First breath, first words

The prisoner said "I understand now. I wish that I had understood sooner."

The prisoner said "jail is different than the last time I was here.  There is less fighting, the pods are cleaner, everyone - even the guards are calmer."  And now he was different, too.  He was no longer a fighter.

He was a fighter, and had arrived agitated, fresh from a fight.  And ready for another.  He had been in jail before, and was expecting to be in jail again.  But his fellow prisoners encouraged him to breathe.  He was annoyed, and considered fighting them.  He began to, but they said he was only fighting himself, and not winning.  They asked him if he was tired of losing that fight, they asked him if he wanted to learn how to win this fight?

Newborn, he took his first breath in jail. 

He had won this fight.  His first words begged them to teach him more.  They asked if he wanted to be free?

They practiced together the Yoga they had learned from their teachers.  In the yard, in the cold night, stretching and strengthening, mind and body, they trained as their teachers had taught them to, seeking to exceed their teachers.  They cleaned their home and practiced hygiene.  They studied the Bhagavad Gita, and learned the lilas, and heard the Dharma.  They let go of the prayers and rituals of their youth, and so many other old habits: now, with the logic of the Buddha they obtained their freedom - and he found freedom from the pain of withdrawal, never to return to the drugs again.  He found freedom from his aggressive nature.  And discovered a better nature. He understood his duty, and made profound vows to perform this duty.

He won his last fight.  Jail was different now.  He was different now.  He understood this would be his last time in jail. 

Teaching Freedom

Agni (left) and Svaha (right)
Most Americans are habitual lawbreakers.  Whether it is by violating the speed limit and other traffic laws, or in the even more mundane daily habits.  In Jail, it suffices to say, there are numerous people who have been arrested - but not for their first crime.  They are often surprised upon arrest, as they had, by first ignoring it, come to forget the law entirely.

In Jail, some students are also experiencing withdrawal symptoms: from intoxicants like alcohol, nicotine, and numerous drugs, as well as hypnotics, such as television and video games, and countless other substances and inducers.  The behaviors that landed them in jail are frequently related to these "bad habits," though it is more accurate (medically and scientifically speaking) to describe their addictions in terms of disease.  This does not excuse the terrible things done in their illness, both the moment they were finally caught, and leading up to their capture.  But it permits reflection that they became habitual criminals gradually, and breaking both the habit of lawbreaking and treating the disease of addiction may be accomplished simultaneously through Yoga.

The question of choice or free will is not one that consumes a Yogi.  It is logical to presume that a person always intends to choose their benefit, that the benefit of an individual lies in the betterment of their environment and community, and that due to a combination of forces beyond an individual's control and their own ability, there is a limit to the choices an individual may make.  Strengthening mind and body is the path toward permitting an individual to make better "choices." 

Mental control and physical control are both strengthened simultaneously.  By improving mental control of the body, and mental awareness of the body.  In feelling the limits of their strength and understanding, and testing those limits, the Yogi becomes aware of and familiar with Svaha, anthropomorphized as the consort of Agni, who declares "it is sufficient."  Becoming on familiar terms with Svaha, the Yogi cannot help but love Her: She mercifully brings an end to the Tapas, the difficulties, the endurance, the heat of her husband, the sacrifice, the sacrificial fire.  She gently encourages the Yogi to see that their limits can always, incrementally, systematically and gradually, be expanded. 

Who cannot love Svaha?  In growing stronger, and smarter, we have more freedom, more choices! 

Loving Freedom, we must love Svaha.  Loving Svaha, the Yogi comes to embody Agni. 

Agni is endlessly hungry for growth, like the sacrificial fire itself, accepting of whatever is given to them.  The Yogi, in seeking to approach Svaha, finds they cannot do so unless they are always testing their limits.  In worshiping Svaha, they develop habits of strengthening mind and body and learn habitual behavior cannot be avoided by the beginning Yogi, but beneficial habits can be made to replace the harmful habits.  In worshiping Svaha, the Yogi discovers the methods and rituals of sacrifice - and comes to understand the self-sacrifice.  And ultimately the Vedas-sacrifice.

It is only by degrees and gradually forgetting that a person becomes a criminal.  It is only by degrees and gradually, through remembering, that a Yogi embodies Agni, to become worthy of Svaha.  In teaching, it is enough to merely introduce a student to Svaha by teaching about Freedom.

Holding together

Holding the bow and grasping the chakras,

He said

I still don't know much Yoga
But I know I feel much better
And I feel much calmer

His friend said,

I slowed myself down
I slowed down my world
I feel calmer now
I can see for the first time
All my choices before me

He agreed with his friend,

My world is beyond my control
But my reactions to it are not
Seeing clearly for the first time
I can discern the better choice

They said,

We should show the rest 
What we learned today

We are surrounded by friends
There are no enemies here

Friend in agreement with friend
Surrounded by friends
Like hand holding hand
Hand holding foot
Bound together
Holding ourselves together

Warden and ward
Wards learning warding
We all care for each other
To make our home and workplace better

Asanas for Handcuffs, Shackles and Restraint

It is important to share some positions which can be accomplished in handcuffs and shackles.  These restraints are applied before hearings and trials, in transport and at other times when the student will need to remain unemotional and with a clear mind.

Excessive movement in these times of restraint can result in heightened anxiety for the officers in charge of the prisoners. 

Therefore, some of the recommended positions include the various mudras, as well as neck rolls.

But these should serve as the catalyst by which the student remembers their mental exercises, as well.  Beginning with such basic Asanas, the student may hear their breath, their heart, and pay attention to their body in such a way that they become aware of their mind - and then are able to control their mind, to the point of achieving the clarity and calm required of them.

Ironically, the goal of the student is self-restraint, and in achieving this, they will chafe less against the restraints placed upon them by others.

Early release

The prisoner asked, "what is the most difficult pose?"

Yoga not only strengthens the body, but also strengthens the mind, and the will, and the ability to self-control these.  One Asana is particularly suited to strengthening all three, and their control. 

In a physical position which requires strain to hold (such as the Lotus, with eyes forward and back straight, is typically utilized but others are very suitable, or the Tree, standing on one leg with the other bent inward, arms held above the head), first bring attention to the body's discomfort.

With this awareness, control the breath: breathing in, hold the breath for one heart beat, then release.  When ready, breathe and hold for two heart beats, then release.  When ready, three heart beats, release.  When sufficiently ready, hold for ten heart beats, or a long enough time to listen to the heart.  Feel the blood still between beats.  Then release the breath. 

Repeating this breathing and attention to the blood and heart, bring attention to the stomach, its various movements, its numerous solids and liquids, the transformation of food into waste, the utilization of food for strength.  Bring attention to all your organs, your kidneys and bladder too.  Feel your sinuses, notice all the air, liquid and solid in your body.

Perceiving the body, now perceive the mind: in this attention, it has calmed, and is quieted. 

When ready, perceive your perception of the mind: the awareness of awareness, the understanding that you are observing your own thoughts with thought, is the goal. 

When ready, study the mind, and its workings: understand the way emotions cycle, and their biological purposes, and the way they color perception, and consciousness.  This is accomplished by sensing the senses with sense: see the world and understand what light the eye takes in is interpreted by the mind, understood as pleasurable or painful, good or bad, associated with other images, understood to be something.  Listen to the ear with your ears, taste your tongue with your tongue, smell your nose with your nose, and then, touching fingertip to fingertip (whether index to thumb in Dharma Seal, or all fingers to all fingers in Yoni, or in some other position), touch with touch.  Feel your skin with your body's hair.  Understand the way these affect emotion, and the body - the connection between the body and the mind, and the will.  Understand your identity is an emergent property of these. 

When you are ready, understanding the nature of body, mind and will, exert yourself to understand the conditions required for contentment and the means by which to achieve this: you can affect not only your environmental stimulus, but also your reaction to it.  You can change your self.

Having mastered yourself, manifest a better nature, a better Dharma.  Perfect your understanding with the wisdom of discernment to master Siddhi: understand what Dharma is required for the moment's necessity, and achieve it by manifesting an appropriate Artha, and Kama through establishing the conditions for that success. 

This permits you to achieve contentment, the goal of your effort: by sufficiently training in this way, you may sustain contentment a long time, just as you might sustain any difficult pose.  Even here, in your imprisonment.  Being content, even in your imprisonment, you are are released from your distress, freed from your imprisonment.

Even here, in the greater imprisonment of "Samsara."

The power of yoga

I think we all understand the physical benefits of Yoga. The increase in flexibility and endurance, gained strength in the musculature, and an improvement of overall body composition.

Also if you’ve ever practiced Yoga you’ve experienced its relaxation qualities. Permission to rinse off the day, forget the to-do list, the boss, and the bills, and turn your attention to the present moment...and just BE.

But there’s something else about Yoga, something mysterious. It’s when you get into the flow of Vinyasa, or when you are resting in Savasana. You may get a sense that YOU are bigger than your body, that YOU are expansive, and that there are really no limits to YOU outside of your embodiment.

C.S. Lewis said “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul, you have a body”

So in Yoga we send gratitude, compassion, and love to our vehicle, the body. And if you make it your intention, you may just get a glimpse of the truth: that the object cannot be the subject. If you are aware of something, you cannot be that thing that you are aware of.

Understanding that YOU are the awareness or witnessing presence of your mind helps you tame the mind. Then you are able to shine the light of your BEING on what ever it is you are thinking, considering, intending, judging, worrying about, and hoping for...

THAT’S the power of Yoga.

Avoid pillows to become confident of success

In jail, the yogi has few personal choices, but may choose the manner in which they rest. One choice which may be made is to avoid the use of a pillow. This improves not only the strength of the back and neck (gradually over time - there is a period of discomfort when the neck and back are not yet strong), but also improves the self-awareness and self-control of the yogi through the night. Attentive of their position on the bed, aware of their body's discomfort, and growing strength as the discomfort fades over days and weeks, the yogi becomes aware of their mind - and may better take advantage of the opportunity afforded by such awareness to consciously grow.

The yogi who avoids pillows will soon see the benefit of avoiding soft beds. The yogi who avoids soft beds for only a little while never again gains comfort by the mattresses they once used: aware of their back and neck, they understand the cause of their pain the following day, and can discern the difference between the pain of growth, and the pain of injury. No longer afraid of the pain of growing, they are encouraged in their practice. Courageous, they will seek greater and greater challenge; becoming an athlete of the body, mind and especially their heart, they are able to perform the sacrifices fearlessly, and without the need to resort to hope or prayer: they are confident in their success.

The prisoner often finds reason to complain of the hard sleeping conditions of the jail, but soon discovers the austere simplicity of their bed is to their benefit. They can understand why the Buddha prohibited soft beds, soft chairs and pillows.

One in Ten

One was immobilized by the pain in his back.
The second by fear of his anger.
The third by innumerable worries, and loneliness.

Weariness waiting for trial was breaking the fourth,
Boredom grinding down the fifth.
The sixth, seventh and eighth joked in Spanish

In the hope of forgetting
In the hope of forgetting the ninth slept all day.

But the tenth, silent, collected himself like a hero
And striving against himself
Stretched and meditated, confident of his success.

A large class, of ten, noticed this, and learned confidence.

Changing the course of a life

Some inmates are crippled by regret, or despair, believing that it is impossible to change the course of their lives.

A roaring fire, it is true, is difficult to extinguish.  The spark has already been given, and cannot be taken back.  The flames defend their fuel from theft by their tremendous heat.  And when the fire consumes a house, it may burn with sufficient ferocity to consume not only the owner's belongings, but the owner themselves.  As if in some unholy sacrifice, all is taken by such a fire and turned to ash.   There are many such prisoners who are utterly consumed by these flames, burning in a hell of profound suffering.  But such a fire can nevertheless be brought to extinction by smothering it with water - or permitting it to exhaust its fuel.

To discover that these fires are not worth our sacrifice, and are not worth feeding, is to bring an end to them: without more fuel, the fire will exhaust itself.  This is, itself, a profound victory - though it may come at great loss, and time.  But to develop sufficient strength of will to smother the fire, to bury it with a river of cool water, is to convey the very blessings of Shiva from Kailash Mountain ("Water Source Mountain," or "Snowy Mountain") to immediately ease our suffering.  It is possible to change the course of an entire river, and it is easiest to do so when we do so at its headwaters.  How easy is it then to change the course of our lives by seeking, in pilgrimage, our own beginnings?

With our house on fire, we look around and seek water everywhere.  But we find it nowhere.  Desperate for water, our eyes fill with blue mountains; but our frustrated tears are insufficient to extinguish the fire.  Encourage your student to pilgrimage to Kailash, to seek the source of the water they require.  Though their house is burning, and the journey far, their impatience is unwarranted: they will find there is time enough for this Tirtha.

And as the fire is extinguished, they begin to see not only what remains is a very strong foundation, but that it is possible to rebuild - grander than ever before.  All is not lost.  There is no need to become crippled by regret - or despair.  Especially if they have the strength now to rebuild that life.

It is possible for anyone to develop their mind, body and heart sufficiently that they may not only understand the conditions leading to their present distress, but understanding those conditions, bring an end to them.  If it were not possible, there would be no benefit to cultivating either such strength, or understanding. But by cultivating such strength and understanding so many people have brought an end to their suffering, and it may be seen that with increasing strength, and increasing understanding, a person suffers gradually less and less - and so there is a benefit to developing strength, and understanding.  

Not bad, not good

One of our newest jail Yo-G's, Heidi, is a Teacher of Yoga at Grand Junction's Yoga West; her experience this week was definately worth sharing.

Children know that they weren't born to suffer, they demand happiness because they innately know that bliss is their inheritance. As we grow up, we begin to expect suffering more than we expect bliss. I think this is because we are born with free will and are subject to the unconscious free will of others.

Since suffering is not our true nature, we avoid it at all costs. I don't blame people who strive to avoid suffering. We came here to live our purpose and our joy, not to suffer and die. Yoga and other mindfulness practices are healthy ways to rise above suffering, but most people in prison were never taught healthy ways to cope with pain, so they turn to drugs, alcohol, or other illegal activity. Everyone comes equipped with ability to relieve stress and pain, but most people aren't taught how. Tools like Yoga, meditation, daydreaming, walking barefoot, listening to music, settling into the heart center, not taking things personally...taking a break.

Last night, an inmate said "if only I'd known about Yoga before I did drugs...I might not be in here." She said she wanted to try to take Yoga classes when she was released so she wouldn't be tempted by drugs again so easily. Another lady had "buried two daughters" and was desperately looking for healthier ways to cope with her extreme pain.

If one suffers long enough, like most of the inmates have, they can't even fathom that their true nature is bliss. Last night, I told them that self care, and remembering their true nature, will take practice and intention because they've been conditioned through suffering for so long. If they practice mindfulness and self care every day, it may reveal their true nature sooner. I told them, "In any given moment, no matter where you are, you can free yourself from the bondage of thoughts that are not in harmony with your true nature. Once you realize you are not your thoughts, but the Awareness behind your thoughts, you have the power to pick and choose thoughts that are more in alignment with your true nature and discard the thoughts that are not. If a thought causes worry, anxiety, stress, remorse, sadness, hate, fear, or jealousy it is out of alignment with your true nature. If no matter how hard you try, you can't stop thinking out of alignment thoughts, at least know that becoming the Awareness behind those thought is a much different experience than identifying with those thoughts."

One of the main reasons inmates suffer is because they feel like they have no control over their situation, which is true, but they DO have control over what they think about their situation. Instead of labeling the situation as bad, they have the freedom in any given moment to label their situation as something else. If it seems impossible to label a situation as good, they can at least become "neutral" which might help ease their suffering overall.

Business owners needed

Loka Hatha Yoga asks business owners to please support the Jail Yo-G's by providing volunteer or paid employment opportunities to released inmates. If you, or someone you know, is interested, they may contact us at 970 778 2835 or lokahathayoga@gmail.com

Dreaming of Freedom

It is not uncommon for some in the class to need to leave early, so they might defecate or urinate: encouraging the movement of the body, even its internal organs, is part of the practice. However, they are not able to return to the class after leaving it, and so they try to stay as long as they can, developing considerable skills in continence. The small, windowless, concrete room will usually fill with the stink of not only sweat and other bodily odors from the exertion, but of flatulence. In both mental and physical concentration, the discomfort of existence is itself concentrated and magnified by the closeness of the classroom. It is an opportune time to become comfortable with discomfort and displeasure, and to understand the nature of closeness - and friendship.

In meditation, it is far easier to train and strengthen and order the mind and body than to undertake the application of that exertion in Bhavana. This is more true in jail than elsewhere. Unlike prison, where there is a semblance of permanence in the lack of uncertainty regarding a very long sentence, in jail, there is uncertainty and impermanence. Waiting for a hearing, waiting for trial (perhaps to be found innocent, perhaps not), waiting for bail (perhaps to find you've lost your job and are in debt to the bondsman perhaps not), waiting for release after a short sentence - what will you find when you return home? It is difficult to remain present, and the mind will naturally wander into the future and past, anticipating and fretting; Time is more painful in Jail, for all that is certain is that one is out of control.

Few recognize that they were (largely) out of control in their lives at home; few recognize that they did not feel at home when they were not in jail. It is easier to distract ourselves from dissatisfaction outside of jail, and when deprived of our crutches, we will suffer greatly. The one who hungers for delicious food finds their dissatisfaction with meals intolerable, and may even fast. The one who dreams of beautiful mountain lakes on the weekend when their duties at work are over discovers these longings a source of torment - without understanding that they always have been, and will remain so, even after their release.

Bhavana is an advanced form of Yoga; its meaning describes the mastery required for its success: "calling into existence," "cultivating" (in the agricultural sense), "development" (in the industrial sense). Bhava is the manifestation of something as simple as a desired emotional state, as complex as contentment, or as profound as an Avatar. They may manifest these within themselves, or within others. Bhavana combines Jnana, Hatha and Bhakti Yoga, and requires considerable coordination of mind, body and heart. Just as a forest may be planted, tree by tree, to reshape the land over decades - or a forest may be cleared to reveal a crop from rich farmland before the autumn - some Bhavas are accomplished quickly, others more slowly.

Merely to dream of beautiful mountain lakes, or hunger for delicious food, is discontenting - yet for one struck by illness or crippled by disease, such dreams, such discontent, is the critical first step: though we are by nature of our body crippled by instinct into the torments of desire, aversion and ignorance, we must not permit ourselves to become contented by dreams of freedom. To become accomplished in Bhavana, we must become discontent with our contentment - and wake up.

It is difficult when facing the precarious nature of life to stop dreaming, and to wake to the reality of discontentment. But it is possible, through Bhavana. It is even possible to wake another.

Seeing a friend slumbering, would you not gently wake them, and assure them against the startle you have given them? They will wake to terrible pain, and may be overcome by the pain, losing consciousness again. Would you not help them to their feet, and defend them from that deadly oblivion? Upon waking, they will pass urine, and defecate; they will desire to wash the filthy sweat from their skin. They will recognize their need for food, and hungering break their fast. Upon waking, they will see themselves near to other people very like themselves.

Friendship is the beginning, purpose and means of the holy life. By such friendship they will understand their own situation better, the necessity to grow stronger - and the means by which to apply that strength, through Bhavana.

Not a regular zen sitting

One of our newest jail Yo-G's, Robert, is a Student of Zen at Grand Junction's DMZC; his experience in teaching his first class is instructive.

I just got home after my meditation class, and wanted to fill you in. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I had 7 inmates, all respectful and mostly attentive. All participated in their own way.

After class, one particular fellow said, "Wow, yoga yesterday and meditation today. This is great! "

No chanting. Not a 'regular' zen sitting. I gave a brief overview of meditation, discussed some major concepts (awareness vs attention, effort, etc), then presented a simple 4 stage progression to bring us all to the breath. Then, we had 3 short meditation, using the techniques.

My goal was to leave them with a tool they could take away to practice on their own. So, I think the repetitiveness (3 sittings instead of one) might have helped.

The physical environment was just what it was, just right. It might have been difficult in a busy mess hall!

No chanting. Not a 'regular' zen sitting. I gave a brief overview of meditation, discussed some major concepts (awareness vs attention, effort, etc), then presented a simple 4 stage progression to bring us all to the breath. Then, we had 3 short meditation, using the techniques.

My goal was to leave them with a tool they could take away to practice on their own. So, I think the repetitiveness (3 sittings instead of one) might have helped.

The physical environment was just what it was, just right. It might have been difficult in a busy mess hall!

Jail library donation - thank you UCC!

Thanks to UCC Grand Junction for helping us in our book drive for the Jail Library: prisoners would enjoy your donations, too!  Especially paperback, non-fiction - and especially nature books, books about science and technology, business, and skill building.  And if you are interested, you can be a Jail Yo-G too: they can use more volunteers, and we're happy to train.

Heartache

He missed doing yoga with his children and spouse, and hearing them laugh in each pose.  But here, now, he could do the poses, and though he missed them - to the point of weeping he missed them - laugh a little.  And he understood: some families are separated by jail, or war, poverty or any number of disasters.  But other families drift apart, even while sharing the same house in relative prosperity. He understood what love he felt was shared by his children and spouse.  Exercise and stretching make us stronger, but such exertion hurts the next day when we rest; so too do the daily devotions of love strengthen us, and hurt with heartache all the worse when interrupted - even for a short time.  We are, whether in the same room, or far away, lonely and individual beings, yet connected by Brahmic love we share one heart.

Wide eyed

The young man was warned to keep his eyes open, and be aware of danger while he was in Jail. His wide-eyed fear had blinded him to the relative safety and friendship with which he was surrounded; his longing for home, familiar, and safety was agony itself.  Agonized and in distress, it is difficult to open our eyes, to accurately perceive the distinctions between absolute safety and fatal danger, to understand our strength and ability to withstand - and triumph.  Aware of our weakness, we reason (well, too) that we must strike out first, and hard, for we cannot bear to receive the second blow.

It is so difficult to open our eyes and see.  It is much easier to open our third eye, and see our self-inflicted blindness.  Upon hearing the Dharma, his friends understood their duty: prying open the young man's third eye, he sat among them bewildered and complaining like a newborn - for he thought he saw numerous enemies surrounding him, and felt terrible pain welling up inside his heart.  Searching his numerous wounds, his friends pulled out the shards still inside; mistaking this pain for another he had feared, he was terrified to feel!  But then he stopped short of striking back with vicious words and perhaps greater violence: he saw, for the first time, how senseless it is to strike a friend.

And at once trusted his friends to not strike him when he was so weak.  As his friends bound his wounds with salving words, he became at once aware of the fullness of his strength, and for the first time in his life sat quietly.  He could at last hear the Dharma.