In a recent teacher training for the Prison Yoga Project, I had several moments of remembering, “Oh, that’s right, yoga IS magic.” After 12 years of teaching, I often feel jaded. Overwhelmed by green smoothie detoxes and bikini handstands on the beach, the yoga world sometimes feels like a sport of narcissism for the young, white, and hypermobile.
This training brought me back to the essential process of yoga: delving into yourself, centering, discharging what you don’t need, and re-emerging more able to serve. One of the most genuine yogis I’ve met, James Fox, the founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, modeled this process.
Teaching at San Quentin for 13 years, he approaches his students with remarkable compassion. Instead of assuming they are inherently evil and deserve to be locked away, he looks at crime as a result of unresolved trauma.
His teaching methodology unpacks and addresses years of compounded trauma. Through breathing exercises, dynamic sequences, and deep relaxation, he teaches impulse control, stress reduction, and how to create inner peace in the extreme turmoil of incarceration. Two of James’s former students, now released, participated in our training and shared how much his classes helped them heal during their time in prison.
I left the training with renewed faith in yoga and inspired to support the Prison Yoga Project. But I wonder about my role in democratizing yoga. I’m good at solving “white people problems” like sore backs from international flights or tight hamstrings from marathon training. When it comes to teaching in a prison, what do I have to offer? I feel like another well-intended, flexible, white woman in expensive sweat pants. I worry that I don’t have the tattoos, the scars, and deep enough emotional wounds to be legit.
So while my heart is in the right place, I’m still figuring out what to do with the rest of me. I’m sorting out my approach to this work:
- Even if my dings feel minor compared to years of abuse, neglect, and violence, we have all endured some sort of trauma.
- My privilege has given me the resources to deal with life’s crap. With copious emotional and sufficient financial support I can take stability, safety, and control for granted.
- Prisoners don’t have those luxuries. Instead, unresolved trauma becomes recapitulated instead of resolved. This is especially true in a judicial system designed to punish instead of rehabilitate.
- As a yoga teacher I don’t have a magic wand that can rescue anyone. There’s a big difference between “Helping, Fixing or Serving”
- With 15 years of yoga study, I can map how the human body braces against the turmoil of everyday life. We lock up our most potent power in our hips, armour around our heart, and store stress in our neck and shoulders till they scream with pain
I know that as yoga unravels the body, we develop sensitivity and resilience simultaneously. That’s the magic. I’m idealistic enough to believe that this pairing of sensitivity and strength can be both personally healing and increase our ability to serve. So I’m researching options for teaching incarcerated populations. The prisoners may have more magic for me than I can teach them.