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Serenity Surfacing - by Will Griffin
Inner Freedom - by Carolyn Reese
Amazing Grace - by Doug Longmore
Bars - No Bar - by Krishnan Venkatraman


Serenity Surfacing Through Prison Yoga
by Will Griffin

An account of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and Inmates, Inner Freedom for the Imprisoned - Prison Yoga Program, Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, LaGrange, KY, USA

Hard surfaces form the boundaries of a life in prison. Concrete walls, halls, floors, and steel doors yield nothing to inmates confined in their spaces. These are men who have made choices that have reduced their lives to hard routine and limited possibilities. They've lost control over their external circumstances. But an opportunity for them to experience being different inside themselves is arriving at the doors of U.S prisons. Indian yoga master Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev is bringing his program for transforming the lives of the incarcerated to prison systems in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. This is the beginning in the U.S. of a program that has seen the hardest of the hard in the harsh Indian prison system become transformed human beings. For the past ten years this remarkable yogi has taken his powerful, concentrated processes to the prisons in South India, and seen the violent become peaceful, the insomniac sleep quietly, the chaotic become calm, and the solitary cells remain empty for the first time in over 130 years. What can yoga offer these tough, life beaten people? Here is some of what happened in a week-long program in the Kentucky prison system during the dog days of summer 2002.

Sadhguru laid the groundwork earlier in the year with a short visit to the staff and inmates in which he introduced himself and his work. This got the attention of many of his listeners and about 50 inmates signed on for the week's work, of all things, doing yoga. This slim man of average height has the charismatic presence to gain the attention of even the most jaded. He has the full bearded face of the long time Indian yogi, his eyes are bright and arresting, and when he speaks, it is with pointed purpose and clarity.

The inmates brought with them the barely controlled chaos that defines the tension between their urges to break out and the tight forces holding them in their places. The site of the program was a large gymnasium with a stone-hard concrete floor. Sadhguru sat quietly in his chair, with only a microphone stand by him. Speaking just loudly enough to be heard he gently, gradually corralled the men with a presentation of questions based in undeniable logic. He brought them into the process by insisting that they participate by answering his questions. And he gave them room to disagree, and express whatever feeling arose within them. If they got angry with him, it was okay, just stand up and shout at him, but then, sit down again and pay attention. It was obvious that there was a mixture of skepticism, hostility, restlessness, boredom, hopefulness, and eagerness in the group. The men ranged from young to old; tough, muscular, rowdy guys to slighter built, wary guys who didn't have much to say; to society a dangerous group of killers, drug dealers, rapists, and thieves. But to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev they are possibilities for being peaceful, joyous human beings.

The process of moving these men from where they were when they showed up to a new place within themselves, involved slowly peeling away layers of entrenched ideas that they held about themselves. When the teacher stated that no one is all good or all bad twenty-four hours a day, one tough young man interrupted to say that he was all bad. The teacher invited the young man to come and sit in front near him. The reluctant man self-consciously came down front, and with everyone's attention on this fellow, the teacher pointed out with gentle good humor that the very act of having the courage and honesty to publicly state that he was all bad showed a good quality within him. The puzzled but rapt look on his face showed that the unraveling of this young man's identity as a bad human being was unmistakably underway. This was an intense, challenging time for the group, and after a long session of talking and pointing out inconsistencies in their thinking, it was time to bring them back into their bodies with an active game. This is part of the gentle process of moving them out of their usual ways of seeing things to have an experience of just being with each other in a fun, unified way. It became obvious to the inmates, too, that the yogi was no lightweight. He was fully, intensely involved in the game, and when he threw the ball, it was with a fiery vigor that was in contrast to his calm exterior. By the end of the game the men had clearly come to respect this strange man and were enlivened and ready to show up the next day to see what would happen.

Responsibility was the next encounter for the inmates. Sadhguru Vasudev introduced them to the idea that responsibility extends beyond the boundaries of their own bodies and minds. If they can be responsive to the world whatever the situation, then they can be alive to themselves and others and see that they have the possibility to choose how to respond to life rather than just reacting to it. This gives them the ability to have every moment be a choice to be a joyous human being. They began the physical aspect of their yoga practice by learning the sun salutation. This twelve-position movement flow takes them through a full body workout, and awakens their energies for meeting the day. After the sun salutation they rested in Savasana, or corpse pose. This simple position of lying on the back with palms open and facing upward was a doorway for them to have, possibly for the first time in their lives, the experience of there being a little distance between who they have thought they were based in past experience and who they really are in the present moment. The quiet that descended on the room was remarkable for its spacious calmness, and it was apparent that these rough men had begun to be transformed by yoga.

The days of the program continued with further logical challenges by Sadhguru, and yogic practices alternating with active games. The inmates went deeper into the power of yoga by learning a simple set of breath practices that, combined with mudras, or hand gestures, and simple sounds made by the practitioner, have the profound power to alter the energy in the body. This enhances each person's ability to be in charge of how his life energies are used in the world. They went from being reluctant, wary, cautious, unsettled men, to being eager and willing players who practically burst into the room in the mornings to get to their mats. With a little more encouragement toward commitment from the master, the inmates quickly became more focused and aware of the great gift they were being offered. By the fifth morning, all assembled quietly and meditatively, waiting for the next level of instruction.

Even with the limitations of time and setting, Sadhguru was able to give these inmates a concentrated and potent set of practices that are simple and easy to incorporate into daily life. It was inspiring to see them confront their resistances, have their ideas challenged daily, and be asked to make their bodies move in ways which were so unaccustomed. They worked hard and experienced quickly the benefits that can come from doing a committed yoga practice.

The final morning saw the group taken through the full set of practices by Sadhguru, and for anyone who saw them on the first day of the program, it was an astonishing and heartening sight to see how they had changed over the week.

Gone was the chaos and disjointedness of individuals hustling to keep their own deal going. These men had become quiet and focused, and cohesion of purpose seemed to be in the air. They were all experiencing something new inside themselves: who they truly are, irrespective of their histories.

The week's program closed with a silent, moving ceremony in which each of the men was invited to come and receive a blessing from Sadhguru. Each one quietly reached out in deep gratitude to take his gift and a full, genuine hug from the man who had given them far more than they could have imagined at the beginning of the journey: a taste of the divine within themselves.

Will Griffin is an Isha Foundation Volunteer from Nashville, Tennessee.

 
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