For 4 years now, I have had the pleasure and privilege to teach the Intro to Yoga class at WCCW. It’s a partnership between Yoga Behind Bars and Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS). Participants get college credit for the class as they work towards their Associate’s degree with FEPPS. Last Tuesday was the final class for the quarter, with my 4th cohort of thirteen students.
When we started the quarter, back in March, I was met with a healthy dose of skepticism, some enthusiasm, and anxiety. Since the class is a requirement for the degree, not everyone in the class was particularly stoked about being there and they had no problem letting me know A few couldn’t wait to get started. Several were afraid they would not be able to succeed in the class because of serious chronic pain and mobility constraints. They were worried they would hurt even more from yoga.
A shared sentiment amongst most of the students was the idea that yoga might “not be for them”. Totally understandable. It doesn’t take more than a 3-second google search to see “who yoga is for” in mainstream yogaland: thin, able-bodied, white, young, cisgender… the list goes on. Many of my students at WCCW do not identify with any of the above. I was hyper-aware about how I could be (and was) perpetuating the stereotypes of what a “yoga person” looks like.
Over the course of 11 weeks we slowly and gently unpacked some of those stereotypes as we practiced together. I’m not going to make it sound like it was all like some magical carpet ride, because it wasn’t. This is a class in a prison. The amount of stress, suffering, and pain feels daunting on a good day, and overwhelming on a bad one. To work with people of all ability levels and varying levels of interest…well, it kicked my butt. Sometimes I felt incredibly insecure because I wondered if any of what we were doing was helpful at all. Talk about being able to let go of any outcome.
Teaching for resilience
I don’t know why and for how long students are behind bars unless they choose to disclose that information with me. I don’t know what they are carrying other than the little bits and pieces they share with me before and after class. But I do know that most of them are coping with trauma in one way or another. This is why giving people permission to choose is so critical. Each student can choose how they want to approach a breathing exercise, a movement, or a meditation.
My role is that of a guide, to offer options and make suggestions. It’s about drawing people’s attention to notice not just what’s hurting, but what’s feeling strong, healthy, perhaps enjoyable. And to remind students to be kind, to make choices that are right for them, and not worry about what any shape or movement looks like or what someone else might be doing. It might sound simple, but trust me, this is not an easy practice, and it is not easy to model either. Most of us have been trained to push through pain, to ignore what our body is telling us, and to not look weak.
Getting to know my students
My students are survivors. I am in awe of their strength and resilience. Trauma can make your body feel unsafe, even like an enemy. It’s scary to be in your body and feel anything, because it will hurt…a lot. It might also mean that you have a lot of protective armor on, all the time, and being in a yoga class makes you feel vulnerable. Some of the students were inscrutable, like a sphinx (one of the favorite poses). I had no idea what their experience was for most of the time. It was powerful for me to practice staying present, staying open, and getting very creative with chairs, blocks, blankets, and bolsters.
Gradually I got to know a little bit about each student, their unique movement signature and presence, the things they wrote in their reflections, the sequence they put together at the end of the quarter for their personal practice. There was more openness and sharing. As people learned more about themselves and what shapes and modifications worked for them, I’d see more variations in movement and in stillness. I’d hear from some of the students how they were applying things from class into their lives—it would almost make my heart explode.
Reading the final reflections of everyone was powerful and touching. It reminded me to have a little bit more faith in this practice we call “yoga”. Here are a few for you, they are in response to the question “What has YBB/this class meant to you?”
- “A lot…it’s helped me relax more, think before I speak. It’s helped me accept my body as it is, somewhat “
- “I came into this class skeptical but I enjoyed each class. The stretching and strengthening was my favorite part. It is nice to know I can exercise and strengthen through low impact.”
- “It has helped me respect my body more.”
- “I am deeply grateful for this program. Thank you for bringing it here. I will highly recommend it to others.”
In deep gratitude to all the FEPPS students I have had the pleasure to share yoga with, FEPPS, my wonderful team, staff at WCCW, and everyone who contributes to YBB. Special shout out to Patti and Jess for being past and current co-facilitators of this course.
Rosa Vissers, Executive Director
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September 28-30, 2018
Mount Baker Community Club, Seattle, WA