Socially Engaged Yoga: Healing A World In Crisis
I walked toward the back entrance of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, looking up at a seemingly endless stretch of sky-high chain-link fencing topped with spiraling barbed wire, punctuated by looming guard towers. And I had to admit to myself that yes, I did feel somewhat intimated. And that I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d been naive to imagine that having a nice college-educated white girl like me teach yoga to a bunch of women locked up inside there was really, in fact, such a bright idea.
I met up with Rachael Hudak, my fellow volunteer from the Chicago nonprofit, Yoga for Recovery (YFR), in front of the first checkpoint. Together, we walked up to several uniformed, armed guards manning the back gate. One opened the fencing and let us in. “Oh, you’re here for yoga!” He smiled at us. “Yeah, come on in!”
We walked through and found ourselves standing in front of two female guards. As we pulled out our passes and IDs, one of them exclaimed to everyone at once and no one in particular, “I want to take some yoga classes, too!” Her voice sounded playful and half-joking, but also serious. I looked at her and smiled. What I saw in her eyes told me that she really would like to do it. “We’d love to have you sometime,” I replied.
Rachael and I moved on to the indoor checkpoint. Showed our IDs and passes again. Placed our coats and car keys in plastic boxes and then onto the conveyor belt for x-ray scanning, just like at an airport. Took turns holding our arms out and getting wanded. Stepped through the metal detector, which seemed to beep every time, no matter what. Shuffled through a set of double doors with a synchronized locking mechanism. And walked down a long, institutional hallway into a huge gym.
I spotted a set of black yoga mats neatly laid out in rows at the far end of the room. We walked over to them. Soon, a group of a dozen women dressed in orange jumpsuits came in and was led over to the mat area by a female guard who reminded me of a Chicago street cop.
“OK! LISTEN UP!,” the guard boomed. ‘IT’S TIME TO DO YOGA! YOGA IS GREAT FOR INNER PEACE!” We all looked over at her, dutifully paying attention. I was finding the combination of her booming voice and sincere pro-yoga sentiments surprising, charming, and somewhat humorous. “I’M HAPPY THAT YA’LL HAVE A CHANCE TO DO SOMETHING SPIRITUAL!,” she added. And then, after a few personal asides to some of the women (who seemed to like and respect her), she left.
So far, none of this was unfolding according to my stereotypes – or fears. But there was no time to think about that. It was time to start class.
So I did. And it flowed beautifully. Despite being temporarily distracted by a rather loud group of inmates who came in and assembled at the other end of the gym, our students managed to regroup and maintain focus. It was clear they were serious about this. They wanted to learn some yoga.
The end of the class was graced with a sweet, still moment of silence. Then, the women spontaneously broke into applause. There was a quick peppering of comments and questions. “That was great!” “I feel good!” “Will you come back next week?”
We assured them that while the teachers rotate, yoga classes will be offered every Thursday. And then the women lined up, got handcuffed, and were escorted out. Soon, the next group of inmates was led in. Rachael taught and I assisted. Once again, the energy was beautiful, and the women clapped at the end of the class.
And that was my first experience teaching yoga in Division 4, which holds over 700 women of all security classifications in Chicago’s Cook County Jail.
Expect the Unexpected
The purpose of telling this story is not to suggest that teaching yoga in settings such as jails is necessarily going to be easy. On the contrary, I’m well aware that my surprisingly smooth experience was facilitated by years of preceding work on the part of the YFR leadership and several dedicated staffers in the jail system. And while I wasn’t involved with YFR when it started, I’ve heard stories about how difficult it was to gain access and teach the first classes, which were initially held in the cramped, uncomfortable, and dispiriting setting of a small cell.
For me, the point of this story is to illustrate the power of yoga to open us up to experiences that confound our expectations in profound, and ultimately positive ways.
I had never expected to teach yoga in jail. Hell, I’d never imagined teaching yoga at all – or even taking it seriously as anything more than stretching. Yet as I describe in my recent book, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, this seemingly simple practice of learning to integrate mind, body, and breath worked over time to revolutionize my experience of myself and the world in ways I wouldn’t have previously imagined possible.
And I know that I’m not alone in experiencing yoga in this way. Yoga can and often does work as a transformative practice, slowly unwinding the ingrained habits, expectations, and fears that prevent us from living our lives to the fullest.
Yet I’ve also become painfully aware that yoga is no magic bullet. Anyone who’s followed the news over the past year is well aware of the repeated sex- and power-abuse scandals that have rocked the yoga world. Unprecedentedly fierce (and in my mind, well-justified) debates over the growing incidence of physical and emotional injuries among students have also broken out across the field.
Anyone who imagines yoga as a fail-safe method for delivering whatever goodies of health, serenity and beauty we want hasn’t been paying attention. Or perhaps they’ve been seduced by our society’s ubiquitous air-brushed images and slick messages selling the fantasy of yoga as a commodity guaranteed to give us the goods.
Either way, the unexpectedly negative news that’s recently troubled (and in some cases traumatized) the yoga community offers an excellent learning opportunity. Speaking from personal experience, I’d say that it’s often impossible to experience the positive growth that practicing yoga offers without also being willing to process some pain.
If I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience of teaching yoga in jail last week, I also remember the tremendously difficult time I went through to get to the point of teaching yoga at all. I’m also well aware that whatever the students in that class had to go through to get to where they could participate so beautifully was almost certainly much more brutal.
Yet thanks to the deceptively simple techniques of integrating our minds, bodies, and breath that we call “yoga,” we co-created a beautiful hour of positive learning and growth. And what’s great about teaching places like Cook County Jail is that it gives me the faith that if this can happen there, it can happen anywhere. Plus, the realization that yoga opens up unexpected avenues of positive growth makes me hopeful that teaching it potentially offers much more to people than simply a nice way to spend an hour once a week.
Socially Engaged Yoga
I believe that yoga is a process of learning to work with both the pain and beauty of life in ways that enable us to flourish to our maximum capacity as living beings. I also think from such a perspective, socially engaged yoga puts us on a fast track toward positive growth.
By “socially engaged yoga,” I simply mean practicing in ways that are devoted to connecting in compassionate and constructive ways with the world, rather disengaging and escaping from it.
I recognize that values of renouncing, rather than embracing the world are central to the historic yoga tradition, and may remain appropriate for some individuals today. Generally speaking, however, I believe that most of us feel a call to orient ourselves quite differently. Rather than leaving society, we want to better it. And when we allow ourselves to think into global warming and other threats to our planet, we realize that rather than giving up on the world, we want to save it.
We know that our world is in crisis. Yet we’d like to suppress that knowledge because we fear that it’s too heartbreaking and terrifying to handle. The problem, however, is that denying something so important inevitably leads to pathology and disease. We need to recognize what we know to be true.
Once we do, we realize that our hearts call us to heal our world. We care about it because it provides the ground of our being. We love it because it is ours.
Practicing socially engaged yoga doesn’t mean that you have to teach in a jail. There are as many ways to practice as there are individual practitioners. It’s up to each of us to discover what we can best do at this point in our lives to bring the healing power of our practice into the world.
None of us can save the world by ourselves. Realistically, there’s a good chance that we can’t even do it collectively. But we can create a new culture of social engagement that delights in manifesting our care and concern for each other and our planet. It’s simply a matter of setting our intent, focusing our attention, taking the next breath, and opening up to whatever opportunities for positive learning and growth present themselves, over and over again.
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~ Carol Horton, Ph.D.
Carol Horton, Ph.D. is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog, Think Body Electric.