“Now you’re in.” James said to me with a playful smile. The heaviest steel door I’d ever seen, covered in two-inch rivets and decades of paint to hold back the rust, had just slammed behind me and the electric lock mechanism buzzed with a scream. Just moments ago I had been looking out over the San Francisco Bay, waves lapping at the shore. And now I was quite literally locked in to San Quentin State Prison, a maximum security prison and home to nearly seven thousand inmates, most serving life sentences.
James, the Founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project, had invited me to teach some classes with his students “on the inside”. I had leapt at the chance. As a male teacher with illusions of grandeur, I often fantasize about reaching more men through yoga, and reducing violence by developing sensitivity through practice. Of course, there aren’t many male students in your average yoga studio, so I look elsewhere.
The yoga classes at San Quentin have, ah, a few less women than your average urban studio. There is no incense, no stereo system, no warm recessed lighting or radiant bamboo floors or whispering receptionists who bow and say “Namaste”. But there IS a small group of men, sentenced to life behind bars, who are far more dedicated to their yoga than anyone I’ve met “outside”.
These men have stories. Their ages, their faiths, their tattoos are diverse and varied. Some of them have committed intense acts of violence to end up where they are. Some of them grew up in an atmosphere where violence was the only tactic proven to work, and the tactic they learned to use. Some of them have never been violent.
But in the present moment, all of these men now live in an atmosphere with more stress and anxiety than any place I’ve ever been. They are told when and where to eat, defecate, bathe, and sleep. Potential violence is quite literally around every corner.
That’s a level of fear that I can hardly imagine. For these men, yoga isn’t just something to open their hamstrings or connect to community. It’s a way to stay sane. Once a week, they have an opportunity to move consciously, to breathe, to let go just a little. And the effect is palpable. In the room where we practice, there are no guards. The door to the yard stays open. And yet, for seventy-five minutes, the atmosphere in that little room changes. Exhales are lengthened. Muscles soften. Eyes grow heavy.
Each step, each posture, each breath is loaded with meaning and significance for them. Each movement is an opportunity to experience a freedom available to all of us. Say what you want about the crimes committed to put these men behind bars, but in my short experiences, these men need our attention and care far more than they need our cages. They are just as interested, just as committed, and perhaps even more dedicated to the transformational effect of a yoga practice. For you and me, ‘feeling free’ is a buzzword, an attempt to encapsulate the experience of moksha or nirvana. But for the men at San Quentin, ‘feeling free’ is something altogether different. For just one brief moment each week, they have an opportunity to let their guard down, to turn the attention inward, and to make a choice about the direction of their lives.