Practice in the Shadows Bringing YOGA into the Criminal Justice System by Sarahjoy Marsh
In two days, I’m having lunch with Governor Kulongoski. I feel as if I’m supposed to have a compelling political platform prepared for the honor of sitting down with him. I wonder if I should have compiled more research, statistics, financial reports, and convincing evidence for a policy change. But since I don’t know how to specifically quantify human potential and my passion for, respect for, and belief in the human capacity for change, I don’t have any numbers prepared; and I don’t know precisely what policy change I would suggest, if given the chance to be that influential.
Nineteen years ago, I met with the Mayor of Boston. I brought along twelve of my art therapy group members. We were there to make a statement about the value of every human life and the deservedness of support for everyone’s basic needs. Having been diagnosed with mental illness, my clients were in a long-term residential care home. In some cases, their families had abandoned them. In many cases, the medications they were stabilized with created a state of self-abandonment, in which they relied on the staff for most of their daily functions. Four months after this meeting, we were informed that the predicted budgetary cuts (at the government level) had actually happened, which would require us to close the home. We grimly faced the reality that most of our clients would soon become homeless, un-medicated and impoverished.
Eleven years ago, I left the safety and sanctuary of Breitenbush Hot Springs, where I’d been living and working for four years, to teach yoga in prisons. Every time I drove from Breitenbush to Salem and back on a “town outing”, a haunting spell would come over me as I passed by the prison on Hwy 22 just outside of Salem. I could not explain this in rational terms. I wanted in. Here I was driving back and forth from ancient forest paradise to city mayhem and the strongest pull on the drive was the moment when I was passing by this prison with its high towers and barbed wire. A very close second was the moment when snow-capped Mt Jefferson first came into view over the river on the drive back to Breitenbush. But I suspected that the part of me that needed healing wasn’t going to bow at the foot of Mt Jefferson, but to humble myself at the feet of the shadowy mysteries of incarcerated humanity instead.
How are these three vignettes connected? As a long-time spiritually-inclined, psychologically-curious, and social-justice minded individual, I’ve consistently been confused about how basic human needs and the support of inherent human potential become a matter of the distancing conversation of politics, where we manage numbers and policies while losing touch with the human heart’s capacity—when treated with love—to heal, to contribute, and to teach us about love. And I’m greatly concerned about the loss that the majority of us face as we lock-away, institutionalize, marginalize, put in the shadows, disown or disregard members of our community.
In 1998, I entered the prisons to teach yoga, where I would engage with our cultural, systemic, and communal shadows as part of my personal effort to understand and to heal my own.
Now almost ten years later, Living Yoga and myself are both dedicated to addressing the shadows and the breakdowns in the human heart. Through a volunteer effort of 80 teachers, Living Yoga, the non-profit yoga outreach organization that was created out of my original volunteer classes at Columbia River Correctional Institution, teaches 20 yoga classes a week in prisons, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, and for homeless youth and battered women’s shelters.
For me, addressing the shadow is internal (though the external world is often the stimulus for this inward research). While I originally traveled into the marginalized areas of our society for my personal quest (centers for the mentally ill and homeless, and prisons) I have found, as Mother Theresa said, “The work for peace must begin at home.” And the more deeply I dive in to my own shadow, the more I see spiritual truths being realized. We really are all One. And I truly do have the seeds of greed, impatience, anger, shame, envy and malice in my heart, too. The marked difference between my prison students and me is awareness, conditioning and impulse control.
By the time a person becomes an inmate, they’ve had countless opportunities to forget themselves and their interconnectedness with humanity, nature, the pulse of life. And they’ve had countless moments of being forgotten, by their families, teachers, communities, the system. We (the non-inmates) also experience a forgetting. Our forgetting (or disowning) takes the forms of arrogance (we would never do “those things”), separateness (us and them), and relief (that they’re in there, we’re out here). And in this forgetting, we also become imprisoned, as it were, by the resulting isolation and disconnection.
Yoga is the practice of remembering. Breitenbush Hot Springs served as the fertile ground for much of my personal remembering. Amongst the ancient forest trees, I realized my timeless nature. In conscious community, I recognized my contributions as significant and unique; and as one thread in the tapestry. Through yoga and meditation, I rested so deeply in simply being that I felt the precious and fleeting gift of my life alongside the wistful lives of birds taking morning flight. And I saw how easy it was to forget all of this and fall into taking my life for granted, getting irritated with other community members and contracting around the small story that was my agenda on my timing! Yoga is discipline and surrender. Remembering can happen in a blink of awareness. Living in remembrance takes conscious effort and practice as we learn to override old conditioning/habit and follow awareness and respect instead.
Unlike Breitenbush, prisons are sterile, unnatural, tightly controlled environments. And yet, for thousands of Oregonians, prison is their Breitenbush, their retreat away from daily life. A person becomes an inmate when they live in prison. And while in prison, they have the chance to press the re-start button. Yoga can be one tool in the re-start process.
In the state of relaxation and awareness that yoga cultivates, (through the poses, breathing practices and meditation), inmates practice remembering their natural intelligence, their capacity to feel and be sensitive to themselves and others, and their long-buried desire for wholeness and integrity. In the process of remembering, they’re no longer inmates. In other words, they’re no longer ONLY the label of their life and the system. They are also no longer limited to the downward spiraling definitions they’ve given themselves. They become a human heart again with the potential to heal, to make amends, to contribute, and to teach others about the process of re-starting one’s life.
Take Leo, for example. Leo (not his real name) first came to yoga class pressured by a fellow inmate. The room I was teaching in was so small that with the other 6 students in their regular places, Leo had to put his yoga mat directly in front of mine. He would not make eye contact with me. He was tall, lanky, and shy. He was the only African American in the room. And, after the first pose, he was sweating profusely from the effort he was making to attempt even a rustic form of the pose. With his eyes scrunching together and a grimace on his face, he determinedly reaching his arms overhead, fingers interlaced. I started to get nervous. I’d never seen someone work so hard in a basic yoga pose only to accomplish so little; and I wasn’t sure about his frustration management skills.
At the end of this class, we still hadn’t made eye contact with each other, but I did see him connect with another yoga student using a familiar eye roll that told me Leo recognized yoga was quite a bit more than he had expected it to be. I wasn’t sure if this meant he’d never come again, or if he’d take the challenge and come every week. While the challenges can seem solely physical, they include the mental challenge of focusing; the energetic challenge of non-striving, of moving in harmony with nature, not against it; and the emotional challenge of accepting one’s limitations.
Leo arrived for class the next week, and the week after, and the week after that. He began to soften. It took several weeks more before he greeted me with eye contact. I always acknowledged him and made sure to appreciate his efforts, rather than scolding him for over-efforting. He continued to sweat profusely and to force yoga poses where it wasn’t prudent or productive.
After several months of this, it became apparent to him that in every yoga pose he tried, he was the first one to be tired, the one breathing the loudest and sweating the most. I outlasted him on every pose, including the ones that his well-developed shoulder muscles should have outdone me on.
This was the breaking point and he asked me, “How are you doing that?”
From that point on his poses became yoga. He practiced with balanced effort, deep breathing, respectful attention and the occasional shy smile. He started to show initiative, confidence and leadership around the yoga program. He was often the first one to class. Sometimes, when he was able to get out of his unit early enough, he would set up the mats and yoga props for the class as I arrived. He began making a special effort to wipe down all the mats at the end of class, to help the new students with their yoga struggles, and to teach yoga to men in his unit during the week between classes.
Leo was 23 years old and had been in and out of prison since he was 17. He had one more year on his sentence and approached Living Yoga about training to become a yoga teacher. He said he wanted to help people like himself—young, angry and in trouble—to avoid getting stuck in the prison cycle he’d been in. The last time I saw him, he was radiant and expressed his gratitude with a huge, toothy smile. His brief eye contact was now an expression of humility as opposed to an avoidance of our shared humanity. If given the chance, I knew he’d be an incredible teacher.
Yoga created a microcosm for Leo, a place where he could cultivate awareness and practice getting in touch with himself, staying in touch, one pose at a time, with sensitivity and self-respect. It was also a place were deep physical and personal healing occurred. Yoga re-wires us from the fight or flight response and, for Leo, allowed him to come back into his body and his feeling state in the moment, as opposed to the “on alert/no impulse control” state that he’d lived most of his life in. A change in the system at this level creates the possibility for a lasting effect on the re-start button, or the re-conditioning process, where old patterns die out and new pathways of thought and action are created. The yoga program as a microcosm had also created an opportunity for Leo to experiment with leadership and role modeling. And as he tried these things on, he shed some of the familial (you’ll never amount to anything), cultural (you’re poor, black and uneducated) and systemic (you’ll always be a problem and an expense to society) shadows he’d carried around. When this melted away, Leo came to realize that he, too, has the seeds of greatness, intelligence, compassion, peace and personal contribution within him.
When those who have consistently projected humanity’s shadow onto the marginalized in society re-claim the collective seeds of greed, anger, violence, depression, apathy (etc.), they will recover a sense of personal depth and the strength of collective compassion. When those who are carrying the shadow re-claim their worth, intelligence, self-respect (etc.), they will recover their capacity to contribute, to shine and to be an instrument for change. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
As I look forward to lunch with the Governor, I realize my politic would suggest that we need a radical overhauling of the criminal justice system via overhauling our consciousness about each other. But my perspective, like Gandhi’s, requires personal accountability for all members of the community; and a collective approach, not a fracturing and demoralizing approach.
The people that Living Yoga serves represent a great cost to society for sure. Financially, they’re one of our most expensive public health concerns, for example; and it costs thousands of dollars to maintain a prisoner’s housing, food and medications every year. But we will experience an even greater expense to our community and our future if we continue along our current trajectory. More prisons do not equal greater safety nor do they represent better rehabilitation, nor reduced recidivism. Like a crack in the windshield, I believe we’re only seeing the beginning of how the current system will spider web into problems not yet imagined.
While I don’t yet have a strategically outlined plan for the overhaul that’s required, I’m committed to creating opportunities for personal transformation as a catalyst for social change and will stand by my personal policy of recognizing the human potential to heal, and to contribute to the greater good in so doing.
Sarahjoy Marsh, a former resident at Breitenbush Hot Springs, is the Founder and Board Chair of Living Yoga. She can be found teaching yoga at her Portland studio, amrita: a sanctuary for yoga, on her teaching travels throughout the Northwest, in her garden or in the woods with her dog Senor Piquito Dulce Perro. On the internet: www.yogajoy.net; www.amritasanctuary.com