|Available as part of The Sweetest Little Thing auction to benefit Struts & Faucet Artist-Run Centre.|
Teaching yoga in jail (they call this place jail and the upstate facilities, prison) is very challenging. One of the most challenging parts is simply getting in. About 50% of the time, we don't get in. Sometimes the whole building is on lockdown and no one is getting in or out. Other times, there is no one available to escort us up to the unit. Either way, we arrive and leave without teaching. Getting up to the unit is another challenge as one never knows what one will encounter in the hallways or elevators. Search teams with dogs. "Sitting on a body" as they call it - restraining an inmate who was acting up. Or just blatant stares at my body. It's all happened.
Then there is the unit itself, which is all cement and metal and wired glass. Not cozy. It is very loud between the television, which is always on, and shouting inmates and corrections officers. Leading a meditation while "The Price is Right" is blaring in the background is a very interesting challenge in staying focused. Sometimes, midway through a class, there will be a call for medication or social workers and everyone will just get up and leave. I don't blame them - it is just how things go. Jail isn't meant to be a nice place and it decidedly isn't.
Everything I have just described feels manageable to me. I get it - yoga in jail is considered a luxury and we are not a priority. If things were soft and comforting, it would not be part of a penal system. Now, I have some strong opinions about the system and what it actually does to people in it - not to mention the glaring, unavoidable fact that I have only seen a total of four white inmates in the whole time I have been going in there, at a facility housing 800 men (and a dozen or so transgender women). So, there are plenty of systemic issues to debate about the current state of so-called justice in this country. But I am talking about teaching yoga.
The truth is, the inmates just aren't that into it. When we manage to get up there to teach, often only one or two will be interested or available to participate. More than the lockdowns and the lewd stares, this is what is most challenging. My heart and my intention are totally directed towards offering this potentially very healing practice to a population that could really use it...but what if they don't want it? Then what? I have been tossing this question around in my head for a couple of months. I suspect most of the ladies in this unit have had very difficult lives, full of abuse and disappointment (to say the least). Am I going to be one more person who gives up on them? Isn't there a huge lesson being offered just by showing up?
And yet, it is hard to keep coming back, going through everything it takes to get up there to teach, and feel like no one gives a damn. What then? I have often said that it isn't my responsibility to know how the gift is received. My responsibility is to offer the gift. This is where the rubber meets the road, I guess.