Wisdom From Behind the Bars – An inmate shares his experience discovering Yoga in prison and deals with his Christianity

Self Portrait of an inmate practicing yoga in prison

Problems themselves are the highest opportunity we can ever have. If things go well all the time its the worst thing that can happen. This is because we never question why things are really happening to us as longs as things are good. It takes trouble for us to think about where things are really coming from. Problem or prison pushes us to find out what really drives the world around us. 

If it leads somebody like me to experience yoga (which is creating of awareness and balance in life), discover more about myself and life, wow! It is the best thing that ever could have happened to me.

– John, Inmate and Yoga practitioner 

Yoga, people misinterpret this name. The dictionary also hindered its meaning. It says in the dictionary – A Hindu system of meditation and asceticism. When people read this, they come up with a counter attack. Oh! It is for Hindus. They are Christian. T
hey must not worship idols. They evaluate, this is evil. Their Christian belief forbid this worship, they place judgment before acceptance. Can someone cross a bridge before they come to it? Can we understand before  the experience? This is an illusion and a prison for us. Truth only has to do with experience. If you don’t eat the food, you don’t know the taste. You can only determine how food tastes when you eat the food, else don’t give an account of it!

We forget what our cultures, societies and religions stand for. They are made to protect and nurture human beings (life). We bond to our cultures, societies and religions and fail to know who we are. We fail to know the difference between us and our cultures, societies and religion. The culture, society or religion that criticizes other cultures, societies and religions has destroyed its own purpose. Never before was it about societies, cultures, or religions, it is about human beings, about life and about all creatures, life came first!

When I arrived here at Brandvlei Maximum, it was tough, very tough. Thoughts worried me, I could not sleep. It was like let me just die. My family is in Nigeria, friends and relatives are very far. One day I asked two inmates how they are surviving here? They told me that it was not easy for them too but they are using sleeping tablets so that they are able to sleep. I imagined if I start taking sleeping tablets so that I am able to sleep, what of my 12 years sentence? What then when I will be awake? I divorced the idea!

It was when I read “We are all doing time” that I came back to my breath. I read the prisoners letters there, they were very inspiring, and the exercises – meditation and postures.  What inspired me most was that is said there are things that we can learn here in prison which people outside will not know in 50 years. I was in awe when I read it. It gave me courage to accept this place but I need the angels to guide me. But God told me that he gives me nothing but angels. I looked for the angels, he told me to wait a bit. I waited a few weeks. My angels came… SevaUnite.

In the beginning I used to wake up at 5am and practice a few postures and meditation. I used to spend 10 to 20 minutes every day until I found it interesting, so I decided to include more postures and spend more time in the practice. This meant that I had to wake up earlier. I found it difficult to wake up early. I adjusted my sleeping time in order to wake up early in the morning, because it is the only time I will be able to find space to do the practice. I decided to go to sleep between 8 and 9pm, so that I will be able to wake up at 4am. When I woke up at 4am, I would say my prayers. I used to to spread my blanket on the floor then start the exercises and spend 2 hours every day. I began to feel lazy to exercise, for I asked myself, how long will this exercise last? Every day I have to do this exercise? I told myself that I chose to do this exercise because I need it. I need to know more. I made a decision that I will start with relaxation first on my bed before going to the floor. When I woke up at 4am I usually spent about 30 minutes of relaxation on my bed first, then I would spread my blanket on the floor, start from postures, then meditation and relaxation again. I used to spend one and half hours or more on the floor before my room mates woke up.

I found it difficult to practice all the postures in a module. I split the postures. For example, I split this module 3 into two parts, if I practice the first part today, tomorrow I will practice the other part, and so it goes. I suggest that it is brilliant if you split the postures in each module. A number of inmates or people may find it difficult to practice all the postures. You can split it into three parts, or tell them they can choose any of the postures that suit them and that you suggest for them to start from few postures until they mastered them. For a beginner 5 to 7 postures will be enough for them until they find it interesting. Then they will practice as many as they like. It is like in drawing. I first started with an eye, a nose, a mouth and so on, separately, before I started to draw a complete head.

Yoga fosters the potential of creativity. This is one of the things that made me build an interest in yoga practice. Because I want to know more about myself. I want to be creative, I want to create solutions not causes, I want to be a big thinker, I want to think constructively. Since I exposed myself to yoga practice, I have been thinking big, I have been experiencing freedom, nice sleeping and peace of mind. I am not only serving my sentence, I am also providing solutions for my fellow inmates well-being. How they can have nice sleep and peace of mind. By encouraging them to give yoga a try.  They come to me and tell me that yoga has also been helping them. Some of them can’t even remember the name yoga, they call it that exercise you gave me. I told them you can name it anything you wish, but remember a name can deceive. I have also been giving my family and relatives in Nigeria some yoga practices of which the have been confirming that it is working and that it is healthy. They are happy that I am contributing to their health even thought I am in prison.

albert einsteinWhen I came here I was fascinated with drawing, for I told myself that even if drawing and painting will be what I achieve here, that I will be grateful. I started to draw. Inmates, some of them started discouraging me, told me that I can’t make it. But the tranquility I cultivated from yoga made me not to give up. I used to draw everyday. Today most of those inmates are saying that I am talented.

The same God that said he gave me nothing but angels told me again that he gave nothing but miracles, but not me alone, all of us humans. So yoga approach is for all of us to look inside ourselves, to unfold the manifestation of God.  In Hebrew 11:40, it says that God having provided better things for us which without us, cannot be made perfect, and to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and everything will be added unto you. In Mathew 6:33, when people asked Jesus Christ where to find this kingdom, and in Luke 17:20-21 he told them that the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say here it is, or there it is, because the kingdom of God is within you. Yoga helps us to quiet our minds so that we will experience this kingdom. In Psalm 46:10 he says,”Be still, and know that I am God.” In yoga it is called meditation. In yoga we practice postures we try to discipline our body so that we will take control of it. In Corinthians 6:19 it says, do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, who you have received from God? In Corinthians 3:16, don’t you know that you yourself are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in your midst? Hence in yoga we practice awareness of our body. In Luke 12:39 it says if the owner of the house had known what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  This is where yoga is ultimate. Yoga postures nurture the body, according to our holy bible if we don’t nurture our body (the house) and leave it unprotected, the thief (disease) will enter and destroy it. So our duties is to protect our bodies. We use our breath to nurture our bodies. In Genesis 2:7, it says that the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and then man become a living being.  We are living today because of breath. Breathing exercises our metabolism, a process by which food is built up into living materials and used to supply energy in living organisms. Breathing exercises foster calm in the nervous system. Christianity and Yoga can not be separated . As a driver and bus can not be separated. Every religion practices yoga as long as you breath. Yoga is an awareness, we use names to identify things, identification is an awareness and awareness is yoga. When we know this, we have knowledge.

Life is a mirror. The world around us in only a reflection of who we are. When we look at a mirror, we only see ourselves. Fighting a mirror is like fighting our shadows. When we look into a mirror and we don’t like the spots on our faces, we don’t need to break the mirror while the spots remain on our faces. The world around us are our mirrors, all creatures are our mirrors, that are reflecting us. When we know that there are spots on our face, we only need remove the spots, we don’t need to accuse the mirror for showing us the spots that are on our faces. We know that the work or purpose of a mirror is to reveal what is on our faces and our outlook. If we know  these, we have knowledge and when we do it, we have found wisdom.

I was blacklisted, criticized, and threatened by Christian brother inmates, they said that I am an evil worshiper because I am practicing yoga. That was when I realized that there is no such thing as evil, instead I described evil as when you do what another person or people don’t understand or like. This is my logic, we all agree that there is only one God and which means there is only one evil. I told them the State recognized all of us as evil people (all prisoners), and now you have examined yourselves, found that State was wrong by calling you guys evil people and upon that you guys still have got to labeling another inmate (just like you guys), as a evil worshiper. I reminded them what our bible says, when people were accuse were accusing Jesus Christ for casting out a demon. In Mathew 12:25-26, Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them that every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives our Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? Okay, the State called us dangerous people, evil people, now, we divided into two, who then is evil?  You guys said I am an evil while you guys are not. But State says all prisoners are. So brothers nothing is evil. I understood  that they saw in me what they hate about themselves, that I am their mirror, reflecting themselves. Yoga is a wonderful experience for me. It makes me think and reason. The bigger picture of yoga is for us all to live in harmony in this small planet of ours. This is what God wants from us all, the is our purpose in this life.

On day, one man (an inmate) called me. He told me the Christian brothers we angry with me and they will kill me if I don’t stop this yoga exercise. I told him that they can’t do anything to me, I affirmed to myself  that I would rather die than to listen to them. Now, they have learned and also understand that nothing is the way it is, else everybody would see it the same. The way things are doesn’t come from the thing itself, that means it came from them. I practice yoga because it gives me confidence to read my bible, understand it and gives me a calm state of mind which I use in my drawings. But someone who does not know what is  yoga, starts to judge me, calling me a evil worshiper, well that evil came from him. It doesn’t come from yoga, else I would have seen the same. If I eat vegetables and bread and am satisfied with them but someone who eats meats and bread, starts to criticize me because I don’t eat meat, it doesn’t mean that I am evil. It means the way I choose to live my life, every part, is perfect as long as I believe it to be. When we doubt this we have already created a problem. If someone tells me that whenever he eats four slices of bread he will be satisfied for sometime, I have to believe him. That is the way he chooses. I learned  this yesterday, it came like intuition.

I used to advise  most of my fellow inmates that, South Africa is tough most especially for convicts, even though Government  rehabilitated inmates,  inmates can’t qualify to work in government offices. So inmates need to be creative here in prison. When we go out there, we will not only be self-employed but also create jobs for people and that I strongly believe yoga has more to offer in this process. I am a Christian practicing yoga even and it helps me  understand the bible scriptures. I will advise everybody both inmates and people to give this amazing exercise a try. At least try it even if it is one month, five to ten minutes every day, you will experience what I am saying. Yoga practice can shape your mind, calm your troubled mind. In Mathew 6-22-23  it says the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,  your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. Our eyes are our minds. Yoga helps us to know the difference between our self and our minds. To observe our mind and to use it, by transforming it. In Romans 12:2 it says do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by renewing your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. Our minds can hinder us from our gifts only if we don’t transform it. We create problems and diseases because we are identified to our mind. Yoga helps us to be aware that mind is only an instrument.

I love your inspirational words. More grease to your guys elbow. Extend my love to everyone. Love and peace that has no opposite.

John, Brandvlei Maximum.

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