In the Shadow of a Prisoner's Dharma


Teaching yoga in jail has given me insights into the alternate universe of the criminal justice system that I wasn't really prepared for. From the very first class I led there, there have been women who stand out in my mind for some reason or another. There was the baby doll who didn't speak English, the "lady in the cafeteria" who always looked scared and baffled, the WASPY bookworm with the heavy black glasses whose diction and vocabulary got you scratching your head what's-nice-girl-like-you-doing-in-a-place like-this, the impeccably coiffed/perfectly gel-manicured princess with a P. But until recently I never encountered a prisoner as shatteringly frail and shell shocked as a woman I'll call Jill.

The crime she was sent to jail for was something many have done with fortuitous impunity. It could be that she is embellishing, massaging, or omitting the truth about her arrest. I don't know and I don't care. I see her staring into space in her cell and it gets me. We all have our Dharma (our path in life). She could have had one of her children get cancer or her husband hit by a car; but she got this. I've seen her three times, and all three times she was either frantically telling me about her "nightmare," melting down in tears, or morbidly depressed.

I reached out to my Buddhist mentor, Christopher Germer, to ask him what I can do for this woman. He emailed me:

. . . . . Usually "presence" is the best we can do, which means feel her grief, her terror, her numbness, and then say something helpful from that place of being together. Just knowing that there is someone in the prison who feels with her is probably the best you can offer . . . and that's a lot. It's also important that you don't get too pulled out of your own serenity either. I'd breathe in for myself and out for her, again and again, when I see her. This is a way of loving her without losing yourself. When we lose ourselves, sometimes we lose our wisdom and compassion, too . . . .

His email made me want to go back and teach as soon as possible, so I can see her and practice feeling her grief/terror/numbness and hopefully say something from my meager place of supposedly being together. It also reinforced how privileged I feel for having the opportunity to share yoga and meditation to women with the greatest need. Jill may never come out of her cell for her entire sentence. She hasn't come out since the first class. I thought I would be disappointed, but once the yogis came to the front of their mats in Tadasana, it was all about them.