yoga in prison

Richard Freeman: Asana-Poet and Embodied Philosopher

It is my position that the great, traditional asana sequences are like the epic poems of Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid. Richard Freeman is a voice uniquely situated to interpret the various Ashtanga Vinyasa series, often by breaking them into sonnets and haikus in order to reveal hidden structure and meaning. Richard’s 60- or 90-minute classes might focus on, say, the first third of second series “Nadi Shodhana” or the last third of primary series “Yoga Chikitsa”. As students, we are blessed by the opportunity to read these gigantic works of physical poetry through the lenses of a master teacher.

Richard Freeman’s approach to teaching yoga is a consistent re-envisioning and re-imagining of traditional yoga techniques, particularly those found in the various series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system Richard studied with his guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. With equal love for physical, contemplative and philosophical practice, Richard has devised a completely unique and idiosyncratic teaching that invites each student constantly back into the “beginners mind” -- forget what you know, and practice into the open mind. You can hear straight from him about his method and history of practice here.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.25.53 AMIn the recently released The Art of Vinyasa, Richard and his partner Mary Taylor collect the condensation of the vinyasa method unique to the lineage and innovation of the luminary T. Krishnamacharya, teacher of Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar and others. Correct vinyasa for entering and exiting postures extends into a method for sequencing postures into the yoga mala, or garland of practice. The Art of Vinyasa begins, not with Sun Salutations or an introduction of asana technique, but with a chapter entitled “Natural Alignment: The Internal Forms of the Practice,” wherein the question is asked: if asana is as old as we think it is, how was physical practice taught without our modern knowledge of anatomical alignment?

One answer given is that the practice of visualization was key: visualizing deities, remembering teacher demonstrations, sensing into systems of the subtle body (nadis, bandhas, mudras, cackras, etc). These internal forms create a deep core of listening in and around the body, wherein the rhythms and pulses of the nervous system itself can be the teacher. We can see this key turning in the lock of Richard’s teaching when we hear in class about the heavy golden coccyx (tailbone) and the four angels of the pelvic floor, undulating the torso like the “peacock who swallowed a snake,” spreading kidney wings and lifting cobra hoods, coiling around the sun in the belly and tasting nectar at the root of the palate.

RichardFreeman_AdamWetterhanA precise knowledge of the power of sequencing asana with the internal forms of the practice has led Richard to emphasize the transitional space between each pose, lengthening out the boundary-points between one pose and another. He says, “The best poses are the ones with no name,” such as the one I’m demonstrating here, a preparatory position and first vinyasa for Trikonasana B (revolved triangle), Parsvottanasana (pyramid, or intense side forward bend), and Parivrrta Ardha Chandrasana (revolved half moon). This in-between-pose is usually only practiced for one inhale “on the way” to some destination; but as a posture in and of itself it opens the line from the back foot crossing the psoas to the top hand, a relationship integral to proficient performance of the asanas that might follow, and one that just might trick you into utilizing those elusive bandhas. Richard sometimes refers to this posture as “Challenging Indra Pose, not to be practiced on golf courses during thunderstorms.” Indra, being the Indian equivalent of Zeus, sits above the clouds and hurls thunderbolts at potential threats, including powerful yogis whose arms grow miraculously longer during asana practice.

Richard’s method of teaching has been particularly useful to me for my work teaching Ashtanga yoga to incarcerated men. Re-envisioning each asana and vinyasa as a sacred moment of listening, we grow closer to the wisdom inherent in our own nervous system. This fine-tuning of the inner ear not only leads to a perfection of asana -- not that the poses are perfect, but that the person practicing is already perfect; listening in this way demands that we begin to live within the shelter of the yamas & niyamas, the ethical precepts of yoga.

Internal forms of practice “turn the light around” from external perception to internal feeling. Many prisoners begin practicing yoga with an eye toward physical improvement or rehabilitation of injury, but then find their way into the more contemplative pursuits of pranayama, visualization, and meditation via methods informed by Richard’s teaching. As stated on page 9 of The Art of Vinyasa: “Visualization helps you to organize sensations and perceptions so you can release habitual, self-centered perspectives on these sensations and relate to the world as a composition of interconnected parts.”

Perhaps the power of the imagination harnessed in Richard’s technique is best explained by the French philosopher and student of Sufi mysticism, Henry Corbin, in his doctrine of the “mundus imaginalis” or imaginal realm: “Between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtle substances, of ‘immaterial matter.’ This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe ‘where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual.’” (Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi).

What I most want in my own practice, in my teachers and in my own teaching is this ability to mediate between the worlds -- inner and outer experience, hard physical reality and energetic subtlety, progress in practice and return to the basics. Perhaps all of these require an abundance of that magical faculty, the imagination!

Come explore this synthesis of anatomical precision and internal form with Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor at Yoga on High this May, including specific insights into backbending, hip opening, twisting, the Finishing Poses and a section entitled “Restorative Ashtanga,” which I personally cannot wait to experience!

Art of Vinyasa Teacher Day | Friday, May 26
Art of Vinyasa Weekend | May 27-28

Adam Wetterhan is a yoga instructor at Yoga on High, Blue Spot Yoga, and through Healing Broken Circles at Marion Correctional, where he is also Director of Programming for a community center inside the prison.  Adam has been practicing yoga for most of his adult life, holds a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Comparative Religion from Capital University, completed his 200-hour certification at Yoga on High in 2015 and is currently enrolled in their 300-hour program, where he has concentrated on Ashtanga, pranayama, and yoga therapy.

 

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Songs of Wholeness in Women’s Prison

Women'sPrisonProgramShall I write about their crimes? Their gross errors in judgment? Poor timing? Bad luck? Shall I tell stories of the children they cannot mother? The families left behind?   Perhaps I should write about their suffering, the trauma, the dysfunction that has, without exception, helped to land them here – sitting in this circle with me – behind bars. As I begin to teach, fluorescent lights hum, and from outside the door, sounds of shuffling feet and voices mix with the loud static discharge of handheld radios and the metallic rattle of keys.   The dissonance of sounds in this place, ubiquitous. Never a moment’s rest.

I sit in this circle every Friday with the women prisoners. In a make-shift classroom that serves as our yoga and mediation studio. Some are here for months, some for years, some for the rest of their lives.

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Yoga at Marion Correctional Center

10703519_622577991196720_1726412143085759240_nThe 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

Let’s OM
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.

Languaging
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

Holding Space
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.

PrintYoga 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.

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Escape from Prison

IMG_8922My 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.

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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.

Namaste

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.

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