Infiltrating Prison with Love, Compassion, and Respect

When I tell people that I teach yoga to incarcerated women, I often see a look pass over their faces. Sometimes they'll express it out loud. There by the grace of God go I. I have heard instant confessions about driving around in cars with guns, about drunk driving, about dealing drugs. Most of us could be incarcerated for something we did in the past had we been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I go into the prison with no judgment. I don't ask, "What did you do?" Though oftentimes, I'm curious. The instructors of Yoga For Incarcerated Women have one purpose, and that is to share the transformative powers of yoga and lovingkindness meditation with women in the greatest need. And to me, there is no greater need than women who are locked into cages, demoralized, deprived of sunlight, nutrition, and physical comforts. Our purpose is to give them tools to love themselves enough to be less self destructive, to ease the PTSD they will experience when they are released, to avoid reoffending, and to go on to the full expression of their lives.

When I first started going in, I had lofty ideas. I thought, I'm going to be like Ghandi. I'm going to love them all and their lives will be transformed by yoga and meditation. But the truth is, they are not all loveable. Some are unruly, disrespectful, bored with you and what you are trying to impart, and yoga class is simply a diversion from the tedium of a weekend, from lockdown, from double scrub (cleaning).

Their faces stay with me. One girl seemed too young to be in a women's facility. She was Chinese, barely able to speak a few words of English. I called her love bug, and showered as much affection as possible with the limited amount of physical contact we are allowed. I thought she may have been sex trafficked. Another girl, pale and heavily tatted, mocked me snidely throughout the class, "Breathe." She talked to her friends loudly, and complained, "Owww," when I gave her a simple adjustment. Later, in Shavasana, after I had anointed them all with lavender oil and sprayed rose water in their faces, I adjusted her head. Her eyes were closed. She was so young. Someone had kicked this little puppy to make her so hard.

We have ninety minutes to make a difference. We teach at a male facility that takes the overflow of women from other facilities. Some of the women are serving prison sentences there. But often, a woman is just passing through, waiting to be sent elsewhere to serve her sentence. Sometimes, the women will be moved in the middle of the night, which is called, "moving bodies." A woman could have a brief sentence. Our responsibility is huge. We have such a short time to make a lasting impression. But like I said, sometimes we make no impression at all.

I live in Santa Monica on the beach. In the morning when I go down to the sand to meditate in front of the waves I pass people wearing orange vests doing community service--likely some of them for the same infractions that got my women jail and prison sentences. Only they had better attorneys. Our prison system needs revamping badly. But that is not our purpose. Our purpose is simply to infiltrate and to share, and hopefully to reach some of them.

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