Naming the elephants in the room

By Leela

Through yoga, we try to allow offenders a chance to drop their stories, to still their minds, to be present. It’s a tall order, one which I personally meet with resistance on a daily basis. The reality is, we think. A LOT. ALL THE TIME. How can we help offenders to be here, to be present, to slow their thoughts, whilst at the same time dance with their uncertainty, their fear, their shame, their mind their mind their mind their mind their mind their mind?

Something came to me on Thursday when I was about to teach a group of very new students at the Admissions Centre. Here I am in my clean clothes with my winter socks, a curly haired female with privilege and money and an education and a family who loves me and a car and a house and a belly full of breakfast and and and. I realise that these things, self-stamped or externally stuck, define me. No matter what I am saying or teaching or sharing, they have power.

In this particular class, I could just sense that these new guys where really checking me out, and not just in a male-checking-out-a-female kinda way. “Stop” I said, “look at what your mind is thinking right now. Are you wondering what you are doing here? Are you wondering who I am, what is a white girl doing in Pollsmoor, where does she come from, what does she think she knows about me, what kind of car does she drive?”

Five out of the 26 men immediately smiled, and then they all slowly started nodding and laughing at the truth as to what was happening inside their minds. I then shared that my mind was jabbering too. “What are these guys in here for? Have they killed people? What is it like to commit a crime? Where are their families? Do they know who stole my friends laptop?”

By acknowledging what our thoughts were doing, it was like we then gave them permission to leave. At which point we met as equals. Human beings, with a body and a heart, none of us any the wiser as to what it all means or what we should be doing. We met on a cold concrete floor in a sun-filled hall on the top of a prison building and simply hung out with each other for an hour. I was so lost in the feeling of unity that I don’t really remember much else. I just remember experiencing deep connection and deep knowing. There was a familiarity, a kinship, a returning somehow to something far more real than this fleeting existence.

As Ram Dass says: “Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story rather than the actor in it.” There really aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to give justice to the heart opening experiences we have pretty much every time we enter prison.