Teaching Yoga in Jail: What I’ve Learned

I started teaching yoga to women at Cook County Jail (CCJ) about a year ago, as a volunteer for Yoga for Recovery, a Chicago-based non-profit that has been doing this work for years. The CCJ website lists its average daily population at 9000 detainees – it is one of the largest single site pre-detention facilities in the US. “Pre-detention” means a large number of detainees are not people who have been convicted but rather are awaiting trial. Sometimes the wait is months long or longer.

Yoga for Recovery offers its volunteers a manual on teaching, assistance with paperwork, and a network of teachers who sign up to teach yoga to women detainees about once a month. A different group of detainees comes each week. One of three weekly Yoga For Recovery classes is for detainees who are pregnant or who have recently given birth. I got involved in yoga service a long time ago but hadn’t taught in any detention centers. I was curious about what it’s like to teach in a jail (post forthcoming) and hesitant to take on a regular class myself till I knew. Yoga for Recovery provided exactly what I needed: a chance to teach occasionally in an established program to see what it’s like, but a program that could continue without me if it turned out it wasn’t for me.

Here’s what I have learned:

I can stay cool under challenging circumstances. I mean, in regular life, I manage, but my ability to chill at the jail sometimes surprises me!

I try to work with the same set of “rules” (for myself and my approach) in all my classes… but teaching in a jail is just different.  Mostly, for those I teach at the jail, I am the one yoga instructor. People don’t have other classes, other days, other times, other studios to go – this is it. I sometimes teach classes quite different from classes I would take or, quite honestly, classes I would enjoy. But beyond the yoga poses and breathing practices and breath/movement vinyasa, these classes offer participants an experience. That experience may well be more important than the strictly-speaking “yoga.”
In my public classes, I tell students they have options, and I say that here too… but in a setting where people are incarcerated, and in which many or most times they don’t actually have options, my saying it may not make people feel that they really do.  As a yoga instructor, as a volunteer, as someone who is not also incarcerated, I am in a position of power over them, whether I like that or not, whether I think that’s right or not. I try to be mindful of that in how I approach things with this in mind.
People who have had dramatic experiences, like many who are incarcerated, are strong and have survived those experiences. I aim to teach an inclusive trauma informed yoga class, of course, and to a large extent I believe I do. But my work, or a mistake, will not break them. As meaningful as the classes are to ME (and they are: this is a tremendous way to feel I’m using the skill set I have to be of service to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to yoga and the benefits it entails), and as meaningful as I like to hope the classes are to the women I teach, this is one hour or less of their week. There may not be lots of other activities, but a lot is going on. Loss, anxiety, a whole host of new people and circumstances to acclimate to.
There’s a difference between nervous and friendly laughter, on the one hand, and making-fun-of laughter on the other. Both have come up in yoga classes at the jail. More of the nervous/friendly kind but some of the making-fun kind, and I usually have a sense of which it is. There’s not necessarily a “solution” to stop people from making fun of yoga, but it’s reassuring to know that not all laughter is that kind, and in fact, most of it isn’t.
For detainees who seem to approach things differently than me … I sometimes imagine how they’d respond to different things in my life, in my shoes, and sometimes I think their response would be better than mine.
I grew up very shy. I don’t like to be the center of attention. It can be hard to tell people no diplomatically. I sometimes indirectly undermine myself. Certainly there are incarcerated women like me, and perhaps these aspects of our personalities are connected to the reasons some of us wind up incarcerated, but there are also plenty of women who come across differently – louder, bolder, happy to say no and without any explanation!  I wouldn’t want to trade places and don’t intend to glorify being incarcerated, but I can learn from them too.
The women I teach are not that different from me. It would feel easier to imagine that this group of people is so unique and different from “the rest of us” that “we” could never wind up in their shoes. Most of the time, we could. Perhaps life circumstances set us apart. It’s rare we know all the details of anyone’s life story, but realizing how similar we are can make it harder when we do learn details of people’s lives or involvement in the criminal justice system.
People are, however, different from each other. Stereotypes aren’t true. Detainees are different from each other, and so are staff. I hadn’t thought a lot about staff at CCJ.  I think volunteering in this capacity has given me at least a sliver of insight into what it might be like to work in a detention center, and an appreciation of why it could be a challenging environment to exist in, both as a detainee and as a staff member. It’s not as simple as condemning the system or supporting it wholeheartedly…and that’s it, there’s no clear final answer. This experience makes me question anyone who presents things as if there is.
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