A few years ago, I couldn’t even imagine stepping a foot inside a prison. These days I really look forward to it each week. I feel extremely honoured to have this opportunity to share the practice and gifts of yoga in both Manawatu Men’s prison and Arohata women’s prison.
Every Wednesday Paul and I head out of town to share both music and yoga with the guys out there. The guys we practice with are blown away that we make the journey out to Linton and in return seem to be very eager to get to their mat each week.
We started this experience with a couple of regular groups who weren’t involved with regular programs, giving them a wee bit of extra time out of their cell block. Then, last christmas whilst the prison programme paused, a few of our regular yogi’s headed out into the yard to practice their sun salutes…this sparked interest amongst fellow inmates and the yoga was shared. On our return, the prison had extended the yoga invitation to all units! Some of those units included youth and those on remand, waiting to be sentenced. These groups as you can imagine are often highly stressed and on edge, yet by the time savasana comes around – there is stillness and a sign of peace as their eyes close and a rainbow of smiles spread across their face.
“I forgot I was in jail for a while just then. When we come here, its like a piece of mind, you know? It’s like, we are just here, doing our yoga. Soon as we step back out that door, we are back in jail. Thanks heaps for coming again.”
From the very start our intuition told us we needed to at least try and see if our project could offer something to someone within a prison. Yes, we know that we believe how powerful music and yoga can be, but it doesn’t mean everyone feels the same, which is absolutely ok. We are all so different, with different ideas, tastes and beliefs. What feels incredible to one person can feel a whole lot less to another.
As with every group we practice with, we had no expectations. If it didn’t fit or wasn’t received well in this prison, then at least we had tried. But to still be there a year on and see our project evolve, to feel it…to be IN it, has tugged at something deep inside. It absolutely belongs to this opportunity. The men we practice with, turn up each week and fully receive us, eager to learn and give everything a go. And it’s not just the asana or physical practice, they have been just as interested in the Prana/breath, the philosophy and meditation. We stop and pause in silence after each tune to observe the breath, the temperature in the body and the heart rate. Simply noticing and being with the life that is present…with kindness. Using the tools we have picked up along the way, with the intention of practicing them in life off the mat.
“I am committed to becoming a better father and husband. Yoga is helping to become that man. Yoga is the one thing I look forward to and it gets me through the week. It’s awesome ay?!”
“Everyone should have learnt this as kids. I bet ya, there would be wayyyy less of us in here.”
People often ask how the music works in Prison…The music softens everything. Just everything. In these particular classes it fills the room and seems to accompany the yoga in such a nurturing way. Paul takes request from the guys, so our playlist isn’t always what you may imagine moving to yoga to, but it means the world to them when their song is played. They adore our Paul! His music makes it feel safe for everyone to explore, focus, sing, to feel, have a laugh at ourselves, to be held and to step away from what we can’t change but perhaps inspire us and work toward the things we can. Making the most of the life that exists beyond our worst mistakes.
“Your voice bro, it’s magic ay? It takes me out of this place. I felt like I was lying on the beach. Can you make sure I can come every week?”
“Mannnn, you have skills. I nearly had a tear ay, that was emotional.”
I know I’m biased, but I can feel how genuine Paul’s open heart is, it is present in every strum and in every word he sings. I’m sure the guys get that too. To witness them comfortably close their eyes, to immerse themselves in the music and the moment-speaks a thousand words.
A year on and we are both enriched with some unforgettable experiences of human connection. We learn so much from these men and we tell them on a regular basis. At first they laugh at us, after a while they are able to accept that and take our words of truth. We have witnessed transformation, in all of us, on so many levels – what a blessing.
Our newest affiliate Jasmin Dingemans speaks about teaching in Milton.
How long have you taught in OCF for? For two months now, twice per week.
Can you describe your very first experience meeting a group of male prisoners? As they walked into the room, I overheard them being given a pep talk of sorts by a guard. I think he wanted to make sure they were respectful of the opportunity – they have been the whole time.
They arrived into the class space and I noticed a fair amount of apprehension or nervousness. They were very quiet and fidgety. I also got a sense of a lot of agitation in the group. I could see a lot of tense faces and bodies and darting eyes.
Other than that, it became much like any other first class with a new group. I was really impressed with how quickly the whole group’s focus improved, and by the end of the class it was like being with a whole different group of people because they were so chilled out compared to the beginning.
The two guards who were there were visibly surprised at the effect of just one class. One of the guards said after that the change was “unbelievable”. He said about this one guy, “He is a VERY angry man, I have never seen him look so peaceful and relaxed.”
What sort of practices do you teach them? I started by going back to the basics with a focus on awareness. We worked on breathing and moving slowly, in synchronization with the breath, with gentle sequences and asana including Savasana. We started gradually to build a good foundation of connection with the body and breath, and a new awareness of thoughts and sensations.
I’ve since introduced new Pranayama as well as many more asana and sequences, but keeping the level quite light at this stage. I also touch on what I call applied Yoga philosophy in most classes, which they seem to really look forward to and engage with. I create space for dialogue and ask them, and encourage questions back throughout the class. I love hearing how they are plugging what they are learning back into their daily life.
They do love to be challenged, so I include Surya Namaskar (sun salutations), balancing, and activities that target the core in most classes. Every now and then we have a meditative class, where there is no ‘dialogue’, giving them an opportunity to really zone in to their own space and experience.
What works? Consistent pace, a good balance of energetic/activating and calming/subtle activities, slow, clear instruction and strong shepherding of attention if there is wandering focus. A long Savasana at the end seems to really lock it all in.
What doesn’t work? Occasionally we start a bit late so have to have a shorter class. At an hour it already feels like a minimum, so that can be a bit of a challenge, and you do notice the difference if the final Savasana has been cut back.
How do you prepare for a prison yoga class that may be different from a normal community class? I created and follow a program that is aware and inclusive of the YEPT correspondence course material (several students in the class are also doing the course) and I treat it more like a course than classes, so I can keep building on what I know they have learnt. The prisoners seem to enjoy the structure and progression of this approach.
I have to be sensitive to the context I’m teaching in – a prison, with prisoners. This means being very focused on the specific words I use to respect the context, and also mindful of the risks. I always make sure I’m in the right headspace and have enough energy to stay absolutely alert to that. It’s kind of easy to prep mentally though, as it’s a long drive out to the prison, so plenty of time to gather and focus.
With community classes, I never know who is going to come along so I have to be more flexible, and can be more spontaneous in my approach.
How do you feel after a class? Energised and inspired.
How has YEPT been as an organisation to work with? Wonderful. I love this organisation and all the people in it. So much combined wisdom and heart.
How has Dept Corrections been as an organisation to work with? Amazing. So supportive and open.
Can you give us an example of the kind of change you have seen in any prisoner/s? I hear from the guards as well as directly from the prisoners some amazing feedback. For example: improved quality of sleep, no more back pain, so relaxed, feel like I can take on anything. The changes I have personally seen are written all over the open and relaxed faces, in the obvious increased awareness (less fidgeting, following instruction etc.), the enthusiasm to learn and apply what they learn, and in the whole group vibe, which feels now like we are all working together for the same thing.
What’s your favourite part of the job? I love knowing that Yoga is helping. Helping individuals who may not have had access to it before, for whom these amazing tools can be, and already are being, put to good use to change the way they see, think about and approach life and its various challenges.
I love hearing about the changes, not just in the prisoners who attend the classes, but in the whole units that they then go back to, knowing the ripple effect is already in full force. And I love thinking about how this effect will eventually help the families and communities that the prisoners will be with when they are released.
Brendon Sakey has been a YEPT teacher for 3 and a half years.
Can you describe your very first experience meeting a group of prisoners? I experienced a group of guys keen and willing to try yoga and expressing a lot of gratitude. The class was a mix of all shapes and sizes all looking for a practice to make themselves feel better. There was some gangsta rap blaring in the background…Wutang Clan I think! There was a really big turn out because, as I was told later, they had expected the yoga teacher to be a woman.
What sort of practices do you teach them? Asana – Dynamic practices for strengthening and stamina, including some Vinyasa style and also traditional poses for flexibility and balance.
Some basic pranayama and a guided relaxation practice, and depending on the unit sometimes a short meditation practice. I discuss yoga philosophy and therapeutic benefits of yoga with the class.
What works? A balanced practice that encourages them to develop awareness, concentration and acceptance and reveals insight into the body-mind connection works. Just practice. It’s all good!
What doesn’t work? Unexpected lockdowns. It’s important to teach the practices gradually and progressively and demonstrate and communicate clearly.
How do you prepare for a prison yoga class that may be different from a normal community class? I tune in to how the energy of the group is on the day. Many factors influence the class, such as, new people attending who are brand new to yoga with many injuries. I prepare by chanting mantra and recalling my intention and tuning into my teachers and inspirers and remembering that yoga is an ancient tradition passed down through many inspiring lineages with the intention of raising the light of consciousness.
How do you feel after a class? It’s always a rewarding experience. Knowing that I’ve supported some prisoners in their path of transformation into yogis is pretty special. I call them peaceful spiritual warriors. And a sense of freedom being released from prison is always a good feeling.
How has YEPT been as an organisation to work with? They’re a great supportive team and they continue to do important work in promoting the cause and mission of yoga in prison, which is ultimately uplifting all of society.
How have Dept Corrections been as an organisation to work with? It has improved and is really good now. The programme coordinators are helpful and go out of their way to support my classes. The prison officers give positive feedback and show an interest in yoga. They have noted some benefits among prisoners they have observed attending yoga.
Can you give us an example of the kind of change you have seen in any prisoners? I’ve watched prisoners progress physically with improved flexibility, strength and endurance and also better concentration and participation. During the final relaxation practice at the end of the session I’ve observed prisoners who were usually restless and disruptive become calm and still. Prisoners have shown an interest to learn more about yoga and develop their own personal practice and even make plans to practice yoga in the community after they’re released.
Whats your favourite part of the job? To see people who have suffered trauma, violence and despair find some inner peace and a sense of self-worth through yoga and knowing it makes a difference.
What frustrates you? That we still too much power in society that continues to create marginalisation, inequality and separation.
I told my yogi warriors at the beginning of class about the training we are doing this weekend in Auckland and asked them what they would like them (the participants) to know about yoga in prisons; what were the benefits to them, what do they want from a teacher, what should they(the teacher) be aware of. I also asked them if they felt I was/had been disrespectful/ignorant in any way (with regards to cultural differences) I asked them to reflect on this and let me know at the end of class.
So, they want “peace of mind”, to “relax”, to “stop all the stuff (in their head)”. They like that they can leave all “their stuff at the door”, “forget about being in prison”, “find some space”. That they leave their class with these feelings and they last for a while.
So I asked does that mean that they think it is possible for the practices of yoga to bring about a positive change. It was an emphatic “yes”.
I asked if there were certain practices they felt were of more benefit and the answer was no, it was all of it. This means focused awareness with asana, pranayama, meditation, Yoga Nidra and Mantra. I also throw in Feldenkrais movements which they really enjoy.
Tuesday (first class!) went very well. The guys were very engaged and enjoyed the class. It’s an interesting dynamic to work and did at times feel a bit like trying to get children to focus, but overall they were enthusiastic and willing to learn and try some things that were maybe a bit different for them.
I found out that all of those that attended also play league for the prison team, a great opportunity as my introduction to yoga came through undoing the damage to my body after rugby – so I could relate to them via that. We had a good mix of strength, flexibility as well as mindfulness and staying present – all based around a rugby analogy of not thinking too far ahead and only playing what’s in front of you. We even had one of the NCO’s join in for a bit, much to the guys amusement.
I enjoyed it and they are keen for me to come back up next week, so I must have made some impact on them. I’m happy to continue teaching at the unit.