“The only options for our stories are owning them or orphaning them. Our self-worth lives inside our stories.
We can walk into our story and own it, or we can stand outside of our truth and outside of our narrative and we can hustle, and pretend, and perfect, and perform for our worthiness.” -Brene Brown
Deciding that a story is worthy of telling is like the irresistibility of siphoning the most valuable coffee out of the bottom of your cup at 10am—even though you know it is often the darkest part----grittier, heavier, and stronger—so goddamned strong that you can’t not drink it. And yet these grounds keep showing up on your clothes throughout the day because you spill a little while enjoying the last sip.
I show up at jail every Wednesday night for two hours—give or take the few minutes it takes to: walk through the waiting room of mostly men on cell phones begging girlfriends to come and visit and how are the babies?, then through the locked the door, into the sea of lonely mostly men, and a few women at foldout, cafeteria-style tables talking, hustling, planning, dreaming…moving past to grab the sign-up sheets, say hello to Steve, Lori, and Nicole who work there—ask for a key, a radio, and an escort and then get the roly chair out of one of the community classrooms, roll it in to the cleaning closet to retrieve the box of yoga mats, and roll them down to the men’s side conference room. Then move the tables and more roly chairs to the perimeters of the room, close the blinds, spray some essential oil, and un-nest the tangled ridiculousness that is my portable speakers for music.
Then I sit and wait.
Whoever order China Buffet needs to come pick it up, shouts Nicole over the loudspeaker.
Two minutes later…
Garlic Knot has been delivered, so come get your grub!
The large volume of food delivery at this county jail strikes me as odd the first few weeks that I am teaching, mostly because of the mixture of unencumbered fast-food versions of a bad spin on ethnic food: pizza, Thai noodles, tacos, burgers, lots of garlic with layers of dysfunctional spice choices. But also odd because it is jail. This jail offers work-release for the incarcerated, sandwiched in-between Community Core, which is a rehab facility for those serving time, and something else on the other side that has a name I can’t remember where other incarcerated people live.
So there is a tension here between being in jail, and having the pseudo-freedom to work and order food delivery. The incarceration is exposed in so many things: the asking permission to watch TV, the video monitoring, the drug testing, the no cell phones in the facility—only in the lobby, the confiscation of letters from lovers and children, the rubber-matted bunk beds, the lack of make-up or perfume, the cafeteria, the cold lighting, the tone of voice in which they are spoken to, and in the dictatorship of whatever announcement magically comes on the overhead speaker:
Attention work release inmates. It is now time for Wednesday night cleaning. If there are no fights, arguments, general whiners, and everyone actually cleans with actual cleaning supplies for the next hour, you can earn an extra smoke break tonight before lights out. Meet me in the main hall to get your cleaning assignment.
These announcements interrupt our two hours of yoga practice weekly. It is one of the few things that makes teaching yoga in jail different than in a studio.
In the men’s class last week, we were enjoying an effortless Savasana with the MC Yoga “Liberation” soundtrack when suddenly over the loud speaker:
Jesus, you need to report back to your bunk immediately. Bring your ID.
Jesus leaves his bliss to report back to his rubber matted bunk with ID in tow.
My favorite announcer/jail guard/law enforcer is Steve. He is a cowboy poet. An inmate told me this. I can tell, though, by his word choice over the loud speaker, that he is in fact, a poet. I am not sure about the cowboy part, but he has a peppery mustache, simple glasses guarding worn-out eyes, and often is wearing Carhart jeans paired with a sturdy, green flannel button down. The uniform, I suppose, of a cowboy poet who is also an officer the law in a work release facility.
When I speak with Steve, I wonder what it is like to work here, and to be a poet.
Attention all women: your life is about to change, as yoga is now starting in the men’s conference room at 6:10pm. Get your breath on and change your life. Namaste, ladies.
Steve’s announcements are encouraging because he has a Texas accent. When he announces yoga, he is delivering both a promising benediction, as well as a mockery of the new-agey voices and words of yogic-speak.
It is joyful mockery—almost playful on a good night.
The women pile in through the door right at 6:10pm; having endured the walk of shame through the men’s side of the facility. Make no mistake: a woman must have balls to walk through the men’s corridor. There is no lack of inappropriate sexual commenting, gazing, and general eye penetration as you walk through. This walk of shame was the hardest part of my first month teaching here.
But the women show up. They walk through this weird oversexualized threshold. To yoga.
Fay is a fave. She comes to yoga religiously every week, from Comm Core, the rehab facility conjoined on the east side. Usually a few others from rehab come as well: Denicia, Kristina, Sadi….Sadi had a baby five weeks ago. After snooping through the attendance sheets in the red folder where we document who attends our classes, I notice Fay also religiously attends the weekly Women’s bible study classes, as well as the “Avoiding Relapse” classes. I’m probably not supposed to know this.
As class begins, Fay complains of her hip again and I ask her about any trauma resting in her body that may need to be addressed.
“I’ve birthed six kids, and was held in captivity for eight years where I was raped repeatedly.”
“Well, Fay, that would certainly count as ‘trauma you may be holding in your body.’”
Fay is the only one who showed up tonight for the women’s class. She is more casual about her story than normal.
We move a table away from the wall to make space, and do an entire restorative yoga sequence with the wall as our anchor. We start with legs up the wall, and then spinal twists. Quietly, at one point while twisting, Fay looks away and mentions her mom used to practice yoga.
Still laying on the floor, with our legs now in Cobbler’s pose, we talk about how the last week has been, and our yoga class last week when one of the other women who was new, spoke throughout the whole class:
“Black people don’t do yoga. We talk too much.”
“Girl, you sho is limber. I thought you was getting your ho on, but you was doin yoga!”
“Shit, I need to tuck my flappy titties away, or these things will be all over the place.”
Fay hasn’t seen her since—not sure what facility she is in now, as she has never come back to yoga. This is common—just brief moments in time we connect, and then sometimes not ever again.
I don’t ask about Fay’s criminal offenses: where she has been or where she is going. I ask about breathing. And where her body hurts.
“Your breathing is really powerful, Fay. One of my favorite yoga teachers, Max Strom, says that yoga is a breathing practice accompanied by movement. The older I get, the more that makes sense.”
“Shit, you should have seen me circular breathe with a bong. I could jam some killer rips.”
Fay starts to activate her circular bong-breathing for me with imaginary props.
“Well, hell. Way to use your powers for good, not evil. Go on witcha bad self. You gonna be here next week?” I ask.
“I may play softball instead. You know I can fastpitch? I used to play competitively, and that’s why no one fucks with me.”
We close our eyes and head into Savasana. Effortlessness. A place of buoyancy and light…
Attention work release inmates: we are on lockdown. Everyone immediately report back to your bunks. NOW. Bring your ID!
It is not Steve on the loudspeaker. It is someone way more pissed than Steve.
Also, it is not Nicole.
Maybe it’s one of the other two guys who always have resting bitch face when I go up to their work area to ask for a pen for a sign-in sheet. RBF #1 and RBF #1, like Thing One and Thing Two from Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.
I look over at Fay as my Savasana is interrupted.
She refuses to open her eyes.
She is not moving.
Her Savasana is apparently going just fine.
“Do you have to go to Lockdown?”
“Are you sure?”
“I guess they will come get you if they need you?”
Liberation. Effortlessness. Buoyancy. Light.
While I am waiting for the men to shuffle in after the women’s class is over, I often read from my Pocket Pema Chodron book, browsing for just the right selection to read and set the intention for our weekly practice.
This habit started out of anxiety, and a slight panic during the transition between the women’s and men’s class. I don’t like eye contact with people who say gross shit in the walk of shame.
After a few weeks, I started to notice that none of the men who are shit-talkers on the walk, come to yoga. A relief.
When the women come in to class, they care about relaxation, restoration, and a sort of grounding. When the men come in, they are in need of relaxation, restoration, and grounding, but they are amped with energy, reminiscent of a Kindergarten room full of mostly boys trying to untangle their squirrely body movements long enough to learn the skills and coordination needed for writing their first story.
These grown boys, are not dissimilar. They are learning to rewrite their names and their stories. Many are still detoxing from violence, drugs, alcohol, loss, grief, shame, and a lack of vulnerability. Many of them are from the rehab facility. Like Tony. I brought Tony his own mat, which was donated to my school classroom over three years ago. It is black, so it stands out from the regular purple mats that the rest of us use. There is a specific pattern in the cleaning of his yoga mat after a practice. He uses the Great Value brand sanitizing wipes provided from the facility, then hits all of the perimeters of his mat first. Only then, starting at the top, does he swish back and forth in even strokes until he is at the bottom of his mat.
He rolls it up with as much mindfulness as he cleans it, and then gently rests it against the wall by the door—where he can keep an eye on it.
Tonight, Tony and the rest of the men shuffle in right after cleaning duty at 7:10, sign in, and look around to see if anyone else is taking off their socks.
Socks are a big deal.
Where you put your socks is a big deal.
Feet exposed without socks is a big deal.
Except for Jesse. He doesn’t seem to mind being vulnerable about socks or feet exposure or hair or anything, really. Jesse has been coming to yoga every Wednesday for two months. He has a man-bun and his own mat that is a coral color with lotus flowers.
Each week, he puts his mat in the back, throws off his socks, and lays down on his back with his eyes closed. Zero fucks given.
Terrence is new. He has been only a few times. After signing in, Terrence throws down a mat up front, and undoes his slick, black pony tail. Reluctantly, takes off his socks and tucks them under the back of his mat. He has a gentle smile. He nervously lays down on his back.
We are packed this week—13 of us in this tiny conference room.
“Go ahead and stagger your mats so there is room for all of us. Thanks for starting your practice laying down, guys. This is called the “supine” position in our yoga practice. You can remember it, because it has the word “spine” in it.”
“Supine,” Toni repeats. For a man in his late fifties, Tony’s natural curiosity in learning new words is strong.
I pull out the pocket Pema book to read:
“I have something to share with you all. There are eight areas of yoga to study, learn, and work with daily. Only one of them has to do with your body—and the other seven are about your mind and your breath. So if all we do tonight is use our breath to work with releasing any sort of thinking that no longer serves us, we are solid.”
“So here is this for us this evening. It is entitled, “Everything Has to Go”:
“All of us are like eagles who have forgotten that we know how to fly. The teachings are reminding us who we are and what we can do. They help us notice that we are in a nest with a lot of old food, excrement, and stale air. From when we were very young we’ve had this longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean, but somehow we got trapped in our nest, just because we forgot that we knew how to fly.
We are like eagles, but we have on underwear and pants and shorts and socks and shoes and a hat and coat and boots and mittens and an iPod and dark glasses, and it occurs to us that we could experience that vast sky, but we’d better start taking off some of this stuff.
So we take off the coat and the hat and it’s cold, but we know that we have to do it, and we teeter in the edge of the nest, and we take off. Then we find out for ourselves that everything has to go. You just can’t fly when you are wearing socks and shoes and coats and pants and underwear.
Everything has to go.”
“Shit, man. That is some poetry.” A man from the back thinks aloud. He is new, and I don’t know him yet.
The gift of teaching yoga here is that the thinking, the transformation, the shifting internal-landscape and often the mundane, (and sometimes profane), are all visible. They organically arise in each class. There is no filter stronger than the bursts of change and thought that appear in our practice time together. It is happening in real time—the yogic shift, and it is dazzling to behold--if you don’t mind the profane along with the profound.
“Let’s begin to extend our feet toward the sky, and the press through the heels. There is no special prize for straight legs. You gotta bend those knees, folks. Ain’t no shame. So let’s rock and roll up to seated and then practice jumping back.”
The sea of grown-ass men rocking and rolling, back and forth, up and down, is childlike and fun. And funny. It is play. It is joyful.
Whoever ordered Dominoes, your cheesy bread is here! It’s Nicole’s loudspeaker turn. She is not pissed, but generally seems cordial this evening on the loudspeaker.
“Yogis: do you remember when you were a kid and you were playful? Let’s do that now while we heat through the core and prepare to take flight. Find your plank position. Remember to safely stack your joints—shoulders over wrists—and then press through your heels—like you are pressing through a wall.”
Terrence, through a now-sweaty brow, smirks at “stacking your joints.”
I can’t help it. I do too.
His black hair is now back in the pony-tail holder—this ain’t no game.
“Alright. Here we go. Place your right hand in the middle of your mat and reach your left finger tips open to the sky—Vashtistasana—side plank.”
“Vashtistasana, ” Tony repeats…he is working hard to hold up his fifty-something body and memorize the Sanskrit term. Memory wins—body folds.
Tony chuckles. He has the dimples of a kid. He sits up and tries again.
“Now play! For reals! Do something with your upper stacked leg!” My own voice is wobbly and out of breath. I am in the back of the room, instead of the front because I like to move around and practice by different people. I always like this when yoga teachers do this in a class I am taking. Reciprocity.
“Reach for the sky, grab your big toe, find a side-plank tree—do something! This is what being playful looks and feels like. Remember this?!” I am sort of shouting because my own ass is about to hit the deck while trying to cue instructions. I kick my own leg up in one last sad attempt to model playfulness….and falling.
“I’m sweating my balls off back here!” another new dude yells.
This is the visible thinking—the visceral shifting in the bodies that becomes auditory—just as important as the breath: the voice of the struggle.
I see his belly hanging out of his loose t-shirt.
“Draw your bellies in, yogis. Use your core as your true power source.”
He is listening. His belly, still saggy, moves closer to his lower ribcage.
“That’s it. You got this.”
After two rounds of side planking, we all sort of crumple to the ground, laughing and sweating our balls off. The room is still crowded, but lighter, more buoyant. There is an effortlessness in the ease of falling without being afraid anymore.
Mark, a former yoga attendee/inmate who hasn’t been back since farting loudly about three weeks ago, busts open the conference room door, just in time to witness our sweaty, side-plank moment of glory:
“Daaayyyeeeeemnn, y’all. It be smellin’ like buttered popcorn up in hur. But the nasty kind!”
It is important to note that on Mark’s first visit to yoga, before the farting incident, he complained loudly at being too fat for any twisting. He is, in general, loud and commenty. But funny, and kind.
“Thanks, Mark. You are like 45 minutes late to yoga, dude. And we are sweating our asses off in here.” Or balls.
The profane extends into my landscape, as well. Stories not so far from each other.
Mark storms out.
I was too teachery in my response to him—the old high school teacher who hates tardiness reared her ugly head.
“It is that time at the end of class guys, where we try an arm balance before we settle in to Savasana.”
This is Jesse’s favorite part. He excels in this sort of balance. His man-bun holds steady as his gaze moves beyond the front of the mat—he is focused, and taking flight. Shedding all those layers, just like his socks, with ease. His flight encourages some of the more reluctant yogis to attempt flight as well.
“What is the worst thing that can happen? I ask them. You have already fallen in side plank. Be courageous and playful. Be soft. Take up as much space as you need to fly.”
And just like that, they do.
After Savasana, the men help me tidy up the room. We move the rolly chairs and tables back into their proper conference room-like horseshoe position to compliment the white boards and the bad fluorescent lighting. I thank them all for staying to help pick up our mess and put things back where they belong.
One man thanks me and says he is leaving on Friday so he won’t be back to yoga again. “Where can I go to continue yoga? Is it expensive?”
We talk about studios that have sliding scales for payment, and possibly doing Seva crew at a studio in exchange for free yoga.
Jesse quietly rolls up his coral mat, slips on his socks, and starts to leave. He pauses a moment at the door, and rolls a couple of chairs back into place before slipping out.
Tony is chatting up the new guy who had sweaty balls. They are chuckling and laughing—like two older men over a glass of scotch.
Terrence comes up to me, pony tail down again: “Thanks so much. My lady is pregnant and I think this would be good for the baby. We live in Loveland—I mean she lives in Loveland, and I live here right now. Do you know where she could go to yoga in Loveland?”
“Yes! Yoga saved my back when I was pregnant with my kids.
I am an eager responder to pregnant mommas needing yoga. “She could look into a prenatal class to make sure her practice is safe for her baby.”
Terrence and I talk for a few minutes about the baby—his fourth. We talk about his dream of leaving here and staying away from the law. Mostly he talks and I listen. He holds the door, and I roll out the box of mats and turn off the light.
And just like that, we leave no trace. Just some buttery popcorn smell, and someone’s old-ass socks left behind as proof of flight.