From our sister center: the TriYoga Center of Central Pennsylvania
(first posted 1/17/14)
From the time she began practicing seriously, TriYoga® student, teacher and supporter Evelyne Noel knew that she wanted to take yoga into jails, carving out a physical and mental space for lifestyle choices. Socially non-compliant behaviors were familiar territory—Noel had heard her father’s World War II stories about starting a center in France for delinquent youth. Even though he had vehemently tried to steer her away from the field as a youth, Noel made a career out of teaching socially maladjusted youth, spending 15 years with delinquent youth.
A few years ago she sought out the sheriff’s office in her county, seeking to teach in one of the detention facilities. Jumping administrative hoops, including those that would ensure her safety, she persevered, quitting all other yoga teaching in order to devote her time to meeting paperwork, photo, and clearance expectations. She found support with Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), an organization devoted to connecting volunteers like herself with inmates aiming to use jail time constructively. After months of persistence, explanations and security clearances, Noel began teaching at a jail in late 2012. She taught two eight-week sessions, and recently returned to the jail for a third session.
From the start, teaching in jail challenged everything she had learned about teaching. Yoga props were not cleared for security reasons; only mats were allowed. In stark contrast to every other class she had ever taught, her classes were filled with background noise. Due to scheduling constraints, noise carried over from the rec areas. At times, deputies, needing to do their jobs, walked through the class. And inmates wanted to talk: about poses, aches and pains or about where to find yoga on the outside. “So we lost the meditation aspect, but gained community, which I thought was important,” she recalls.
What surprised Noel most of all was the women’s warm reception. “That just knocked me off my feet.” The students welcomed her, they smiled and worked hard. They thanked her for coming and asked if she’d come back. Attendance was sporadic, but that never bothered Noel. “It didn’t matter how many students I had,” she said, “It mattered that I had one, because I wanted to hold a yogic space in the jail, once a week.”
As a way to “wrap her brain around what she experienced,” Noel reflected on each class in a journal. Starting today she shares those reflections with the TriYoga community. Installment one of “Jail Tales” follows — check back to read more about her sometimes challenging, yet always uplifting, journey.
Jail Tale #1, 2012, very first class
(first posted 1/17/14)
Went well given that it’s jail!
Nine women showed up, some very, very rotund, some not very strong and three beautiful blond chicks who seemed fit.
One-third of the class got into the flow in the side of the room that was the darkest. The others seemed to have restless bodies and did not like to keep their eyes shut.
Super on top of it, the deputies were ready: mats in a corner, class list done, room reserved: spacious, connected by a partial glass wall to the central pod where the deputy sat. Deputy said she wanted me in that room so she could see me. Sure liked that idea, really comforting.
I sustained my own flow but not as deeply as usual: the floor was cold and three-fourths into the practice, the inmates in the central pod started cleaning up, piling up chairs etc. Just as we were moving physically out of Yoga Nidra, the deputy yelled in the loudspeaker “Class is over!”
I’ll have to close class a little earlier next week. So…I have new challenges to work with. I’m pleased.
I was startled by how tough these women are. I could FEEL it. They were very polite to me, worked hard, but they unveiled nothing of themselves and I could feel that they were sizing me up. I am going to go the gentle warrior route with them.
Freaked myself out after class though!
Got in the elevator to go down and leave but somehow the elevator started going up! The higher the floor, the tighter the security. I was wondering what I’d do if an inmate got on the elevator from “up there???” The elevator doors opened and in comes a deputy. Never been so glad in my life to see a uniform, I could have hugged the guy!
“Sir, how do I get outta here?” I asked. He looked at me and my great desperation and said “Little lady…” Then he pressed the right buttons and I was SAVED!
Jail Tale #2
(first posted 1/28/14)
The room with the cold floor was not available.
The deputy tried to put us in an unheated room and I stood TALL—gentle warrior!—and said NO.
We ended up on a noisy mezzanine with a warm floor.
First time EVER I’ve taught a yoga class yelling.
Forget Yoga Nidra, did not happen.
But I DON’T CARE.
The women were glad to see me
Were not as guarded
Asked if they could bring other women
And what was my maximum
I felt that
I had a Mary Oliver BIG HEART
So I said
I could handle unlimited numbers
I KNOW it to be TRUE
Jail Tale #3
(first posted 2/18/14)
This yoga is the yoga of It All Depends on the Deputy.
No mezzanine this time as the new lady deputy said the mezzanine was too dangerous. Why, I asked? A fight, she says, a fight and you could get thrown over the railing. I look up at the blue metal railing, little metal see-through squares, and agree that indeed, I could get flipped over but I’d have to be the losing domino at the end of a very unfortunate sequence of events for that to happen. I do not believe that anyone would flip the yoga volunteer deliberately over, but then, I don’t quite grasp the risk factor.
So the deputy sends the women who are not taking the class back to their cells in order to free the central area for yoga. There is some deputy barking as the inmates don’t move fast enough, a threat of practicing transitions tomorrow. Inmates shuffle around, stack chairs, put games away, surely disappointed by my presence, which takes away one more slice of their little social time. I hug my mat, stand yogini tall and try to keep this bucket of activity at bay so that I can deliver a yoga class worth an inmate’s infinite time.
What was the game room becomes the yoga studio. Cell doors are shut, the deputy returns behind her station and practice begins with a return to the breath. Class unfolds with a door banging, deputy footsteps here and there as she makes her rounds and an inmate who has much trouble closing her eyes noticing a bug by my mat. The bug may have in mind the small coffee spill to my right.
“Crush that bug!” she finally orders.
“Hey! Crush that bug.”
“I don’t crush bugs.”
I could make ten more statements about that, being yogini, that the bug’s done nothing to me, that she’s a sentient being, that the inmate should go within and close her eyes, that she could watch the bug impassively in an attempt to change her karma about bugs. But I hold my tongue.
“Hey the bug….”
“I don’t crush bugs.”
Her eyes lose all the quietude that practice might have yielded so far. She adds:
“Not even bedbugs?”
I lose some of my poise: “Maybe bedbugs, yes.”
At the end of class, K. comes over.
“Where can I do more of this, I’m getting out next week.”
“You’re getting out? That’s a good thing right?”
“Yes, I’m leaving jail. Where can I do this yoga thing?”
“I’ll get you the brochure of my yoga studio.”
Jail Tale #4
(first posted 2/24/14)
Today I come in under the smiling vigilance of a deputy who greets me with a “Here’s the Dancing Yoga class!” Gratitudes for his joking.
And today I hold inmate gazes more steadily as I walk into the ward. We find ourselves in the sequestration room. There’s a door, maybe a possibility for consistent silence and stillness.
May I shut the door?” I ask the deputy.
“I’d rather you keep it ajar.”
I like that he has my back. Ajar is a chair. Then, less ajar, with my shoe. During Yoga Nidra, I shut the door gently but feel a stir in the room. Remembering the inmates’ nervousness I announce that all is well, I have just shut the door. Consistent, quiet alertness seems to be every one’s way of life here, just manifests differently.
The room is small, not square and we are very crowded. We run out of mats and I lend mine. We run out of room and I give my spot away. So I teach crunched up here and there, between the door and three mats, right on the linoleum floor.
“Darlin’, can you move your mat a bit?” says I. to C.
“You address each other as Darlin’?” I ask, stunned.
“Yes,” and a smile.
“Well then, me too. You all are my darlins! My Yoga Darlins.”
Truth told, they are. All that woman has that is glamorous, these women have lost. Their grey-clad destitution has not yet been replaced by the clarity of sparsity.
Bed Bug Lady interrupts class again:
“I’m worried about HER.” And she points to one who looks paler than pale for lack of outdoorsiness.
I come over and inquire à la Theresa Shay.
“It’s that cheeseburger I just had before comin’. It’s here, I can feel it!” She points to her lower right ribcage.
“You ate a cheeseburger just before coming?”
I can go to don’t eat before coming to class but she probably has no choice. I can go to watch what you eat but she probably has no choice. I have choices.
“Lie down right here on the mat, don’t go to sleep now, stay focused and imagine yourself doing the practice with us. You’ll do an energetic practice, it has many benefits.”
I don’t know how much of this she and they understand but I do know that the Darlins value the care and the sense of community.
The first yoga question pops up, a question about using the right breath. I say that as long as they are watching their breath, they are right.
That question becomes the discombobulation of class. They ask if I can bring yoga books in. They ask for homework. We chat a while, they tell me they seldom go outdoors, but that sunrays do wiggle themselves into their cells. Homework # 1, on the fly: find the sunray and sit in it, every day. Give it your face; it is the connection to the outside and to much more.
I tie the loose, but colorful threads that are left of class into a closing.
Jail Tale #5
(first posted 3/4/14)
“Nope, ain’t gonna take those shoes off.”
I contemplate the shoes: high top, hot pink, shining shoes. Bulky and not flexible.
I contemplate the possibility of a dead end I want to avoid.
“Okay, come in.” I surrender, but when she walks all over her mat with the shoes, I can’t take it.
“Darlin’, the shoes can’t be on the mat.”
“Okay.” She lumbers off the mat.
“I ain’t practicing anyway, just here to look.”
“Okay then, just sit on the mat and watch, join us when you want.”
She flops on the mat, shoes on the mat but not the soles.
Our gazes cross and she “Okay! Like this!” moves—butt on the mat, feet-in-shoes—off. I hadn’t thought of starting with a twist.
In the end she will stay and watch the session but I learn that shoes come off, period.
Jail Tale #6
(first posted 3/12/14)
Those who wanted homework and books have not been coming but others who are not registered have been showing up.
We are consistent in inconsistencies: room changes, student population flux, deputy levels of tolerance and interruptions. In spite of this, patterns emerge. I know the length of pauses between locked doors, I know to meet inmate eyes and nod as I enter the ward. I know to give silence to the deputy as he shifts his thoughts to yoga. And I now know the presence of the one student who has come to all the classes. I know how she sits on the mat, how she works and how she pays attention.
Jail Tale #7
(first posted 3/21/14)
I come close to the inmate’s mat as she lays on her back, tense and jittery. She catches my eyes and whispers something.
I nod, called to move us into the next pose but then return to her, feeling that I missed something.
“What did you say before? I missed it.” I frown a bit as I come to the ground, bringing my face closer to hers.
“I said, you know about the pain, don’t you?” Her eyes are hopeful; she expects an understanding.
“The pain, you said?”
“Yes, the pain, you know about it, right?”
“I am not sure what pain…”
“Heroin withdrawal, you know about that pain. What can I do?”
I dwell deep into her small brown eyes and say, “You don’t have to move if the body hurts but breathe—breath will help.”
When I return the following week, this inmate had been moved to the drug unit.