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Lions Roar : September 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN SepteMBer 2009 75 inactivity, a diet heavy with refined sugar and white flour, and high daily doses of pharmaceuticals. “we’d like to put you on trazadone, a heterocyclic antidepres- sant,” offers a kind and friendly nurse. i suspect this solicitation comes from my involvement in a mental health relaxation group, prison code for the yoga and meditation group i lead. if the les- son of breathing in, breathing out is good, they rationalize, stir- ring an antidepressant into the mix must be better. “thanks,” i say, “but i’d rather cop my serotonin high natural- ly. you folks should think about offering some herbal teas. maybe a little st. John’s wort.” Her response is standard issue in a bureaucracy with all the self-defeating grace and logic of the department of motor Vehicles: “Ha! not in our lifetime!” “ten-minute moVement! “ ten-minute moVement!” From 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., prison days are fragmented into fifty-minute hours, each with a ten-minute finale tacked on to allow for movement. i enter my steps-to-recovery class. “we’re going to go deep today,” our teacher says. she’s part of a new wave of outside social-service professionals contracted by the doc to add a human face to the corrections process. Guards in jackboots can only go so far in rebuilding broken spirits. “i want you to write about the reason you became an addict,” she says. “not the fun reason—the real reason.” in prison, there’s a war between the attitudinal poles of pun- ishment and rehabilitation. to put them down or prop them up, that is the question. make them pound rocks or foster recovery and redemption? Prescribe them into pharmaceutical oblivion or teach them how to meditate and salute the sun? bouncing many times a day between classes and the corridors and cells—where we’re constantly barked at for walking too slowly or punished with loss of yard time for wearing an id tag too low—generates an advanced state of agitation that, with luck and a whole lot of determination, eventually morphs into acceptance. a supreme court ruling that allows all religions to be practiced in prison—native american, buddhism, islam, and wicca includ- ed—is the main reason yoga and meditation have subtly but surely seeped into the correctional culture. but the yoga class i teach once a week is listed on the formal daily schedule as “mental health relax- ation.” otherwise, i wouldn’t be allowed, along with several other women, to wriggle out of my morning steps-to-recovery class. “time for mental health on a mat,’ i whisper to my steps instructor. “i wish i could make yoga part of this class instead of all this talk,” she whispers, shuffling a stack of handouts titled “the wounded inner child.” “yo, Pimpin.” a woman approaches me as i haul my load of mats from the gym to a classroom down the hall. “you doin’ that yogurt stuff?” “yup. coming?” “damn straight. takes me outta here to a much better place.” i enter the large, windowed room and count heads. the word is out: there are new women with nervous smiles. most come for the distraction, to forget this place where there’s, both figura- tively and literally, no escape. boredom and depression are the primary motivators, not learning a new skill, being hip, or losing a few pounds. they simply want to forget where they are. the staff therapist who cleverly designed this hour of yoga and meditation had an advanced degree in institutional inertia. she understood how to circumvent the sludge that can incapaci- tate worthy, but hard-to-pigeonhole programs. “Rumor has it you know yoga,” she said. “want to teach it?” “i’m not certified,” i told her. “i’m just a longtime practitioner. do we have to get me cleared, or searched, or something?” she shook her head and smiled. “if we ask for formal approval, it’ll turn into a protracted ordeal of micro-analyzing something into six pounds of wasted paper.” i’ve been amazed by the rapt attention i receive from my fledgling students. they’re unaccustomed to contortions, and to sensations other than crack, junk, booze, and beatings. For me the gift is simple: to teach something based entirely on love, not technique or discipline. Here, i’m liberated to share with them We’re propelled into the day, a day not much different from the one before—imagine subtle shades of gray, punctuated by achingly brief bursts of color, like fireworks in the fog.