Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reconnecting with Real Yoga: Teaching in Cook County Jail

Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois
As soon as I came to the first indoor check-in point, it was clear that things were a little off that day. The guard at the front desk was filling in temporarily and had no clue what the normal procedures were supposed to be. The gym where yoga classes are held was still being used for something else when I arrived. The guard at check-in point #2 told me that I couldn't go in and had to wait in the hallway.

The woman who normally handles the yoga class set-up was gone. Her replacement was annoyed by the general level of confusion and disorganization. I hung out next to him in the hall while he complained to me about incompetence, reduced benefits, and worsening working conditions in between exasperated exchanges on a crackling walkie-talkie.

I waited around an extra 15 minutes before they got it together to let me into the gym. I took in what felt like a higher level of agitation in the air than I'd experienced in the past. 

My sense that something was indeed off was confirmed when the first group of women was finally let into the gym for class. As we set up the mats, I asked them how they were feeling and if there was anything in particular they'd like to work on today.

Several women stopped laying out mats, turned around, and looked at me quite intently. Gazing straight into my eyes, a young looking blonde spoke first. "There's a lot of confusion and anger in the unit today," she said. Her voice was firm, clear, almost deadly serious.

Several other women nodded assent and murmured some comments I couldn't hear. "We really need to use this time to get to some inner peace," she continued.

By now, almost everyone was standing still and looking at me.

"Yeah, I had the sense that maybe something was going on when I came in," I replied. "We'll focus getting centered, calm, and grounded today."

"Can we do some of that meditation?" a young Black woman with braided hair asked.

"OK, sure."

The blonde spoke up again. "I was also wondering if you could give us some handouts or something so that we can practice on our own. I want to do Suns in my cell, but can never quite remember how it goes."

By happy coincidence, the group I'm working with, Yoga for Recovery, had just received word from James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project that he'd donate 50 of his yoga instruction books, so that we could give them to our more dedicated students. Talk about serendipity. I'd just received the email about that a day or two before.

I explained that we were working on it. The women looked pleased.

Then we had class. And it was totally great. Just like any good yoga class anywhere. The cavernous, grimy gym filled with metal cots and stacks of thin mattresses stored to handle the overflow of inmates faded away. The harsh whirr of the industrial-strength fans softened into the background. I felt temporarily transported into a very different, much safer and more intimate time and space.

Class ended and most of the women thanked me for coming. As they walked out, I heard three  exclaiming to each other, "I feel so relaxed now! Don't you feel more relaxed now?" One pretty young Hispanic woman who looked like she could still be in high school came up and shyly gave me a hug.

Warnings of how we're not supposed to get too close to the prisoners, how we shouldn't touch them, jumped into my mind. I made a split-second assessment that it would be OK this one time. A mirco-moment exception to the rule that touched me quite deeply.

I left the jail shaking my head in wonder, thinking of how rare it would be to have a studio class in which so many students were so intent about the opportunity to practice. Not to mention knowledgeable about and interested in the potential of yoga to be much more than a workout, and eager to learn how to make it their own.

The fact that they could so clearly identify what they needed to work on that day on such a deep and meaningful level kind of stunned me.

Plus, it was one of those classes that left me feeling really good the rest of the day. My anxieties, which had been revving up, melted away. They just didn't feel that pressing anymore.

"no mud, no lotus"

I'm still thinking about how remarkable I found my experience that day. And how I wish that I could convey to people that despite the endless bullshit, there really is some incredibly powerful yoga going on in the U.S. today. You may need to travel outside of your comfort zone to find it. But it's definitely there. I'm grateful to know and believe that through these sorts of experiences, which imprint me in a powerful way.

To be clear, the experience of teaching yoga is jail is most certainly not "all good." I mean, let's get real: it's a fucking jail.

But: it can be authentically good in its own way, nonetheless.

This, to me, is the true meaning of yoga. It's also why I'm still passionate about the practice, despite the mountains of disillusioning bullshit that have been created in the name of yoga as well.

I hope that more yoga practitioners will be inspired to get real, cut through the crap, and practice in ways that really do open your heart and mind. I'm not suggesting that this requires teaching yoga in jail. There are as many ways to have a meaningful practice as there are individuals.

That said, I believe that by far the most vital yoga teaching and learning going on in America today is happening in the yoga service world. So if you're looking for something more meaningful than you're finding elsewhere, I strongly suggest checking it out.


For more of my writing on the yoga service movement, see:

"Gritty Inspiration: Chicago Welcomes the Prison Yoga Project" Yoga Chicago July/August 2013

 "Integrating Science, Service, Spirituality, and Healing: The Second Annual Yoga Service Council    Conference" Think Body Electric July 2013

"Socially Engaged Yoga: Healing a World in Crisis" prAna life May 2013

"Street Smart Karma Yoga: Terri Cooper and Miami's Yoga Gangsters" Yoga U Online May 2013

"Sweet Delight and Endless Night: Teaching Yoga in Jail - Year 2" Think Body Electric Feb. 2013 

"The Art of Yoga and the Sacred Feminine" elephant journal July 2012

"Yoga Beyond Asana: Launching a Mindfulness Revolution at the Yoga Service Council Conference" elephant journal May 2012 

"Socially Engaged Yoga: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?" Yoga Modern Oct. 2011

"Teaching Yoga in Jail: Bittersweet Magic Behind the Barbed Wire Fence" Yoga Modern Sept. 2011


Finally, I'm pleased to announce that the Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN), a organization I'm co-founding with Yoli Maya Yeh, Greg Van Hyfte, Marty Clemons, and Julia Pedersen, is launching  on October 11th. Our mission is to support yoga teachers, community organizations, and other stakeholders committed to sharing the benefits of yoga with underserved communities in the Chicagoland area. Our vision is to build partnerships in the fields of community health, social services, environmental sustainability, and education that improve health, empower communities, and leverage resources for positive social change. If you live in the Chicago area and are engaged in yoga service work, you're invited!


  1. This is a good idea of providing yoga services in jail. This is a good initiative of providing good health care.