This is from a speech I wrote for a small house party.
These past two weeks I’ve been to prison and jail 5 times.
I spent one Friday evening in the downtown jail in Seattle where 10 men in red cloth jumpsuits showed up to practice yoga. They worked so hard…there was nothing that could distract them from their practice. As teacher Gwendolyn led the men through a powerful class, I watched hundreds of cars whizz by behind them on the freeway. It felt surreal.
Three times I drove to the women’s prison in Gig Harbor where Patti and I are co-teaching an Intro to Yoga class for college credit in partnership with Freedom Education Project Puget Sound. This week we did a lot of gentle neck and shoulder work, as most of the students hold a lot of tension there. And finally, I drove to Clallam Bay Corrections Center, which takes about 4 ½ hours. It’s almost the farthest Northwest you can go in the continental US.
All of these places are different. But they are also all the same.
The people who live in these facilities become largely invisible to the rest of us, if they weren’t already invisible before their incarceration. And that’s a big part of our work. To witness people, to see them.
I believe truly seeing someone is a form of love.
We also give our students a space to see and hear themselves, to nurture and strengthen their inner voice. If there is anything that I’d like my students to feel during a class, it is that they are worthy.
The reason I was at Clallam Bay was to accompany a filmmaker, Kevin Philbin, to make a 1-minute short about Greg. Greg is one of our yoga teachers on the inside. He graduated from our first yoga teacher training earlier this year. He is so proud to call himself a yoga teacher. He’s a leader. He’s a yogi. Greg defies so many stereotypes about who gets to practice and teach yoga. You can see his video series here.
This new opportunity for professional and personal growth is now being offered at the women’s prison too.
Our trauma-informed yoga teacher training started there last weekend. To see the room fill up with future yoga teachers… A diverse group of women… Many of them long time students of ours… It was beautiful and exciting.
This is the work Yoga Behind Bars is now able to do after many years of relationship and capacity building. Yes, we change individual lives (YBB has definitely changed mine) but also help shift the culture in prisons to one with a focus on healing and reintegration. Making visible what is invisible. Building bridges and understanding.
It takes patience, persistence, and a lot of love to make these kinds of shifts.
And funding, since we don’t get paid by the Department of Corrections for our programs. But with the help of our community of supporters, we are able to keep moving forward and be there for our students. If we all keep showing up, putting our energy into what truly matters—there’s nothing we can’t do together.