Students at the WA Corrections Center for Women, 2019
In May, we asked long-time YBB teacher, Chris List, if she’d be interested in teaching a student at WCCW on Skype. Read more about her experience and the impact of yoga on our students…
As the pandemic began to pick up steam in March, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be going back into prison for a long time. I felt interrupted and untethered, and I realized I was experiencing grief over the sudden and rather drastic changes in my life. And like the rest of my YBB cohort, I worried about our incarcerated students, and with no way to communicate with them it was hard. I was mid-session with a small group of men in the mindfulness group I facilitate in the IMU (Intensive Management Unit) at Monroe, and it didn’t feel right to have walked away from important conversations with a vulnerable group of people like that. It was a process interrupted, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I knew I needed to keep teaching, that it would sustain me and keep me on my path, and I committed to two additional classes at the studio where I teach, and started a nightly live-streamed meditation on Facebook. Teaching this way to an audience, many of whom I know well but couldn’t see, required new skills. I pictured my incarcerated students finding ways to continue their practices with much greater challenges than I was facing, and as always, that humbled me and reminded me again and again to be grateful.
At the end of April, YBB reached out and asked if I would be interested in teaching a young woman in the mental health unit at WCCW via Skype. It felt like a light had beamed into the darkness of the new world I’d been living in. My student was young, in her early twenties, the age of my own children. She has a significant trauma history, as do most incarcerated people there, and is facing the reality of a long sentence. Clearly the mental health staff was concerned about her.
Teaching in prison requires both a fierce commitment and a powerful ability to detach. It requires that we are able to hold these two ways of being at the same time, and be skilled at both of them. Strong boundaries are essential, but so also is a certain kind of sharing of self which leads to a building of trust. In my experience, much of that is achieved just by showing up again and again, consistently and reliably. One must be able to accept that a student may show up for class regularly for a long time, and then disappear – sometimes with no warning. They’re transferred to other facilities, moved into a different setting within the same prison, they get jobs that interfere with coming to class, they’re released, or sometimes they quit yoga – there are many reasons why they disappear. Occasionally they will reappear, sometimes years later. Yoga Behind Bars provides a certain kind of family, a stability and comfort through our programs which are similar in all of the facilities where we teach. I’ve had many students show up at Monroe who say that they’ve attended YBB classes in other facilities.
Teaching yoga remotely is very different from teaching students in person, but it has some benefits, not only for the pandemic, but for other reasons. Working with my student via Skype allowed us immediate boundaries and a container to work within. It also strangely created an appropriate and immediate intimacy between us that felt safe. Unlike the live-streamed classes I’d been teaching for the studio, we could see and talk with each other, which was necessary under these circumstances.
My student had discovered yoga on her own but had never had a teacher or been to a class. She showed up each week ready to go, and though I knew she was struggling and also dealing with some past injuries, and of course a lot of trauma, she was always cheerful and always asked for an “energetic” session. I tailored the sessions to her needs as much as possible. She told me that yoga made her energy feel “softer,” and that she felt “less like fighting” after yoga. Seeing her weekly for about 15 weeks was a highlight of this time for me. And I was so impressed with the dedication of the staff there to making this happen.
A few weeks ago, she decided to end our sessions. She met with me via Skype to thank me and let me know that she was going to stop. I was told that she had a lot of other things going on and that yoga was the only thing she was allowed to quit. She showed up as she always did with a smile, and she politely told me that she was quitting and that she especially appreciated learning a particular breathing technique we had worked on. I told her that I hoped I’d get to meet her in person someday.
If and when she returns to the general population, and when this pandemic allows YBB to return to in-person teaching, I know that our time together laid the groundwork for her to come to any YBB classes in the future and feel some sense of continuity, familiarity and hopefully comfort. I also know that it left her with some tools for dealing with anxiety and stress and ways to feel, as she said “softer energy.”
My young student will always be part of my pandemic memories, and I’m grateful to her for showing up week after week and being a light in my life during a somewhat dark and confusing time in history.