Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Richmond City Jail Yoga: Healing and a New Voice

Last Thursday night, April 17, I mentioned to the men of my Richmond City Jail Yoga class that if they find the yoga especially helpful, enjoy writing, and don’t mind being identified, I would be happy to post their opinions.  When occasionally I ask students to write, typically I just tell them to write “whatever you want” — because I want them to write their own message without my influence.

Doug Calder gave me this statement yesterday, and more are on the way.  I teach the men two classes per week; one class is an hour and a half and the other is an hour and 45 minutes.  The chapel can accommodate up to 15 men, with mats an inch apart and the pews upturned and pushed to the wall; usually eight to 15 men attend.  About half the students also practice daily on their tier between classes.  Each tier holds up to 100 men; visualize big steel cages with triple bunks and two-inch thick mattresses, in a very confined space — not an ideal space for yoga, but they find a way to practice.  I constantly remind them that the value lies in the commitment to daily practice, and assure them of the importance of establishing the discipline of dailiness while incarcerated, as the obstacles to the discipline “on the outside” are actually much greater— namely, so much freedom that can easily entail a million “reasons” not to practice.

Although yoga studies are being done, I haven’t seen any studies on the effects of sustained daily practice.  The studies I’ve seen are on the effects of once or twice per week 60-minute classes for six or eight weeks.  The effects of sustained daily practice (in and out of class) are far more remarkable than the effects of simply taking one or two 60-minute classes per week.  Dailiness requires much more discipline, patience, and introspection; and includes much more exercise -- and healing -- than simply attending class once or twice a week.

With the continued beneficence of an anonymous angel, and with the help of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, the fiscal agency of Broome Street Temple, and the wise counsel of my friend and mentor Eddie Stern  — all this made possible by the openminded graciousness of Sheriff Woody facilitated by his Chief of Chaplains, Father Alonzo Pruitt — the Richmond City Jail Ashtanga Yoga program is immensely grateful for just having received a 3-year commitment of further support.

The program has existed for six years.  It is now time to do a serious medical study.  One current student, a 57-year old African American who three years ago suffered a stroke, began taking classes a few months ago.  When he began, he could barely raise his arms over his head and place his palms together on an inhale.  He could barely bend over without losing his balance.  He could not lift either foot off the ground for a full second without help.  Now he moves through the whole practice, with modifications.  He says he received a lot of therapy after his stroke, but that “this yoga is the best therapy I’ve ever received in my whole life, for anything.”

His story soon.  But now, Doug Calder’s statement (typed version below photo):

April 20, 2014

I am 31 years old and was introduced to Ashtanga yoga in the Richmond City Jail, of all places.  After 2 months of incarceration & being clean from drugs, I was encouraged by other members of my tier to participate in the 2 weekly yoga practices.  We all worked out together on the tier, so I expected yoga to just be an extension of our workout routine.

I quickly learned that there was far more to yoga than I originally anticipated; there was meditation and history.  After 4 months of regular practice, I have noticed changes physically, emotionally, as well as, spiritually.  Physically I have increased range of motion, greater balance and better posture than I have ever had in my life.  My morning yoga practices allow me to start the day with noticeable improvements to my general outlook towards life and problem solving abilities.  I find myself coming up w/ solutions that are more creative and effective, when I have practiced earlier that day.  Spiritually yoga has allowed me to be more aware of the world around me and our effect on each other.  I never thought I would find myself practicing any form of meditation, but despite myself, I have come to believe in its positive effect on my sense of peace.  Given my surroundings at the time, it was fairly obvious to me that “what I was doing” wasn’t working for me; and I am grateful that I was openminded & willing enough at the time, to try something new.
Doug Calder

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