The Yoga on High Foundation yoga classes taught at Marion Correctional Center introduce the benefits of yoga to the prison community, integrating mindfulness and wellness modalities into the experience. The program invites residents to explore yoga as a healing practice, a powerful tool on their journey towards rehabilitation and wholeness.
“Peace is needed in places that are not peaceful.” -Marion inmate
Here we are, sitting in simple cross-legged pose at Marion Correctional Center—15 male inmates and me. We are chanting Om. Loudly. Quite loudly, in fact.
And in this very moment, I experience my Truth, a deeply felt sense of being in the right place, with my Brothers. The vibration of our chant reverberates throughout the entire prison. Hopefully its energy reaches beyond the walls of our room and into the hearts and souls of Marion’s over 2000 inmates and 200 guards. We are calling in the vibration of Light.
I’m very conscious of languaging that honors the inmates’ journey by empowering them and inviting non-judgmental, non-competitive and supportive internal dialog. Offering them choices as to how they practice and modifications to the yoga poses or breathing techniques empowers them, as does asking for feedback. Since there are no hands-on adjustments, purposeful and deliberate verbal cueing matters.
I use language, combined with constant breath cues, that awakens the yogic mind, encourages awareness and focuses attending--words such as ‘notice, feel, breathe into’ or ‘releasing, letting go, softening.’ This settles their nervous system down.
I am also careful to use non-aggressive language since they have all experienced some form of violence in their past. And I avoid any phrases that could be seen as provocative or sexually suggestive. For example, I would say ‘widen your stance’ rather than ‘open you legs wider.’
The tone and cadence of my voice is also key in establishing a safe sanctuary for their practice. Voice carries frequency, and, as a teacher, my desire is to induce a state of meditative alertness, conducive to optimal learning and spiritual exploration.
The Yoga Classes
Classes begin with a grounding breath practice. I often sense everyone shift into deep awareness of their breath. The whole room comes together in Breath.
We begin class with a dharma theme. Then, over the next 2 hours, inmates will practice asana, pranayama and meditation, be offered essential oils, and have time for journaling and discussion. During Savasana, each inmate also receives Reiki.
The objective of these classes is to introduce inmates to yoga and provide them with viable tools to empower and nurture their rehabilitative, healing journey.
One inmate once asked me how to handle negativity, which pervades his life in prison despite attempts to meditate and stay in the Light. Negativity from within as well, in the form of depression, anxiety and lack of self-esteem. This seems to be a recurring theme in prison life. How to cope with the energy of negativity that many experience.
This then becomes the dharma theme for my next class, in which we meditate on compassion and explore the source of negativity in ourselves—often anger and fear. At the end of class, we take a few moments to journal, and then pair up to share ideas on how to manage negativity.
These men are deep in the trenches of their rehabilitation journey, and it’s not an easy one. My hope is that these practices nurture transformation and self-love in a holistic way.
At the end of every class, I am keenly aware that I get to go home to my free world and they don’t. Many will be in prison for decades.
“Yoga is my way to escape and allow my soul to be free!” -Marion inmate
The Men of Marion
The men of Marion that I’ve taught are searching for meaning in their lives, for tools to help them regain self-respect and forgiveness. There is a genuine desire to change. They’re not perfect, they’ve committed crimes and they fall back into old patterns at times.
Many feel disenfranchised, disempowered and often have low self-esteem. Some have been deserted by their families and friends and feel unsupported.
On a somatic level, their muscles are tight and often their breath is shallow. Consequently, the physical stretch provided by the practice is very welcomed, as well as the awareness of breath.
“This class gives me so much appreciation for the Self despite my situation and circumstance. Every breath, and position gives birth to a new beginning in me.” -Marion inmate
From the moment I leave Columbus and make the 1 hour drive out to Marion, I am “holding space” for this group, especially, during moments of silence in class. The room is dense with healing energy. My intention is to hold this energy until the last OM of the class, and offer a safe place for these men to explore their true essence, freely, without guards and the general disruptive noises of a prison. And perhaps this healing energy can be transmitted to their fellow inmates, their communities and their families so that when they re-integrate into society they carry the vibration of deep Self-Love within.
Yoga in Marion Prison is supported by the Yoga on High Foundation. For more information on the Foundation and its programs, or to lend your support, click here. Join Michele Vinbury, Karine Wascher, Shayna Gonzales, Adam Wetterhan and others, October 4th at 10:30a for 108 to Rehabilitate, as we lead a practice of 108 sun salutations. All proceeds to support the Yoga on High Foundation’s Prison Programs.
For a full bio on Karine, click here.