The Yoga of imprisonment

by Rob Wipond, October 2010

Between rocks and hard places, flexibility is desperately needed.

I taught yoga at the prison for five years. If you’ve ever taken yoga, you know it’s common in the first class for instructors to ask if anyone has had any major injuries or surgeries during their lives. It’s a safety protocol, so the instructor can provide extra guidance to vulnerable students. Typically, two people in 20 mention a car accident or appendectomy.

My first day teaching at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, though, was different. 

“I broke my hand when I punched a guy a few weeks back,” explained one inmate. He followed that with an incredible childhood tale of an abusive father, run-down truck, and backyard scrap heap. “My feet were crushed.” 

Then, one by one, every student pointed towards smashed vertebrae, broken bones, knife scars and bullet wounds. By the end, I had no hope of remembering it all, so I simply told the inmates, “Be careful.”

I bet they’d heard that before.

What really impressed itself upon me was how different a physical reality from mine these (primarily young) men were living in. The most physically challenging events in my average week involve grocery bags or laundry baskets. The last fight I got into was when I was eleven, and I’ve never broken any bone.

Have you ever noticed how many police and soldiers carry a tough stiffness in their bodies and demeanour? Even with acting training, which I’ve had, it’s extremely difficult to master this appearance. It’s because the tension and sternness are so thoroughly embedded into the chest, the shoulders, the facial muscles, even into the psyche itself. It’s as if their whole beings have been intensively trained for years to stand completely firm before even the most challenging and dangerous situations—which, of course, they have been.

That’s what many of these inmates looked like, too. It seemed the energy, the power of their severe past physical experiences was still surging through them, tightening all their muscles self-defensively, like tires firmed to near bursting point by too frequent, too potent air injections. Very few could bend more than a few inches in any direction. When I ended the class with the traditional Savasana, most looked literally like its English translation: corpse pose. Not tranquil bodies supplely resting, but rigormortised, awkwardly perched shells. 

“They talk a lot in the therapy groups about letting go of hurt and anger and learning to relax,” one guard said to me, “but this class is the only place where they actually try it.”

I’d talk them through the entire relaxation phase, then, describing how to release each body part, let thoughts flow, breathe effortlessly, and paint visualizations of sand emptying from a spirit rising into coloured clouds.

A few twisted agitatedly, sometimes so much that I suspected the side effects of psychiatric medications, because it was otherwise difficult to believe it was that impossible to remain reasonably still for a few minutes. But most said they loved this part of the class the most. I gradually expanded the time I spent on the relaxation, and found no limit to their willingness to keep going. Afterwards, they seemed to shine, to be thankful, to leave lighter and warmer and more affectionate than when they came.

Every time I witnessed this, I would think, what tragic silliness, to believe we could improve these men’s lives and make them better people by corralling them behind heavy metal doors and bars in tiny concrete rooms where very little movements of any kind are ever allowed. What sort of inner hardness held us believing this? It was so obvious these men needed softening, to become more flexible in mind and body, more able to stretch into new experiences and feel their way into options outside the rigid confines of negative patterns. The phrase “prison just hardens criminals” took on tangible new meaning.

Complimenting my work one day, a guard said, “If anyone can take anything good out of this place, that’s got to be encouraged.”

I was thinking of this when I was walking across Pandora Street one morning recently and spotted a young man on a bicycle deliriously talking to no one. He rode slowly by on the sidewalk, wavering precariously, as if drunk. We stopped at the same light, and then I saw him buckling over and squinting, caught silently between an agonizing scream and unbearable sob.

I stepped over and put my hand on his back. “Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not,” he said. He lifted his head and I saw blood coagulated above an eye that wouldn’t open. He explained that someone had punched him, and he was now experiencing his ninth concussion. He knew he should be resting, (“But not sleeping!” he added, anxiously recalling medical advice), but he was trying to get to a church on time to get their free breakfast.

I suggested hospital, but I didn’t feel right deciding for him what he should do. I pulled out a ten dollar bill and asked him to buy a meal. 

“And promise me you’ll walk.”

He got off the bike, and pledged he would get something to eat, and then find somewhere to set his tent up and lie down. To relax.

In the brief time we walked along, though, two pairs of cops on bicycles passed us, stirring and pushing any recumbent people along.

I turned the corner, and left him there... in that very different physical reality.

Rob Wipond is glad to still be friends with some of the people he met in prison.