Teacher’s Stories: Will Fenton
I began teaching yoga as a volunteer about 18 months ago. This quickly became three classes a week and remains a truly joyous part of my teaching schedule. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not just as a yogi imparter and imbiber, but as a human being trying to live a fulfilling, kind, heart-opening life.
It has taken me a long time to get around to writing about it. I hope you enjoy it.
I’d like to make clear what motivates me to teach yoga in prison. Particularly when I started several students exclaimed quite petulantly; why would you do that? Ah yes, why indeed.
Yoga, the ancient science of enlightenment and wisdom can very quickly become about Me. My mat, my place in the room, my cushion, my practice, my pranayama ratio’s, my meditation. First, Me, second, Me, third, Me….it’s not the point is it? It’s fine to work on oneself and dedicate energy to sadhana but without helping others it’s a lonely path with little heart.
I can honestly say that I’ve experienced this narcissistic side of yoga and in degrees, still do. Therefore I’m grateful that Satyananda Yoga is very clear on service – seva – being fundamental to yoga and spiritual progress. Swami Sivananda, the guru of Swami Satyananda taught that spiritual life begins with these lessons’; Serve, Love, Give.
Swami Satyananda described it in this way;
“So, serve, love and give are elementary education.
Purification is intermediate education, and meditation is college education.
Realization is postgraduate education.
This is the curriculum of spiritual schooling. Swami Sivananda gave me the mantra,
“Serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realize, be good, do good, be kind, be compassionate, bear insult, bear injury.”
This is very difficult, but it is the highest sadhana!”
Something else that inspires me is Connection. The term, atmabhava aptly describes this vital yogic goal as well as the path towards it – atma means self and bhava means feeling. In this article – Swami Niranjan defines it thusly;
“It is the ability to see oneself reflected in another person. You see your reflection in your offspring and are connected with him, sympathize with him, love him and believe that the child is yours because it is born of your womb. You are able to see a reflection of the nature of your soul in that child. However, when you are able to see your reflection in everyone, that is called atmabhava.
And service happens most efficiently when there is atmabhava.”
When one is rooted in a healthy sense of self, without the egocentric obsession, other ‘self’s’ become very important as there is a palpable symbiosis, a kind of interdependence if you will. Atmabhava may seem like a lofty ideal but if you are perceptive to the way you feel and your environment, you will notice the borders of your self are thinner than you may have realised. And so it should be. When we see suffering, part of us also suffers, When others are joyful, so are we. The Na’vi know.
Seva and atmabhava got me well on the way to Prison. Additionally, the work and writing of a Satyananda Yoga colleague Adhyatma, warmed my heart.
When I remember back to the first day, I can’t deny I was feeling some trepidation and anxiety. For all the assurances, my training, my intention and readiness; I was nervous. It’s not a feeling that comes to me often. I zoomed out above my body and watched myself walking towards the high walls, the shining barbed wire, the series of gates and blunt Ministry of Corrections signs.
What am I doing? I’m not even getting paid! What if? What if?…..meh fears, keep walking!
I’ve often said I never wanted to be a yoga teacher. Leading chanting, teaching asana and yoga nidra; these were not on my list of what I want to do with my life. So imagine how it felt to be entering a prison, at my own will, to teach yoga! With a deep breath and moolabandha firmly engaged I walked on.
I believe grace got me through those gates and grace got me teaching inside them. Some have commented that I am brave to teach in prison. I don’t know about that. But I do know that I wasn’t alone when I first walked on in.
As I was lead through the prison I heard the sound of showers running, a basketball game, shouting, laughter….it was all very normal. As I sat in the simple room in which we’d practice yoga, those sickly, nervous sensations had hardly assuaged but I felt strangely better once I was inside. A sense of ‘finally this is happening’ and it went pretty smoothly.
At the end of the class I shook hands with the guys, with others it was a hongi. There was a feeling of calm that wasn’t there before and I for one felt quite relieved!
As we milled about waiting for the guard to let them out, a few of the students gathered at the window. I’ll never forget that image. One was standing in a jutting pipe from the wall, yet crouching to see through the glass panes…just to look at the ocean. “I have not seen the ocean in three years”. I decided then that I’d tell them a bit more about my choosing ‘Yoga for Freedom’ as my business name. I taught the next unit and it was similarly sweet. Within twenty minutes of it ending I was in the supermarket, ‘free’.
A novel space
Teaching in prison has unique challenges. Some are predictable and others only revealed themselves through regular teaching in such an environment. Firstly, it has raised the rather philosophical question; what the hell is freedom anyway? and am I/are you free in any way at all? I’m still chewing on that one.
In class, I can get more than a little mesmerised from trying to decipher the tattoos. I have never demonstrated Surya Namaskar, let alone taught yoga with a walkie around my waist which is on and its announcements audible. There have been times where I’ve needed to be more a classroom teacher than yoga teacher. That’s been pretty tense.
I’ve never heard anyone say ‘f*** yeah!’ then high five the whole class having successfully gone through a balance sequence. It is a novel space. The psychic environment is very full and busy. Some days everyone is on edge from the guards to the inmates to the therapists. Moolabandha and meditating before and after have been vital tools for self-management and keeping myself grounded.
In terms of asana, it’s been fascinating to watch the progress as well as the challenges for the students.
Kati chakrasana, vyaghrasana and nauka sanchalanasana being dynamic asana feature regularly and jhulana ludhakana is great for releasing the all-too-common lower back tension. Surya namaskar and chandra namaskar are also popular and any balance asana however humbling is greeted with enthusiasm and tenacity. Just like a lot of beginners, they expect to conquer balances first pop!
Kandarasana presents a challenge for most of the guys. In spite of muscular development, the middle and lower back can remain weak – unsupported from behind. I’ve always thought that to be apt.
For the most part, I’ve kept Pranayama simple; abdominal breath, yogic breath and occasionally ujjayi. I’ve never been laughed at while demonstrating kapalbhati before which was great because it does look pretty funny if you’ve never seen it before!
Interestingly, Yoga Nidra or even 10 minutes of Shavasana tends to be a bit much. I’ve found it difficult to ground them afterwards and so generally we do a 5-8 minute relaxation which they enjoy immensely. It’s mainly sense awareness, body parts and breath awareness.
The best thing for me has been the laughter. More healing than any asana, god I’ve had some good chuckles in there!
Sometimes in the middle of Chandra Namaskarasana, a groan or an ‘enthusiastic verbal exclamation’ will rise from the room and next thing everyone’s cracking up. Rolling-on-the-ground-tears-flowing type laughter. If that’s not yogic, what is? It always feels healthy when that happens. The guards come down and the humanness that we all are is plainly visible. There is a spontaneity that some inmates have. Some are more guarded than others and is part of their journey. Prison doesn’t foster openness as the nail that just out does indeed get hammered down. Yet the yoga class provides a space for that openness; no role to play here.
I decided from the outset to be myself. Being macho and manly is done to death inside. Anyway, it would be draining and they’d perceive my trying to be something I’m not. So I’ve always been myself and I am sure that has had a comforting effect.
To ground the class I leave a few minutes at the end to chat or ask questions. Much like when I worked in a health food shop the most common query by far is what can help me sleep? Relief from physical pain is also common. A recurring conversational topic is how drugs and meditation relate. I’m open with them about my past drug use and my attitude towards getting high was frankly pretty high. They love hearing about it! I am quick to state that I prefer non-dependent, healthier and more sustainable methods for highness and development these days. Meditation gets me way higher and clearer and in touch with reality than any drug could have.
We also talk about what yoga is. Through these discussions they are developing a deeper understanding of yoga and the benefits they can gain.
We have all felt the effect yoga has on our personalities and lives. In my understanding and experience there are the most overt influences and the unseen, deeper effect.
On the outside yoga has, without doubt, benefitted the inmate’s state of being. Only time will tell what the deeper, more long term effects will be. I have received much positive feedback.
‘I do Yoga every day, whether I’m lying down, sitting or just standing, I’m always doing Yoga. It’s automatic with me. I’m more flexible than I’ve ever been. In the past I learnt Yoga from books, this is the first time I’ve learnt from a teacher, Tyag. To me, he’s not just a yoga teacher, but he covers all elements of Yoga; a teacher, a doctor, a therapist and a friend. I look forward to Yoga every week since I’ve been here and I will continue even after I leave.’
‘Yoga has had a profound effect on my self-esteem and the ability to make positive decisions for my future.’
‘Every time I do yoga, I am healing myself.’
What can I do?
You can do a lot to help those in need. People in prison progress when they decide they want to. I don’t pretend things are any other way. What you can do is help create the conditions conducive to such internal change. The more yoga is taught inside, the better. By donating to the Yoga Education in Prisons Trust, this shift can happen for more people. Please donate!
Another great way to get involved is volunteering. Everyone has a skill and ability to help others. From reading and writing to more technical skills such as teaching music etc.