complain about the moder technologies, hectic lifestyles of the modern World etc. But I would encourage each other to create the humble and loving environment around us, where touch is like a food that is given and received every day.
Stretch your body&transform your mind!
This Project is funded by Louis August Jonas Foundation, creating a holistic training experience for 50 young women from Ilguciems women prison and Maras Crisis center. Young women are learning simple peacemaking practices including yoga, non-violent communication, mindful awareness, conscientious social action and good-doing.