It's easy to believe that the men and women in jail are somehow very different from the rest of us. After all, they are confined to institutions that few people wish to visit, much less inhabit. The very word "inmate" suggests a world apart, a world clearly defined by who is kept in and who is allowed out.
But teaching Yoga to men at the Washington County Community Corrections Center has taught me that the inmates usually face the same problems and challenges as the rest of us. For one thing, the WCCCC students’ most common physical complaints—tight shoulders, sore backs, stiff necks—are the same ailments I encounter in my drop-in studio classes. Like many men I see in my studio classes, the students at WCCCC tend to focus their exercise time on their upper bodies and abs, paying too little attention to their pelvises and backs.
However, it was a student with an unusual physical condition who showed me how much I really have in common with the men in my classes.
He was a tall, relatively fit man in his late 20s, but he was almost unable to lift his left arm above his head due to a shoulder injury that he referred to only as "old." Even the most modest shoulder rotation would cause him to wince. During the months we worked together, I kept an eye out to ensure our practice wouldn’t him cause any harm. Whenever possible, I tried to suggest a variation that might bring him some relief or maybe even help to restore some of his range of motion.
One day, chatting after class, he told me almost shyly that he'd received this injury when he'd been "jumped" by some other men during a brawl. Avoiding eye contact, he added that he definitely had “anger issues.” Now, he said, he was working hard on his anger-management counseling and had lately started to feel that his Yoga practice could help him more than anything else.
I had a chance to say something useful about the value of my practice! In my 20s and 30s, I told him, I had been prone to angry verbal outbursts. Under stress or feeling "put down," I would fill the air with a toxic brew of profanity, carefully phrased insults, and eloquently exaggerated grievances. I had hurt a lot of people and ruined a lot of relationships and opportunities.
The only real difference between the student and me was how we had expressed our anger, not its quality or the cause. My anger, driven by fear and insecurity, had expressed itself through my mouth and had led to emotional breakage and regrets. His anger had expressed itself through his fists and had led to incarceration. The tiniest change in either of our lives—a little different upbringing or education or social experience—could easily have led to us changing places. It was easy to imagine him teaching the Yoga class and me "inside" trying to start over.
I worked on my anger issues for many years, trying various therapies and self-help strategies with varying degrees of success. Yoga, though, had enabled me to understand my anger thoroughly and thus to be (usually!) free of it. "In the end," I told him, "The biggest benefit I've gotten from my Yoga practice, more important than any physical development, is the space between my feelings and my words that gives me a chance to react more calmly—hell, more appropriately—when I'm threatened."
“Cool,” he said, laughing and looking me in the eye. "See you in a couple of weeks."
"Yeah," I said, "I'll look forward to it."
Thank you to Paul Telles, one of our amazing supporters and volunteer teachers, for sharing such a special story!