After people read my bio, I am most often asked about or commented on my experience teaching for Prison Yoga Project at San Quentin Prison. I've finally setup a website with a blog feature so I can share my response with all. Here is my first blog post!
Teaching at San Quentin Prison is like teaching no where else. Among the many eye opening experiences I wish to share, I will focus this post on the use of language, the privileged context in which we learn to teach, and how word choices impact teaching at a prison. The choice of words used while holding a healing space and instructing a sequence can greatly effect the guys who come to practice in a way one may not imagine otherwise.
As yoga teachers, and as conscious individuals, we are encouraged to be mindful in how we speak and engage with others. However, that framework of "mindfulness" is often taught and understood within a privileged context. Take for example when we teach Ardha Uttanasana (half-intense stretch, or standing half forward bend) at the wall. What are the cues to get a student to take the position? "Ok, everyone. Stand up, turn around, and put your hands at the wall." Can you imagine an inmate hearing that instruction for the first time? Or how about one of my favorite simple chest openers Paschima Baddhanguliyasana? The reverse bound finger pose. "Ok, now put your hands behind your back and interlock your fingers." The last time an inmate probably did that action was when they were getting arrested with handcuffs behind their back.
We are too used to our framework of being mindful that we may not realize stepping into a prison environment how these words have an effect on an inmate's psyche. I remember trying to connect with a first time attending student "Hey, you are quite good at learning this yoga practice. Maybe you were a yogi in a past life time, ha." Now, some guys get this and smile along, but there has been an instance or two when a guy just stared back at me with sorrow in his eyes. The words past, life and time all have a different and heavily negative connotation when heard within the confines of prison walls. Your past defines your status or how you got locked up at the prison. Life can have a meaning of a life time sentence. Time is no one's friend there. Once I said I was "running out of time" during a class and that we would have to skip some poses I had intended to teach. Then I remember catching myself. Looking at the guys in front of me and the clock in the background, I realized that running out of time is a good thing at San Quentin. They all seek that day of emancipation. Telling a PTSD student to "be engaged" may not get them so present but rather trigger being engaged for combat. We have no relationship with the word engage as used for engaging weapons and combat. In public classes we can easily talk about "targeting" a body part, but in prison a target is heard differently. So it is little things like that which can make a big impact simply by selection of words.
All this has taught me how to shift my choice of words and to build their trust in my teaching. In particular, the teaching methods I am trained via Iyengar Yoga which can be quite direct and firm. (And for good reason—that will be blog post for another time). One has to give space, step back and not speak from the brain. BKS Iyengar said "teach from the heart and not the brain alone." The Prison Yoga Project experience at San Quentin has certainly taught me just that. There are many times I still get caught up in my brain when teaching. I have to take a pause every time after passing through security check points at San Quentin and ask myself "what am I doing here? with what intention have I come here to share the practice of yoga?" and having that moment of contemplation helps me teach from a place where the guys can actually relate to the practice and relate to their own body and inner guide.
I always walk away after San Quentin on Tuesday afternoons feeling less caught up in my own problems. Many of my problems exist within a bubble of a privileged and blessed life. So while I have my own suffering to endure, I am grateful for the good fortune to practice self care and to stay on the path of higher awareness. Though I often get caught up in my own struggles, I am well aware that I have a privileged position to practice. Even to have time for pity is a privileged kind of pity. The guys at San Quentin have been some of greatest teachers.
I am sharing this in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. May we all take some time to be grateful for the privilege to practice yoga. We are fortunate to have this yoga practice in our lives and to have the advantage to learn in the ways we do.