Teacher’s Stories: Will Fenton

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!”

Right on.

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.

Early days

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.

Ripples

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.

Newsletter, December 2018, New Classes, teacher profile-Taane Mete

Newsletter, December 2018, New Classes, teacher profile-Taane Mete

Tēnā koutou katoa,

The last 6 months has proven to be very affirming for all of the positive work we are doing – with a lot of exceptional prisoner feedback around our in-person classes, as well as our correspondence course. 

The challenge now is to find new ways to keep delivering yoga at our current pace. We have programs beginning in some new units around the country, including two Mums n Bubs units, and an Elderly unit. We feel so fortunate to have skilled teachers on board who are equipped to deal with these vulnerable groups. 

On October 6th we held our first trauma-informed yoga in prisons workshop in Auckland at the gorgeous Kawai PuraPura. Jane, John, Adele and Adhyatma came together to present a comprehensive, practical training session. Following on from this workshop we delivered approximately 50 brand new Teachers Handbooks to all our affiliates. Thanks to Ricoh for gifting free printing of the Handbook. 
 
Adhyatma and Jo Vernon went to speak to around 200 people at the Ministry of Justice last week as guests of the Diwali team who had chosen YEPT to be the (grateful!) recipient of this year’s fundraiser.  They then enjoyed a sumptuous meal after talks of chickpeas, puri, salad, dahl and rice. Thankyou Diwali team!

Adhyatma was also cheerfully surprised to receive a Kiwibank Local hero award this year alongside many other amazing kiwis doing stunning work in the community. 

Thank you to Mercury Energy for a grant that is helping a new teacher Holly Cahill provide 12 weeks of yoga in the special treatment unit at Springhill Correctional Facility.

We’re currently embarking on an ambitious project to explore how we can best bring tikanga māori into our yoga education curriculum to bridge the two spiritual philosophies and practices together for our prison populations. Taane Mete teaches in an Auckland prison and doing a phenomenal job weaving his Māori ancestry and knowledge into his prison classroom. Below is his story.

Wishing you and yours a harmonious summer.

On behalf of YEPT,
Adhyatma, Adele, John, Jasmin, Andrea, Jane and Pat

Teacher Profile – Taane Mete

“When I teach yoga in prison, I keep asking myself 3 basic questions:
 
1 Why do I teach yoga? 
2 Who is yoga for? 
3 Is yoga inclusive or exclusive? 
 
With these three questions, I look at how I bring Tikanga and Matauranga into the yoga framework. In actual fact, they are very much the same. Ancient practices that centre around awareness and understanding.

READ TAANE’s FULL PROFILE >>

Prisoner Stories

The last 6 months has proven to be very affirming for all of the positive work we are doing – with a lot of exceptional prisoner feedback around our in-person classes, as well as our correspondence course.  We get so many amazing letters from prisoners doing the Correspondence Course…this is an excerpt from one of them.

Yoga Education In Prisons, Prisoner Stories

Stories from our teachers and voting open for Adhyatma

Stories from our teachers and voting open for Adhyatma

Tēnā koutou katoa,

Our second quarter of 2018 has capitalised on our strategising efforts in the first few months to get some of our biggest initiatives to date off the ground.
 
The biggest success of note is the review and refresh of our correspondence course programme. We have engaged a contractor to overhaul the existing content to ensure it is current, accessible and reflective of our culture and unique needs. This is a very popular programme that runs along-side our classes, and also enables us to support more prisoners when we are not yet able to offer in-person classes. We expect the new programme to be in prisoners hands by the end of the year.
 
We have also made an important decision to bring professional development for our affiliated teachers in-house as we have a lot of talent within our board to teach teachers. Three of our board members Adele, Jane and Jasmin are currently planning curriculum for a 1-day trauma-sensitive yoga training for this October that will help up-skill our prison teachers, offered for free as part of their affiliation with us.
 
Furthermore, our great work within the prison gates continues to be welcomed and recognised by both those who need it most, along with corrections staff. Latest statistics show nine out of 10 prisoners have a history of mental health disorders or substance abuse, and more and more research is showing that whole-person therapeutic applications like yoga is a very valuable modality to support change. Indeed, the Department of Corrections is starting to hear our rallying cry for more yoga, in more prisons, and has donated a one-off lump sum to help us increase the number of classes we offer. 
 
All we are doing to help meet their duty of care is also made possible with your generous monthly commitment. Thank you for your continued support as we set ourselves on a path for even greater impact to help those most vulnerable.

Read about Jemma and Pauls experiences at Manawatu prison below and scroll down a bit further to read about Adhyatmas award in the People Choice competition and you can vote (Until Aug 10th) for her if you like! 

On behalf of YEPT
Adhyatma, Adele, John, Jasmin, Andrea, Jane and Pat.

Hui 2018 Karakia

Hui 2018 Karakia

Whakataka te hau ki te uru, 
Whakataka te hau ki te tonga

Kia mākinakina ki uta, 
Kia mātaratara ki tai. 

E hī ake ana te atākura he tio,
he huka, he hauhunga

Haumi e! Hui e! Tāiki e!

WE’AR’s true colours make us proud

WE’AR’s true colours make us proud

We’re thrilled and proud to share the news that our sponsor, ethically produced fashion brand WE’AR, has announced their new B CORP certification status, demonstrating that they are not only the best yoga lifestyle brand in the world, but they’re also best for the world.

B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.

B corporations are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as business ones, where their social and environmental performance must be regularly certified by a non-profit called B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

We hear it took WE’AR several months to gain certification. The process involved formalising numerous processes and structures, collating and comparing a vast amount of key information, and then assessing their whole business and supply chain using B Corps lengthy and thorough business, social and environmental audit process.

WE’AR had to make very few changes to their already existing practices as their operations have always been guided by their own ethical business mission and policy standards, which were already very much in sync with the B Corp ethos and standards. Something we already had an insight into, given our relationship over the past few years.

The new stamp of approval makes WE’AR officially as part of this global movement, and allows their voice to be amplified by the power of many businesses working together with the shared consciousness for positive change.

“As a lifelong yogi, I wanted to see what was possible if I designed a business from the ground up on the principles of non-violence, fairness and holistic sustainability.  It’s endlessly amazing being part of this coming to fruition in the success of WE’AR.

 

Being recognised and celebrated for the passion and hard work it’s taken, by an organisation as prestigious as B Corp is totally affirming and also a great honour.”

 

WE’AR Designer and Founder Jyoti Morningstar.

Congratulations Jyoti and team! We love your work and feel honoured to be a part of our passion for social change.

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