*This story contains disturbing images, topics of mass incarceration, harm, and, violence.
As I lie in crocodile pose, I feel my belly is cold from the concrete gym floor. As my cheek rests on my hands, I move my head from one side, then the other. The class has gone silent; you can feel the shift as participants go deeper into their practice. Our facilitator, Bill, says it takes 90 seconds for the chemicals of any emotion to leave our body, so that’s how long we will stay here.
You can hear the bustle from the yard; there’s a soccer game in the distance. The correctional officer slowly lowers the volume of his radio as it chirps from the corner of the gym. We drove 45 minutes to get here, the prison strategically positioned on the border of Mexico in what can only be described as an invisible place. Seven prisons up on this hill, covered with lush valleys, hawks, and hummingbirds. How torturous to see freedom but not experience it.
The first yoga class that I attended at R.J. Donovan State Prison didn’t even happen, a code 2 was called, which meant an ‘almost riot’ in the neighboring yard, and the men had to return to their units. I approached the entire day with curiosity: this gave me a boundary to work with, a container to be held in. Any other framework would not have supported the energy I needed to carry: compassion.
Bumbling around I follow my co-facilitators. Security, show your ID, show your ID, one office here for the roster, another office where we park, shuffling along and learning. My yogic companions and I went through more security; then, we walked under rising gates full of barbed wire and an armored control tower. Walking merrily, spreading warmth and kindness with the hyper-awareness of being in one of the darkest places in the world while simultaneously feeling no fear.
We walk to another building where the gates automatically bolt behind you. Show our IDs, and now we have badges: we pick up our ” oh shit” clicker. It looks like a garage opener, but this piece of 80’s technology will immediately bring a team of correctional officers to the gym in case of emergencies. I’m primarily concerned about how I’m not concerned at all. ” Do I have a death wish?” I have been preparing for the moment for 2 years, realistically even longer.
My job with Prison Yoga Project mainly involves talking about, reading, or researching incarceration, trauma, and yoga. This work is a big portion of my life, so I am preparing to be here by living my life. I have been listening and paying attention, but it still doesn’t make it real until I do it, and now I am here. I am practicing yoga in prison.
Constantly asking yourself, ‘what is the boundary?’ We are escorted to the gym by an older black man in a walker who shares his most recent coloring. He accompanies Bill to the gym every Saturday for our Echo Yard Yoga class. Hi’s, Heys, and waves aimed our way- kind exchanges from our incarcerated community.
We open the locker that holds 20-ish mats and blocks. The men are coming over, introducing themselves, and showing me the lay of the land. ” We practice in a circle, pick a spot, and it’s yours!”
It hits me that I am in their home. These men have been here 20, 30, 40 years. We must approach this work as if walking into someone else’s home. There is nothing more important that I have to offer than embodied compassion.
I understand the statistics of why people become incarcerated. I see the line of intergenerational trauma and why hurt people harm others. I understand the exchange of hands, slavery, and mass incarceration hold that is rooted and uplifted by our justice system still today. I understand the deep fury of betrayal and injustice that causes someone to become wrapped in inflictive violent patterns. Unspeakable harm has happened, and I see that these people have also had unspeakable wounds happen to them.
Holding the Paradox. In our second class, one of the participants shared with me that he murdered his fiance the night before her bachelorette party 25 years ago. When I sit with the reality in this moment, I am struck with so much grief and sadness. I previously heard this story from a co-facilitator, so I was ready for it. I practiced next to him, learned he has been meditating for years, and got 3 degrees inside, one being his JD. The complexity of where I sat could be overwhelming: I am sitting next to a murderer. I am sitting next to a sign language interpreter. I am sitting next to someone incredibly intelligent. I am here to hold vision with compassion. What good does my perception do if it is limited? Does a harmful perception cause a correction, right a wrong, or bring someone back from the dead?
To do this work, I have to wholeheartedly believe people can change. If you are someone that has ever tried to change fucking anything, frankly, you know it’s difficult. It does not mean it can’t be done. To do this work, I have to embody the belief that people can change and heal. I have to believe in their wholeness; I have to believe in their unconditional nature. This belief keeps me rooted in the work; everything else is a mirage.
I am not special. This is where I want to be. This is where I want to bring yoga and meditation; prison is where I want to practice.
I have never understood the depths of my own freedom as profoundly as when I make a cup of tea in my home after practicing in prison. I can see and feel the freedom of all my choices when I sip on my warm tea in silence.
– Blaire Allison Embrey
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I owe deep and endless gratitude to my teachers who supported the opening of this path: Christine Selda, Rochelle Quarry, and Nikki Hainstock in addition to Dharma teachers, mentors, spiritual friends, and my team at PYP.