Friday, February 8, 2013

Sweet Delight and Endless Night: Teaching Yoga in Jail - Year 2

Cook County Jail, Chicago, IL, USA

The first few times I walked in past the barbed wire cyclone fencing to teach yoga at Chicago’s Cook County Jail – through the metal detector (which inevitably goes off, wanding and frisking are SOP), beyond several sets of grimy doors, and into a second cinder block building where classes are held – I felt kind of disoriented. A little light-headed. Like I had suspended breathing for a bit.

A little over a year later, this journey past the front guard-post check-in into the second, smaller check-in location feels old hat. I enjoy that the guards are pretty friendly if you look 'em in the eye and say “good morning." They’ve gotten used to the yoga teachers coming in and out on Fridays and seem to like it. Not infrequently, one of the younger ones will ask if we could offer a class for them.

Our key staff contact inside the jail, Lisa, has a beautiful personality that lights up the room. She’s gotten to know me and the other teachers by name. Little snippets of time spent chatting about this or that gradually add up into a feeling of solid friendliness and familiarity. It’s truly pleasant.

The students are good. Each of the three classes that the group I'm working with, Yoga for Recovery, runs on Friday (one for incarcerated women, one for parolees on a mandatory day program (the “ankle bracelets”), and one for pregnant women) has space for 12 students. It’s voluntary; the women have to sign up. Each class is full every week. Slots often have to be rationed and rotated because there’s more demand than supply.

Compared to teaching in a studio where there can be such pressure to build up your class size, it’s incredibly gratifying to have a full class of students who not only want to be there, but are on the whole very open to experiencing yoga as something that’s got a lot more to offer than simply exercise (although that’s a key part of it too).

So I’ve gotten into a certain groove working in an environment that initially rattled me. This feels good. But it can also produce a certain lull. I can start to feel so comfortable that I lose sight of where I really am – and how much I don’t know or understand about it.

Wake-Up Call 

Checking in at the interior guard desk this morning, I received a wake-up call. I had sailed in with my co-teacher, the beautiful Marcelyn Cole - chat chat, all good. She had gotten hung up at the first checkpoint due to some safety pins on her poncho that she had forgotten were there (they had to be confiscated and every pocket and lining carefully checked), but no biggie.

The young African American woman on guard duty didn't know our regular check-in procedure (show passes and IDs, sign log, get visitors pass). This wasn’t her regular station, she explained. She had just been called in to take over temporarily. So we started helpfully pointing out this and that on her desk, trying to help her get us checked in. “Oh, I think that’s the right log there! No? Hmm, maybe that one?” Fine fine. No pressure, no worries. 

A bigger, slightly older looking, blonde guard joined the conversation. “Yeah, they moved me down here last month when one of my detainees died on my watch. They took me off my regular post because they thought I was traumatized.” Spoken like standard office water cooler conversation. Although it didn't, of course, sound that way to me and Marci. We looked at her.

“Um, died . . . ?,” I said, wondering all the things you'd imagine I might be wondering. 

“Oh, he just had a heart attack,” she reassured us. “It had nothing to do with me. I just happened to be there. But because he died – they thought I was traumatized!” She gave a little laugh and shook her head, like – how silly can these overprotective jail managers be?

The young Black woman looked up from searching around her desk for the visitor log. “Huh,” she said flatly. “I just had three hangings on my watch last week and they still made me finish out my night shift.” Then went back to looking for the visitor log.

And I felt like the ceiling opened up and dumped a ton of bricks onto my sense of normalcy, putting some good cracks into my taken-for-granteds as a highly educated, upper-middle class white woman.

Back to Beauty

Marci and I finally got signed in and went to set up  for class. We knew that we had to acknowledge what we had just heard. “Three hangings?” Marci paused and looked at me.

“Yeah, I know . . . “

There wasn’t a lot of time to talk as class would start soon. And there wasn’t that much I felt we really needed to say. I sensed that we both felt the same shock of recognition, and were going through a parallel processing of it.

Then we each taught a yoga class, back to back, taking turns teaching and assisting. I got lucky; my group was particularly sweet. That sense of magic in the air that you feel in a good yoga class built and deepened. Tadasana, Tree, Cobra, Prayer.  The women brought a level of focus and heart that connected me to the poses on an almost mythological level of feeling. Practicing with them was much deeper and more satisfying than what I’d hurried through that morning at home.

But William Blake had it all right:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.


  1. A very moving article, Carol. I admire the work you're doing here, and your ability to tell us about it so vividly. Thank you.


  2. Thanks so much for leading yoga practice for WOmen's Justice - I'm their doctor, and I always recommend they sign up for yoga class - it has real healing power, for mind, heart and soul as well as body. The more the better.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this, Carol, and for your good work in the world.

  4. This honest reflection is a good cautionary tale that we who serve others must remain sensitive to their conditions. On the other hand, the teacher is sharing the experience of yoga with others and in that interaction the world outside can temporarily disappear for both student and teacher when the yoga mojo flows. It looks to me like both is happening in this instance; sensitivity and intense presence.