Crying on the Street After My First Yoga Session in Prison (My TEDx talk is below the post)
At 1 in the morning on Wednesday I set my alarm for 5.50, as I had to be in one of the correctional institutions between 7.30 and 8.00.
I slept little, tossing and turning. I missed the tram 59, obviously, but with a bitter smile I thought that it wouldn't be tragic if I was to be late. They would wait for me. Where would they go...?
Muesli bar and lactose free latte on the train, we are rushing, the view is getting blurred, people are running to work or to school, and me... And then I got scared, suddenly this all seemed like a really bad idea.
Then I thought of those supporting me and standing by me, and I tried to relax. Getting off, walking, then there was the prison in front of me. Huge walls, barbed wires, barely any windows, I was terrified.
I walked up to the door, no handles or anything, then out of a sudden a voice addressed me, who am I, what do I want? Only then did I realize the speakers. I told him my name, and that I was coming to teach yoga. The door opened and I was facing a glass wall that was reflective. Behind it there was the guard asking for my ID, which had disappeared in my wallet, obviously. So my lucky card, all my money, the photo of my little brother, my motivational message, coffee voucher landed in the tray, and I could see myself walking back to the train in disgrace as I had lost my ID and they wouldn't let me in. Then I found it. :) I got a small card and a key to the safe where I had to put all my belongings. Phone and any data recorders, storage media had to go too. Everything. Then through a glass door, then a magnetic door. It felt like the security checking at airports, only that I wasn't going on a holiday, I was locked. My bag was checked, too.
I was wearing this. The point was to have normal clothes in which I can move, but also I didn't want something tight or short or with a cleavage.
My coordinators and contact people were waiting for me behind the next door. We crossed many security doors and quarters to get to the office that was in one of those corridors where the inmates can walk freely. I didn't know how to behave, what the rules were, so when it was only the three of us, I asked a load of questions.
I got 10 young men who were doing time because of assault, with long sentences – one of them is going to get free in about 15 years and who knows how long he has been there already. I mean only nine men, because the 10th was punished for something and he couldn't come. But he will join us later. This was the point when I felt the need to leave again. To be honest I have no idea why I didn't leave. I was terrified. We were sitting in the office, I asked some silly questions because I was embarrassed and afraid, I was trying to prepare myself, trying to think of 5 sentences to say, hopelessly. I looked at the list, there was an Arabic name on it. Please don't. I wouldn't be able to teach in two languages in these circumstances. This was too much. I was about to leave. They calmed me down saying the man was Hungarian-speaker. OK, one less thing to worry about. Now I only had 999 more in my head...
There were noises on the corridor, some of the men were made to warm up. Let's go in the room. We meet, they say hello, checking me, I'm embarrassed, then they ignore me. The room is about 40 square meters, a communal room full of chairs, a table football and a ping pong table, carpets. Attendance sheet, they are chatting as if I wasn't there. Slowly everyone arrives, signatures, what is this going to be? What is yoga? Nobody can teach anything new to them, they are strong as an ox, and so on. I asked them to put things away, I pick up two chairs and I got the first kind gesture, one of them takes the chairs out of my hands, yoga is not worth me getting injured. The first question is whether he would be as smiling as me after yoga? I told him I would do my best to make that possible.
While I'm introduced in three words, I'm checking who these outlaws are. They are between 20 and 40. They are all young. Short hair or bald. Lots of tattoos. Prison clothing, houndstooth patterned pants and shirts. Most of them are well-built, muscular, very fit, two of them are a bit more sluggish, but I'd rather say they are average. There are two observers, they won't even sit in front of me, but on the side, close to the door. There are a couple of loud roughnecks and some who are interested. Just like in American films.
It's my turn, they are all looking at me. I'm super embarrassed, I'm looking for eye-contact. I introduce myself, I tell them the story of how I got here, where I got the idea from. They laugh at the coincidences. I talk about my childhood, exercise, the things I've done, and what my goals are with yoga. I talk about yoga, we laugh about this heat, Bikram would be jealous. I ask them to talk about their sport history, injuries, if they know what yoga is. “Where they sit on the balls? Where they fold their legs and arms in a strange way?” I talk about how I trained sportsmen, crossfitters, runners. That they should trust me to show them things that will make them get tired, sweat and that will have a good effect on their bodies. They don't believe me. They are trying their limits, they are cheeky. One of them makes rude comments all the time.
I tell them that my goal is to spend these 2 hours in a way that is the most useful to them. That's why I will check their needs and conditions. So that I can make my classes more fitted to their needs. Some of them laugh at me. Guards are checking what we are doing. Some prisoners peep in, too.
The session starts, usual introduction, Tadasana, with eyes closed. Breath, listen inwards, close your eyes. They don't close them, looking strangely, they don't get it. I don't understand why they don't close their eyes, either. Trust vs prison...
We are making progress slowly, they are testing their limits, chatting, rebelling, they are trying to make the exercises. I explain, show and correct. I don't touch them. It would be too soon. After a few harder exercises, sweating, they start to believe and feel that this will be good and tough. They enjoy the mobilization of their spines. Their shoulders are stiff, we are laughing at the fact that they can't fold their arms.
I'm in a flow. I teach. Not prisoners, but people. I can see their bodies, I assess the situation fast, I can see what will be good for them. I'm experimenting to find out if I'm right. I check their reactions. I praise them, a lot. On my left there is a quiet boy. He is about 30-35. Harmonic body, full of tattoos. No words. In the beginning he said quietly that he had used to swim. He concentrates a lot and he does the exercises in a beautiful way. He has body awareness. I praise him a lot. His eyes are shining, he is trying to concentrate on his breathing. I praise the others, too. They don't understand it. I completely forget where we are, I am only teaching, any they may forget it a bit, too. New impulses, new tone of voice, new experiences.
We get tired. Period. They invade me with their questions. Some of them used to box, and... One has back ache. The other is very proud of his muscular shoulder, but it isn't mobile at all, what can we do with it...
Second part, on the floor. We are lying, kneeing, squatting, getting stronger and stretching. I include them as often as possible. While squatting I can see the respect in their eyes, I praise those who know that heels are on the floor, knees out, spine straight, I even show them, they gasp, we talk a bit about deadlifts, bench presses, push-ups. I show it to them, they are surprised that there is a woman who can do push-ups and more or less understands the fitness slang.
I add some tough exercises and encourage them. They concentrate, they can make it. They do everything and after every exercise they give me feedback if it was good or bad. They start to be undisciplined. I make them do 1-minute silent, dead man pose. As hardest exercise. I only realize later that the term “dead man pose” can't be that cool here. This works. They relax. More and more of them close their eyes. We balance, they fall, house of cards, domino universe. We laugh hard. Then it goes better. I have already forgotten where I am, I don't care. I teach.
Push-ups, arm and hand support poses. We suffer with proper shoulder positions and elbow twists. Spinal twist in the end and relax. They are lying on their backs. I speak, nothing special, we only concentrate on body parts, we tighten and relax them, and breathe. Complete yoga breaths. I didn't want emotional deep relaxation in the beginning. They relax slowly. Now everyone closes their eyes. Cell doors are being shut outside. They are quiet, practicing breathing, and lying still with closed eyes. I speak, we are like this for about 10 minutes.
Relaxation ends, I keep quiet. I praise them that they did yoga beautifully and I ask them to stay like this for at least 8-10 slow breaths. It's very peaceful. I can see their chests rising and falling, they are breathing slowly and evenly. They are waking up slowly, they are fidgeting. One of them sighs
“and I had to get into prison to experience this?”
“We are doing yoga in prison. Unbelievable, isn't it?”
We are chatting. They are enthusiastic, they tell me what they would like, what kind of exercise, strengthening, stretching, one of them needs something for his back as his lumbar lordosis has worsened. The other has flatfoot. Everyone's got hooked on mobilizing shoulders. And they want nicer postures, too. And we should work on legs and bottoms. I am with 9 outlaws in one room and we are talking about sport, body and solutions. Like in anywhere else. If anyone throws a mean look at me from the outside, they get a mean look in return from them. They ask for exercises that can be done in the cells. The next session is going to be in two weeks, they are looking forward to it, why not tomorrow already?!
We walk back to the bars, they are taken away, they say goodbye, I say goodbye. I'm talking with the employees there. They tell me it was amazing. That my aura and communication are unique and it was a miracle inside.
I say goodbye, I go out of the gate, I get my stuff back from the safe, the wooden door is shut behind me, and I'm shivering and I burst into tears. I'm wandering around in the street, I don't know what means what yet, or what has happened, I only feel that something big and good. And it wasn't me who did it, it only flowed through me. I slowly realize the meaningful bits. E.g. closed eyes and so on. How receptive they were...
I don't have illusions. I don't know what's going to happen at the next occasion. I'm preparing for it, for them, because it may be important for them. I feel that I have got much more than I have given. I'm still under its influence. I'm looking forward to next Wednesday. I'm open.
PS: I think that the fact that this project could have been born among many other developments and courses is the first small step towards a healthier system. I'm overly grateful that I can be part of it, and I have the greatest respect for the brave and innovative management. Thank you.
For english subtitles click on options/subtitles/english
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