I recently had the opportunity to teach Hatha & Laughter Yoga to some women in a high security prison.  I was so excited when I first received the news that the session was going ahead, but at the same time I was completely full of nerves.  I’ve never worked with offenders before let alone been inside a prison!

Immediately, my mind was racing; what would these women think of me?  Was I so different from them that they wouldn’t take me seriously, or take in what I had to offer? How would they receive the laughter yoga part of the session? What if they didn’t listen, or worse still, laugh! What if they thought that yoga in general was weird and would want nothing to do with it?

In Hatha Yoga we call this situation ‘chitta’ (the mind stuff).  My mind was in turmoil because I had let it run wild!  After a few deep breaths and some quiet contemplation, I was back on track and able to look at the session as an opportunity to share my love of yoga, with some women who could perhaps really benefit from its healing wonders.
The women I would be working with were part of a 10 week therapeutic workshop that had been developed to help confront and overcome past experiences of domestic violence, as around 80% of women in custody have experienced this kind of trauma. I was to visit them on their final session of the course, and I hoped that by bringing the gift of yoga into their lives, even for just an hour, they could receive a glimpse of what it feels like to re-connect to a peaceful state of mind and to re-discover a safe space within themselves.

The session I designed for the women was to include some traditional Hatha yogic techniques, consisting of some pranayama (breath work) and asana (posture) to centre us and draw our awareness inward, as well as some Laughter Yoga techniques to help connect us with our inner joy and playful spirit. I was all set to go.

When I entered the prison I was presented with a number of security protocols similar to that of an airport, although today I was not going to be taken on an adventure to some far away, luxurious location.  That’s right, security protocols like an airport, but with the addition of being given a duress alarm. No need for one of those in an airport!  This duress alarm was conveniently attached to a clip-on lanyard; just in case a dangerous event may occur (I’ll come back to this later).  I was then escorted to the building where the session was to take place.

The women seemed curious about our approaching time together, yet they also seemed a little daunted by the idea of practicing yoga.  Watching their reaction to the situation really made me reflect upon my own journey of yoga.  I remember when I first established a yoga practice and regularly thought “I can’t do it”, “I’m not good enough” or wondered “am I doing it right?” Yoga created a safe space for me to observe these thoughts and to accept this was how my practice was, and that it was perfectly fine! Yoga taught me to have more trust in myself.

As we all moved in and out of the yoga poses with an attitude of curiosity, similar to that of a small child’s sense of discovery, I could see the women getting more and more connected with their body.  It’s amazing how just a few simple yoga techniques can have such a profound effect on how we feel physically, emotionally and energetically.
Part way through the session, we were all practicing a simplified version of Surya Namaskara A (sun salute).  Right in the moment that we were in Bhujangasana (cobra pose) the duress alarm got stuck under my chest and the pin pulled out as I lifted my upper body off the mat. Immediately, the alarm screeched. In a panic, I hurried to put the pin back in whilst feeling a little flustered and embarrassed.  The women looked at me, confused about what had happened, and kindly told me that I didn’t have to wear the duress alarm while demonstrating yoga with them if it was in the way.  Although, jokingly, they said “you will probably feel safer with it on!” Their humour and light heartedness made me feel at ease and really challenged my previous judgement that they wouldn’t take me seriously; they hadn’t, but they also hadn’t taken themselves seriously either! It reminded me that the session wasn’t about being serious; it was about using yoga as a way to promote health, happiness and unity.

prisonFollowing a laughter meditation, we sat on the floor together and reflected on what we had learnt from the time we had shared.  A moment was taken to look at what it is that brings us to a state of stress, anxiety, discomfort and fear and then also what make us feel whole again, safe and worthy.  What could we do to bring this into a state of balance?  We looked at ways in which we could draw in practical techniques from our session and use them in everyday life.  Just a few simple breathing techniques, mindful meditation and cultivating a sense of joy and playfulness, has the potential to shift our perspective on a situation.

It really got me thinking about what yoga means to me and why I choose to get on my mat each day.  In my experience, yoga is a state of mind.  All of the yogic techniques that we practice are simply a pathway to this state of mind, a chance to get re-acquainted and re-connected. It’s that safe space that we create within ourselves, a space we can retreat to when we feel unsettled or fearful.  It is a space of nourishment and fulfilment where we can learn to be comfortable in our own skin. In a more traditional sense, yoga means ‘to yoke’, to join, to harness, to unite and to bring together.

I felt blessed to observe how traditional yoga and laughter yoga can create such a safe space for all student s (and teachers!) to challenge their own ideas of themselves. Challenge who they think they are, what they are capable of and how their past or stories (chitta) can affect how they are in the present moment.  Yoga never fails to present an opportunity to challenge these ideas. What did I learn from the session?  When we are in a state of ‘yoga’, it doesn’t matter who we are, what right or wrong decisions we have made, where we come from or where we are going.  We are all the same. Yoga brings people together.  Yoga encourages an inward journey, learning to be honest and to take responsibility for how we choose to live the present moment.

Written by Erika Newberry

Erika is a Hatha Yoga teacher and Laughter Yoga facilitator, she teaches regularly at Kundalini House.

Visit Erika’s website Change With Yoga