My name is Shayna Gonzales, or, as I was known from August, 2010, until August, 2014, Shayna Perkins, #79443. Yes, I was an inmate at ORW for a period of 4 years. When I was incarcerated, I thought it was the end—the worst thing to ever happened to me. I couldn’t believe that my life had gotten to the point to where I was sentenced by a judge to prison. Sent away from my family and my children. I’m not going to sugar coat it, It was the absolute worst thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t know anyone there, I was completely alone, I didn’t know what to expect, and it was terrifying. I very quickly found out that prison was an entirely different world with its own set of rules. I had to learn on my own and navigate my way through with no help from anybody.
I knew something had to change, I had known that for awhile. It was a truth sitting somewhere deep inside my soul that was too hard to think about so I just kept pushing it back, but it kept trying to surface, and I would keep it down by living in unhealthy ways and pretty much just not caring about myself. I had low self esteem, tried to self medicate, searched for love and acceptance in places where they could never be found—a superficial existence. I had created a false universe for myself. I suffered from a very painful affliction called endometriosis on top of everything else, which caused anxiety, depression, and a plethora of other detrimental feelings in me.
When I was alone in prison, stripped of all my worldly possessions and vices, I realized that I was going about things all wrong. The answer wasn’t in other people, the answer was inside myself. I would never be happy or content if I was basing my happiness and acceptance of myself on what other people thought or how other people felt. I had to take my own power back. I began on a spiritual journey, although I didn’t even know that’s what it was at the time. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, falling, falling, grasping the air for something to hold on to. Anything. I pretty much started living like a Buddhist monk without even realizing it. I didn’t speak to anyone except for the common pleasantries in passing. I read the Bible. I read the Tao Te Ching. I read so many books on Buddhism I can’t even count them all. I read books on Paganism. I was looking for something that spoke to me, and was looking to live in the most ethical way possible. I was searching for the truth.
I began exercising. I began being kind to myself, my body first. Then through constant, diligent practice I began trying to change my thought process by being kind to myself and accepting of myself. I became a fitness instructor and was teaching 3 workouts a week, and they quickly became the most popular workouts in the prison. My classes were packed.
I started meditating to try to keep my anxiety under control. I began to practice yoga because, not only was I drawn to it, but there were some girls in the class who because my friends, and who told me that this was exactly for me. Boy, were they right. I started shifting my perspective on life and stopped the victim mentality. the more I studied, the more I practiced yoga, the more I began to take control over my own life. I became less of a people pleaser but at the same time became more kind and compassionate towards people.
I began seeing situations not as “unfair,” but for what they were. I was in prison. There was a hierarchy of power. Whether it was unfair or not, this is where I was, and I realized that every time I felt like I was being treated unfairly or being misjudged, it was just an opportunity for humility and a test of my character. I knew who I was, and just because someone said something that wasn’t true, didn’t make it true, even if that person believed it to be true. I let my actions speak louder than words, and I began to think carefully about the things I said before I spoke, because words are very powerful. I noticed a shift taking place over time. I started getting back what I was putting out—the simple law of attraction. People started coming up to me asking for advice. Women started pulling me aside after class or going out of their way to come tell me what an inspiration I was to them and how I had changed their life. CHANGED THEIR LIFE!!!??? I just couldn’t believe it, but then I realized I had all the power of the universe inside me.
To get some quiet time, I began waking up at 5:00 am every morning and going downstairs to get in an hour and a half of yoga. People started seeing me and asked if they could join me. In the spirit of servitude, I, of course, said yes. At first I was worried that it would disturb my own peace, but the girls started coming up to me telling me that when they got up and did yoga with me in the morning, the rest of their day went so good. It was worth it to me to bring others that peace and serenity. And so I unwittingly became a teacher even though I had no formal training. My thoughts had changed so drastically and I felt an undeniable pull. It was a calling. I knew what I was meant to do. What I HAD to do.
There is no way I can explain what I went through even if I tried. The soul searching. The self-study. But I knew yoga was my life and I wanted to share some of the knowledge that I had stumbled upon that had literally changed my life. I began researching teacher training before I was even released. I had no resources except for magazines, and I came across an ad for Yoga On High in the back of Yoga Journal. It turned out to be the single most important and life changing decision I had ever made voluntarily in my life.
I started teacher training 3 weeks out of prison, anxiety attacks and all, but now I was able to overcome these feelings of self-doubt by using the skills I had developed over years in prison. I completed the teacher training, and I feel like this was not even my decision. I feel like the universe called me to this and, somehow, by the grace of forces unknown, I was able to listen. I love my life, I love who I am. And the one thing I do know that I MUST do, is go back to the place that changed my life. There is a line in a song by the Grateful Dead that is constantly called to my mind, “…because once in awhile you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right”, I thought prison was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it turned out to be the best ting that ever happened to me.
To go back and teach a workshop to the women who changed my life in ways that they could never understand, would be coming full circle for me. I have so much work to do and so much good to do, but I will never forget where I came from, or who helped me get there. One of my favorite quotes, that I would say to myself at least 5 times a day is, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu). And I lived this every day, and it is so true. It’s never too late to change the direction of your life. All you have to do is turn and take one step in the other direction, then another, then another, one foot in front of the other.
I thought there was nothing worse than prison. It didn’t take me long to realize there are so many things worse than prison: waking up one day, at 70, and realizing I had wasted my whole life on nothing; living the way I had been living. I had been given a second chance at life, and I feel so blessed. I want to show everyone that there is hope. And light at the end of the tunnel. I am now a certified 200-hour yoga teacher, and I found my soul sister at teacher training. My journey is just beginning. Inspiration, move me brightly.
At graduation from teacher training we did a simple meditation, and then looked at the picture taken of us on our first day or training. Then we wrote down what came to us. I wrote, ” This has been the single greatest experience of my life. I have had other experiences that were just as impactful, but this one is different. I wasn’t forced onto this path, I was called to it. I came into it with equal amounts of not knowing what to expect, and knowing exactly what to expect. To know nothing about what I was dong, to knowing exactly what I was doing. I am a vessel. I have a purpose. I am light. I am love. I am kindness. I am hope. I KNOW. I AM.
Shayna graduated from the Yoga on High 200-hour Teacher Training Program in July, 2015. She and Michele Vinbury will begin teaching classes at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in the fall. Please consider supporting this program through a donation to the Yoga on High Foundation or through participating in 108 to Rehabilitate.