Staff won’t call the boys out until the teacher arrives, so I am always here first. I am a volunteer teacher with a non-profit organization that brings yoga to people who are traditionally unable to access the practice, like those who are incarcerated, participating in detox or rehab programs, or living in re-entry facilities. Those who need access to yoga the most. My designated class is at a juvenile correctional center for young men ages 18 to 25 years old who have been convicted of felony level crimes.
The boys, bordering on young men, saunter into the rec room in clumps of two and three, communicating through mono-syllabic mumbling. An occasional loner trails behind the others. All share the same low affect, any emotions they feel secured behind steely exteriors. The straight-line of their mouths and lowered gazes give away nothing.
Rising from my yoga mat where I’ve been kneeling in Hero Pose, Virasana, I greet the returning students, “Hello, Chris. Hello, Trevor.” The boys look at me when addressed, each returning a Hello. I introduce myself to those who haven’t been here before, trying to attach a mnemonic device to something I’m likely to remember about their physical appearance – a pair of glasses, a ruddy complexion, a buzz cut — so a month from now, when I return, I will call them by name, too. If they decide to come back.
Wearing simple clothes, things like grey sweatpants or black shorts with white T-shirts, they kick off their scuffed-up sneakers upon reaching the coffee-stained carpet, an area littered with dusty crumbs and strands of lost hair. The scattered chairs of the room are already cleared to the side, pushed up against the wall.
Stopping at the cupboard where they grab mats from the communal stash – some tattered, some stained, none of them sanitized – then toss them down in a haphazard formation that coalesces into something that resembles a circle with me at the apex. Over the constant whirring of the industrial HVAC unit, we take our places and begin the class standing in Mountain Pose, Tadasana.
I direct the boys, “Feel your feet solid on the earth. Notice the points where your soles connect to the ground.” My body adopts a slight swaying motion, to settle in. To let go of my battle with traffic to get here and the hectic day at work that preceded. To focus in this moment. I observe the boys and what their energy feels like today, then invite them, “Notice your breath, your inhale and your exhale. Take the time to fully arrive here.”
We move into half sun salutations, Surya Namaskar, inhaling as we raise our arms overhead to the sky, exhaling as we bow down, lowering them to the earth. This gets the blood circulating through our limbs and spine, lubricates the backs of our legs and shoulder joints, creates a refreshing mobility.
I model the motions and suggest, “You can move with your own breath, which may be faster or slower than mine.” For the most part, they stick with my pace, mimicking me. No one wants to stand out too much.
The mission of our non-profit is not to provide a series of movements and light exercise, but rather to offer tools to self-regulate, to quiet the incessant squall of anger, self-loathing and aggression inside our students’ heads. Maybe, if our teaching is effective, it will assist these young men in breaking the entrenched cycles of trauma and abuse from which they have come.
Last year, as part of the facility’s volunteer orientation, I received a list of the crimes for which my potential students had been convicted: robbery, assault, kidnapping, manslaughter, arson with threat of serious injury, attempted murder, murder, aggravated murder, pornographic exploitation of a child, compelling prostitution, sexual abuse, unlawful sexual penetration, rape.
The last several on the list gave me pause. Made me re-think why I planned to do this at all. The trauma of severe sexual abuse runs deep in the women in my family. Why was I supporting people who committed such heinous acts? But I understand, these boys likely had terrible things done to them, which made them do terrible things to others. And I have to believe in our power to change.
Teaching these boys takes me back to my early days of exploration with yoga, to an innocence of self-discovery. I’m hopeful that perhaps this practice will walk with them through their lives, too. I started practicing yoga in 1994, when I was a teenager. Yoga studios were not as commonplace then and certainly no one in my rural town was teaching any form of it. Yoga was an esoteric concept imported from a faraway land that only hippies followed. Well, hippies and my mother, evidently. Because that’s where my first inauspicious exposure to it came from.
My mom enjoyed exploring new forms of movement, which included purchasing the latest workout videos and exercise gizmos. I’d sneak through her things and try out the thigh-master and her knock-off Nordic track and bounce for hours on a mini-trampoline. That’s where I found her book, The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program. On the front cover, Raquel strikes a fetching pose, the leg openings of her white leotard cut up to her thigh bone, the neckline dipping down to her navel. I picked up the book hoping to learn the secret to making my body as beautiful as Raquel’s. Ironically, that book introduced me to the building blocks of Bikram Yoga and to concepts of how the movements of my outer body could impact my inner body –my emotional state and mental focus, my digestion and circulation. Yoga became a consistent partner through life’s trials.
We progress towards Eagle Pose, Garudasana. The fullest expression of Eagle Pose asks for one elbow crossed over the other, forearms lifting to where palms meet in prayer, one leg crossed over the other, toes tucking behind calf if possible, balancing on one leg. But Eagle pose does not look like this in our class today.
All the boys choose the modifications provided. Their shoulders are tight. Locked into place by an ever-present tension. We simply cross one arm over the other. Those of us who can rest hands on opposite shoulders, giving ourselves a hug. A couple students choose to remain standing upright, a few lower into a standard squat. One loves a balance challenge. He accepts the option to cross one leg over the other, resting a foot on opposing knee in a figure four shape.
My first priority is to lead the boys through this practice with care and gentility. Although most of them are well-muscled, full of hard angles, with forearms and necks covered in tattoos and a stoicism set in their eyes, their bodies seem fragile. The difficulty of their lives is visible in the rigidity of their bodies. In this quiet space, they do not need to feel compelled to compete with one another or show off for me by contorting brittle limbs into untenable positions.
This is not just my philosophy; the non-profit I volunteer with espouses a trauma informed approach. At the beginning of my teaching assignment here, I bore insecurities about the moderately paced nature of my class sequences, fearing that the students would grow bored and inattentive. That they would fail to return. After all, these young men are at the prime of their physical ability. I assumed they’d want intensity, Chaturanga push-ups and intricate arm balances, none of which we teach. But that isn’t the case at all. I find whenever I supply an option between a more vigorous posture and a milder one, say between Downward Dog and Child’s Pose, they always pick the milder version.
After my second class, I approached one of the young men as he laced up his sneakers and asked what he liked best about yoga, what were his favorite poses. He replied, “I like to get more flexible, less stiff. To relax.”
I incorporate Vrikshasana, Tree Pose, a standing balance, into every class. Tree Pose affords patience, teaching us how to stand firm in a shifting landscape, to garner stability from the earth. For most of the students here, they place one foot against their opposing ankle or calf, versus placing the foot on the upper thigh, allowing for greater support in the posture. They keep working on building balance in their bodies, in order to build balance in their emotions.
One of my favorite postures is Pigeon Pose, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. Pigeon Pose releases the outer hip and unlocks emotions that get balled up and stored there, holding us back both mentally and physically. I let the boys know they are welcome to practice this posture if they are familiar with it, but otherwise, we assume a variation sitting with a loose cross to our legs and forward fold over.
Contrary to my stereotyped thinking, the students’ bodies do not need more physicality, more force. They get enough of that in the weight room and on the basketball court and in their everyday lives. What they really crave is the permission to be calm.
Friends ask me if I am scared to enter the facility, to lead class with the boys. The first time signing in as a new volunteer, the guard gave me a plastic name badge to wear at all times. He made a point of telling me, “Use this lanyard I’m giving you for your badge. It’s designed to breakaway in case someone tries to strangle you.”
I realize these students have been convicted of felony level crimes, but they also constitute the most polite group I’ve ever taught. Their manners are reminiscent of young men indoctrinated to the military. Occasionally, a student might lie silently on his mat or move into his own set of postures—many are teenagers, after all—but for the most part everyone follows along. At the end of class, each student thanks me for coming. It’s hard to imagine receiving a similar level of respect and engagement leading this session in a public high school.
One young man has obtained privileges to assist the staff. He’s often in the room when I arrive, and hangs around longer than the others when we’ve finished. One afternoon he informs me, with the slightest bit of pride, optimism audible in his voice, “My transfer’s been approved. I’m getting out of here soon. Heading over east.” It takes me a moment to understand he’s being released to a transitional institution. His first step towards life outside these walls.
“That’s great,” I reply, calculating that the transitional facility constitutes a four-hour drive from our current location. “Do you have family in that area?”
“Nah, they’re further south,” he dismisses the subject, looks around the room. It’s unlikely they’ve ever visited him. “Sometimes I wonder if people driving by know what this place is.”
“Sure, they do,” I say. “I grew up around here. Everyone knew.”
“Were you ever inside somewhere like this before you started teaching here?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I nod, “My brother had a lot of—” I pause for the right word. Not wanting to say problems. Not wanting to say trouble. Not wanting to label. “—challenges while I was growing up. He was never here, but we visited him at similar places.”
“Challenges,” he smirks, “that’s a nice way of putting it.”
I don’t tell him that my brother is the reason I wanted to teach here. My mom and I spent so much time visiting my brother in various detention centers and rehab programs that these institutions formed the foundation of my childhood memories. Like how other people might recall playgrounds or campsites they frequented as kids. Being here helps me feel closer to my brother. Or at least the memory of him. Our estrangement is so complete now, it feels like he’s passed on.
Moving into our final relaxation, Corpse Pose, Savasana, I guide the boys, “Let your gaze soften. Let your eyes fall shut if that’s comfortable to you. Let your body be heavy. Notice what the floor feels like underneath you, let the ground support your weight. Notice the sounds of the room, how the air feels on your skin. Let your breathing slow.”
As the boys lay in silence, my feet tuck back underneath me, returning my body to Virasana, allowing me to watch the room, to serve as guardian over their vulnerable bodies in this restful state. I imagine them using this time in Savasana how I might. The mind disconnecting from conscious thought, spirit releasing from a body that is both leaden and light, sinking into a gooey state of half-consciousness, simultaneously becoming more oneself and less oneself, tapping into the ethereal flow of the universe’s energy. Or maybe they just relax enough to fall asleep for a few minutes, which is also a victory.
These boys have endured many challenges in their young lives and there are certainly many more ahead of them. Some will age out of this correctional center and enter the adult prison system. Others will fulfill their sentences before their 25th birthdays and be released back into the larger world. A world that provides an overabundance of choice but no easy answers.
Steering the class, I suggest, “Start to wiggle your fingers, move your toes. Begin to bring yourself back to this space. Then, let’s roll onto our sides, into a fetal position. And let’s stay here, for just another moment longer.”
I do not believe that some mild stretching is the solution to all that lies ahead of them. But I do believe that breath is. Their breath. Their ability to breathe deeply into their bodies, so deeply that they silence the mental chatter – the minutiae of every day, the nonsense and the distractions. To quell their emotions and find their true centers. Solid as mountains, rooted as trees, in spite of life’s obstacles. Deeper still until they find that space, that infinitesimal fraction of a second between action and reaction, where all life’s decisions are made – the only moment over which any of us has control. Where they can suspend time just long enough to chart a new course.