Yoga in Prison by Kathleen Curran-Cheng

In a few weeks, I will start the second term of teaching yoga in prison. The class is at MCI Concord. MCI Concord is a medium-security men’s prison in Concord, Massachusetts. I’m told some of the men have committed serious crimes and that many will never leave the facility, but I see 9 men who show up weekly to practice and be present. Nine men who, I believe, want to make changes in their lives.

My work is part of the Prison Yoga Project (PYP) which began in 2002 at San Quentin Prison in California. PYP is now established in prisons throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Australia. The MA Chapter is strong and growing with the support necessary to bring yoga to all correctional institutions in the state.

The prison is an old building, formidable in stature with high walls, and guard towers. I am not allowed to bring in anything - no papers, no books, no props. I am not allowed to wear typical yoga clothing, jewelry or my watch. After presenting my id, I am given a badge and asked to wait. I sometimes wait 2-3 minutes, but more often 10-15 minutes, before the steel door slides open and I’m allowed to enter the second checkpoint. This is where I am scanned, searched, mouth-checked, hands checked, feet-checked. I am then allowed to move to the next steel door. When it opens, I pass an open space and into the main prison where I will set up mats in the visitor's room. Two guards are always present with me, and I am not allowed to ask anyone any personal questions, nor reveal any information about myself. The men know my first name and a little bit about the Prison Yoga Project.

Atha-yoga-anusansanam. And so begins the yoga. We sit in a circle and close our eyes to become present and aware of our breathing and to settle into our practice. We practice asana, and as we move, I direct them back to the breath, and to be present to what they are experiencing in their mental and physical spaces. I remind them the asana is a vehicle to their heart and mind. They tell me how challenging it is to hold the poses and how hard it is to clear their minds. I explain that this is the yoga, the practice. I suggest they take what they learn on the mat with them when they return to their day-to-day environment. When they are confronted in the yard, or challenged in the food line, what will they do? Atha-yoga-anusansanam.

I am a novice. My own practice is young. I am no guru or sage, and this feeling of not knowing enough is what I confront when I arrive each Tuesday. But I am learning to let that go, and share what I have learned on my own yogic journey. I read them a poem, recite them a mantra they might find useful when beginning their meditation practice, I read them a quote that has resonated with me, and I hope it will resonate with them. It is the best I can do, and I must trust it will be enough to start them on their own journey.

At the close of the first term, I asked the men what the 12 classes had given them. I heard the words focus, breath, less back tension, better sleeping. They all had input, and they all wanted to continue. I believe they will, and I am grateful.