Yoga Rhapsody ~ Jemma Jeffs and Paul Saker-Norrish
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 in all of us, on so many levels – what a blessing.
Brendon Sakey has been a YEPT teacher for 3 and 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 gansta 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 frustrates you? That we still too much power in society that continues to create margalisation, inequality and separation.
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 in to 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.
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 maybe 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.
What frustrates you?
A northwesterly wind?
Jane Allen ~ Christchurch
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 awhile.
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.
Bryan Johnston ~ Auckland
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.
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 post graduate 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 reflcetion 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.