Breathing Behind Bars: Be Here Now

I took the day off yesterday and went to jail.

More specifically, I spent the day at San Francisco's Juvenile Hall, assisting five yoga classes there.

Juvenile Hall, SF
I am on the board of Lemonade - A Yoga Program, an organization that has been providing weekly yoga classes to the Hall's units since 2009. Lemonade was founded by my good friend and teacher, Sandy Till. We just received official 501(c)3 state and federal status this past August. While I have worked with aspects of this program for over a year, one of the reasons I completed Yoga Teacher Training was to be able to physically assist inside the facility with the kids.

Despite orientation and several long discussions about what it would be like inside the hall, I was nervous as we entered the facility. As we stepped onto the actual unit floor, I heard the click-click of the door behind us and realized that I was now on the other side of a locked door. Just a momentary twinge of panic and then it passed.

Five minutes into the first class, it hit me: we are teaching children. Little beings that are still growing. I am not sure what I thought these young boys and girls would look like. It might be that at 32, I simply do not realize how much older I look. I expected - maybe even wanted - for them to look older.

It does not matter what they did or what brought them to this place of incarceration. I am not a judge, and I am not the justice system. I am here to hold space for these kids. They show up to class, and we show up for them.

When I first started practicing yoga (coincidentally, in 2009 - the year Lemonade started), I remember coming back only because that hour was the one time during the day that my brain felt calm. I didn't yet realize what it would do for my whole life.

Programs like Lemonade have to start their focus with that same simple approach. Making a bad situation better. Making a life better. Starting with 45 minutes, and hoping it stays longer.

Throughout the five classes that I assisted, I helped several kids get into handstand, watched a first-time student pop into dancer, and saw a young girl put herself into her very first bird of paradise. I turned around after assisting a young man in handstand, and looked over to see one of the students assisting a fellow teacher into handstand. Almost everyone landed crow. A kid popped from crow into handstand. Wheel with a leg up. These were just some of the firsts.

My heart was bursting. I don't think they realized that what they were doing was so inspiring. I wanted to tell them over and over: You are amazing! Do you know how long it would take an adult to get that? Do you know how strong you really are?

Maybe, I thought to myself, when you have seen the type of violence and despair that these young people have, a yoga pose doesn't hold the same type of fear. Maybe it's more like freedom.

Several times throughout the day, the kids spent a few minutes looking at books that Sandy had brought with her - including BKS Iyengar's Light on Yoga and Ana Forrest's Fierce Medicine, both of which contain pictures of yogis in advanced poses. Their eyes wide, fingers pointing - they asked - Can you do this? Can you show this? I was heartened by their interest.

Want to have your mind blown by the sheer power of yoga? Don't go to a conference. Go to a place where there are few options, and watch what happens when people are faced with the choice to simply breathe and try.

Yoga is a part of my daily life. Yesterday, without question, was the most rewarding day of yoga that I have ever spent. As passionate as I was about this program before, spending time actually doing the work has only intensified my support. And as much as those kids got out of our work - I also walked out feeling more confident about my ability to touch people, and even stronger in my belief that yoga can bring something to everyone. If you can have breakthroughs here - in these circumstances - surely yoga can be everywhere.

I went to class myself last night and practiced. As we moved towards the end of the ninety minutes, I suddenly felt the heaviness of the day. Some of those kids won't be around in a few years, I thought. They will go back onto the streets, and they will be victims of violence and cycles that might have been started decades before their birth.

That is not a reason not to be with these kids. Yes - there are systemic issues at all levels that need to be dealt with - the drug crisis in our country, mental health assistance for trauma, and issues of race and income. But in the meantime, these young people need help now - to fill the spaces in between the chaos.
That is what the mission of Lemonade is - to be of service in small moments - with the hope that it will lead to bigger breaths and longer, more peaceful lives. And we will be able to provide even more over the coming years with the help of additional grants, time, and more volunteers.

We speak a lot in yoga about meeting people where they are - in practice and in life. If this message is true in our neighborhood studios and recreation centers and homes, then it is also what we need to do in places where it feels like there is no hope and no future.

The future isn't yesterday. The future isn't tomorrow. The future is actually in this moment and this breath. It is as simple and complicated as that.

"Be here now." - Ram Dass


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