Yoga and Compassion in a Place of Violence

By Sarahjoy Marsh

I’ve been teaching yoga in Oregon prisons for almost twenty years. Four years ago, a local effort emerged to reform the use of segregation (solitary confinement). Disproportionate numbers of inmates in segregation had mental illnesses (79% of female inmates). A call to action resounded through Oregon: Alternatives must be created.

The Oregon Department of Corrections asked me to create yoga programs on the inside that could support inmates living with developmental delays, mental illnesses, and traumatic brain injuries. We decided to teach inmates with long term and life sentences to become certified yoga teachers.

In the first cohort of yoga teacher trainees was an inmate, whom I will call Jack. Jack committed a very serious crime in 1998, the same year I walked into a different prison to teach the first yoga classes. Jack was a 16-year old, undiagnosed schizophrenic at the time of his crime. To manage him while in juvenile detention, Jack was placed in segregation for eighteen months. He was introduced to yoga during that time. Today, he is a certified yoga teacher with more than 90 years remaining on his sentence.

Yoga may be most widely known for its physical practices, pictured on magazine covers and in social media photos. Yet it is a much more deep and holistic practice than merely physical asana. Yoga provides a life-centering, heart-opening, and mind-transforming path, including its suggestion of ethical precepts, such as ahimsa and daya.

While teaching ahimsa (non-violence, non-harming) and daya (compassion, mercy), I could feel the room becoming more cold and distant. The trainees hadn’t moved. But they were backing away. A weighted silence fell over the room.

In this unanticipated gloominess, Jack asked, with great urgency and sincerity, an unexpected question:

“How does my practice of ahimsa or daya translate into an environment that is so violent and hostile? Prison is a place of hierarchy, status, and posturing. And, people outside of here consider us monsters, evil, unworthy. These aren’t the aspects of human behavior or attitude that yoga tells us about. Being compassionate in here is considered weak and that gets us targeted.”

The inmates signed up for a training to help more marginalized and easily exploited inmates have access to a practice they’d benefited from for many years. They’d filled out training applications and answered questions about providing service to others and helping less advantaged human beings. They didn't realize our training (and the tradition of yoga itself) would require them to extend kindness, non-harm, and compassion to ALL human beings. Not only their soon-to-be yoga students, but to other inmates, to officers, and to people beyond the walls of the prison. Because our program covers 200 hours of shared practice, yoga, dharma, meditation, and service, I knew we would have dedicated time to explore this, and other, provocative and profound questions.

We began on the inside with this practice:

When waking up, breathe in your intention to be non-violent today. Breathe in your commitment to extend compassion to others. Breathe into your body your deep desire to be a person who is not contributing to the fray, the noise, or the violence around you. Breathe out compassion for the way human behavior becomes confused, painful, or despairing when ignorance arises. (Ignorance here refers to how humans forget – forget how precious life is, forget the basic respect of self and other, forget the indwelling goodness with which we were each born.)

Then, as you walk about the prison hallways or encounter other men in your unit, commit a breath cycle to ahimsa (non-harm) on the inhale and daya (compassion) on your exhale. Observe how this changes your relationship to the moment. Notice if you have resistance. Remember that holding resentment, anger, envy, delusion, greed, or other unhelpful mind states as a way to ‘punish’ another person, or as a way to feel vindicated about your perspective on them, is fundamentally harmful to you. If resistance arises, try another breath cycle to help free yourself from the inauspicious mind and to return to your heart’s capacity for ahimsa and daya.

They spent the next week practicing this. We then gradually increased this exercise to include eye contact, a silent prayer for the other (such as “may you be free from pain”), and eventually into a physical gesture (a nod of the head) or words (saying good morning, while meaning God Bless You, or Namaste, or I free you from my judgments about you).

Week to week, their practices developed. Our soon-to-be yoga teachers became more radiant human beings, more open to and sensitive toward the experiences of others. They were less concerned about perceptions of weakness, and more aware of the true nature of human vulnerability and courage. They developed relationships with their new yoga students, inmates with developmental delays and mental illnesses, often accompanying them to safer experiences of the yard or the dining hall. And, they did this without fear of mockery, disdain, or cruelty from others. Not only did they not become targets, they became role models and leaders for culture change within their inside community. When you’ll live the rest of your life in prison, being a cultural change agent is a life-empowering way to be of service for decades to come.

An Update: March 2016

We now have twelve certified yoga teachers on the inside and a request for this program to be replicated in three more prisons, set to begin in 2017. We also have requests from other states and yoga outreach organizations to create programs for them.

We developed this training program so that these more marginalized and all too easily exploited populations (DD1 – DD3, TBI, MI) would have yoga classes that meet their needs, cognitively, neurologically, with respect to their sensorimotor challenges, and as well mentally and emotionally. Though these adults in custody are biologically adults their cognitive function is on average about 7 – 12 years old, the ages in which our brains develop an orientation to our interpersonal world wherein self and other become more distinct via the processes of differentiation. As this primarily doesn't happen for these populations, understanding relational dynamics and associating with healthy friends becomes challenging if resources, guidance, and mentorship are not available.

They’ve struggled in our educational system, been bullied in school and in their communities, and, if they’ve been fortunate to find a job, were challenged to maintain a job if interpersonal complexity was required, such as staying accountable to schedule changes with other employees.

With our direct supervision and mentoring, these students progressed through our yoga teacher training program as students of our trainees (who were becoming their yoga teachers). We observed improvements in their esteem, self-awareness, and anxiety. Pro-social relationships between our trainees and these students developed into safer experiences for the DD1 – DD3, TBI, and MI inmates going to the dining room, spending time out in the yard, and performing their prison work duties. For example, they became capable of helping with the vegetable garden, many eating ripe tomatoes off of the vine for the first time in their lives. (While they can’t yet operate a weed-wacker skillfully, they did learn to pull weeds, water plants, surround tomatoes with cages for stability, and to pick –and eat - ripe vegetables!)

To learn more, click here and watch this video

Sarahjoy Marsh, MA, E-RYT-500 yoga teacher and author, is a vibrant, compassionate catalyst for transformation. Her teachings are informed by her extensive Eastern and Western studies including transpersonal counseling, art therapy, interpersonal neurobiology, the psychology of yoga, Ayurveda, and rehabilitative yoga. Her book Hunger, Hope & Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship with Your Body and Food outlines her unique approach; integrating powerful yoga and mindfulness tools with modern day psychological modalities for an effective and comprehensive approach to healing. Committed to supporting marginalized populations and using yoga for social justice Sarahjoy founded Living Yoga and the DAYA Foundation. To learn more, click here.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 21: Standing Rock Update & Shift Members' Gifts