What it’s like to teach yoga behind bars

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Written by Katie Galligan, YG trainer, AZ Program Coordinator, volunteer bada**

I found Yoga Gangsters in 2011 when they were expanding nationally and since 2012, I have had the pleasure of teaching children and adolescents in crisis or suffering from the symptoms of trauma. This organization, founded by Terri Cooper in Miami Florida is an amazing organization whose mission is to empower youth by addressing the symptoms of trauma and poverty such as limited education, addiction, violence, incarceration, teen pregnancy, homelessness and more using the practice of yoga, to deliver messages of empowerment around self respect, self control, and self awareness.
As a Yoga Gangsters volunteer I have had the privilege of teaching at treatment centers (Flo Crit), shelters, group homes, alternative high schools (Compadre HS in Tempe, AZ), and youth groups (Boys and Girls Club, One-n-Ten). On Saturday, after many years of attempting to establish a program, I had the great pleasure of teaching a group of 30+ teenage boys in Durango Juvenile Detention Center in Phoenix, AZ. Upon entering detention (as I’ve done many times before due to the nature of my previous social work jobs), it felt different this time around. I had never been anywhere other than the visitation area. This time, I was escorted back through the corridors that many people do not see, hear, or smell. Empty, quiet, clean-smelling hallways that one might associate with a school if not for the deafening silence being interrupted occasionally by a loud-banging security door. Door after door, corridor after secure corridor, turn after turn leads me and another trained volunteer escorted by uniformed staff to the gym.
Upon entering, a large group of teenage boys are not pleased by our appearance as evidenced by the shouts, deep sighs, and outright cursing protests to the idea of ‘yoga’. They were expecting volleyball. Not some weird thing you do on a mat instructed by a 5’0″ girl who appears to not be old enough to be considered an adult (even though I’m actually 28), much less have the ability to do a single push-up. Armed with my ipod full of hip hop, 35 yoga mats, and a smile I begin to address the boys. “Anyone who doesn’t want to do yoga can do savasana, it’s a yoga pose” I say to them as I show them savasana or corpse pose, which is just lying on the mat. A little surprised by the sound of my voice – a little too loud and a little more “gangster” for their first impression of me – and the choice that I have given them, about half of the boys start to approach the mats set up in a circle in the middle of the gym. The other half mutter things like, “F*** yoga” and “This is so lame” under their breath. A few even yell out in protest. I get on one of the mats that are part of this circle and to the beats of Mos Def in the background I yell “INHALE AND REACH YOUR HANDS TO THE SKY” – alarmed and if unsure as to what they are actually doing, they look around confused and a little disoriented the first few rounds of breath. A few boys give up, a few start to get into it, and so quickly so as not to lose the ones I have and gain the ones I don’t – I jump into a plank position and start busting out as many push-ups as I can while I look each of the boys in the eye around the circle. It takes about 10 push-ups to get all the boys’ attention. From that moment on, they are hooked. Next, we do headstands, handstands, and other arm balances mixed with fast-paced repetitions of core work, vinyasa flows, and downdogs. From “F*** Yoga”, they go to, “I can do that too!” and “I wanna try that!” in a matter of about 10 minutes. When it’s time for savasana or the ending relaxation, they are sweating, laughing, and breathing heavy. They listen to my cues as I walk them through a guided visualization to some place other than detention. The walls that hold them inside this detention center and the boundaries in their sub-conscious that keep them here slip away as they enter into the capabilities that are only opened up when you feel successful, when you feel your breath, and when you move with that breath. “There are many times in life when we do not feel safe. Right now, even though you may not feel like it, in this moment you are safe, you are in control of your emotions, which means that you have the ultimate power over your own destiny and NO ONE can take that from you. When you feel safe, inside and out, anything is possible” I tell them as I walk around the inside of this circle of boys. As a few start to fall asleep the 5 guards and staff members standing guard and the few who “have come to see the show” look on in amazement as one turns to the other and says, “I’ve never seen them so still…”.
Seven Minutes later, I ask them to sit up, most do right away and the ones that don’t are still sleeping. I let them rest because I know that the mats they sleep on are barely thicker than the yoga mats they are laying on and maybe they haven’t slept well for days. One of the boys tells me that he hopes he doesn’t get released so he can do yoga again, another tells me he is going to practice his moves and come back next week, and one tells me sadly he won’t be back because he will be sentenced to Adobe before next Saturday. I wish them all luck and tell them if they are still in next week, I look forward to seeing them.

When I walk out of detention that day, part of me feels lighter from the experience and another feels as heavy as the uncommon humidity in the air that day. I leave remembering what it was like being a teen in jail and I can’t help but breathe deeper and feel grateful for the crisp cool breeze that caresses my face because I have the freedom to feel it. I can’t wait for next week.

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1 Comment on What it’s like to teach yoga behind bars

  1. Wonderfully written!

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