Rachael King, our program coordinator, shares her first experience observing a class at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI):
When I returned to Oregon earlier this year after completing my Peace Corps service, I could not have imagined that I would one day walk through the doors of an all men’s prison to practice yoga as part of my work. As the program coordinator with Living Yoga, meeting our students and teachers is a highlight and privilege of my job. I recently participated in a class taught by Laurene Mullen, one of our amazing volunteers at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI), a minimum security facility located in North Portland. The experience left me grateful and more than a bit awed by the beauty of our work and community.
The first thing that I noticed when I arrived at CRCI was the juxtaposition of daffodils blooming inside the chain-link gates surrounding the facility. Throughout my brief visit, CRCI seemed to be a contradictory mix of openness (inmates walking freely around the facility) with an ever present reminder of containment (guards and very clear and visible security). Our class was held in CRCI’s chapel, and a full room of students greeted Laurene with evident fondness and respect and accepted my sudden appearance without a question. The first part of class involved some brief catching up that organically helped to identify new students as well as any injuries. One student who had previously been skeptical about yoga was excited to share how the previous week’s yoga class helped to relax muscles that had been painful and cramped in his neck.
The class flowed smoothly, with laughter breaking out during some of the more challenging poses - always with permission and acceptance offered to the students to adapt poses to their body’s needs. A Star Trek quote emerged during the class, which I think I laughed at more than the students (I could not help it, my inner nerd made an appearance). It was a joyful and thoroughly authentic practice. At the end of class, Laurene read a beautiful poem to the class on themes of self-acceptance and the inherent value of each of us.
After the close of class, a few students lingered to shake our hands and to thank us for the class (as a fellow participant, I thanked them for coming to class). Two students were being released and asked about resources and yoga classes in the community, which the Laurene and I spoke with them about. One student stayed later than the others and said that he was in recovery and that he really wanted to build his community through yoga after being released, so that he did not return to old behaviors and habits. He was being released to Astoria, and we promised to look into studio and class options in the area and told him to contact the office so that we could share the information.
As Laurene and I left CRCI, we quickly debriefed about the class, and she shared that many of the students are initially skeptical about yoga. The one student who shared the story about his neck during class was a weight lifter and had been unconvinced of the value of yoga, but now regularly recruits his fellow weight lifters to try the class! I also had to ask about where Laurene found the poem that she read at the close of class – she had written it! She explained that she had been looking for a reading, but had been unable to find anything that felt right, so she created the poem herself.
I left CRCI with a renewed feeling of wonder and respect for the people (volunteers, students, site staff) who engage with yoga practice in deeply challenging environments and circumstances. We rarely have control over our external space, but the space that we create within is ours to build and nurture, and I believe that yoga can be a deeply powerful tool for that development. Thank you to each and every one of our volunteers who dedicate their time, energy and care to share the practice of yoga with our community.