The Yoga Prison Project: Lessons on Both Sides of the Bars

view into prison cell from outsideI like to volunteer—it’s a way to give back, and frankly, I think I get more than I give. I’ve done many different kinds of things: baked brownies for the homeless, taught chair yoga to senior citizens, supervised psychoanalysts in training—in China—by Skype. This summer I joined a gardening group to help beautify my community. Gardening was hands down the most fun, but whatever you do, remember that if you take care of somebody else, you’ll take care of yourself, too.

Right now I’m part of the Integral Yoga Prison Project, where we teach Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient science of the mind which discusses ethics, meditation, compassion, human relations, and much else. We correspond by regular mail with someone who is in jail. The man I’m teaching is in federal prison for assault.

Teaching is the best way to learn, so I thought studying the Yoga Sutras with someone else would benefit me, too—but I was thinking of the intellectual advantages of study; I hadn’t given much thought to how I would react emotionally when working with a convict. That all changed when I got my first letter from Michael.

Michael has ulterior motives—his participation in the project will probably look great to his parole board. He is an intelligent man who needs to keep his mind occupied, and it makes sense to use his intellectual gifts and curiosity as a motor speeding his release from prison. I hope our studies contribute to his emotional and intellectual development as well as his rehabilitation.

I have other, less positive feelings, too. When I read his letter about his personal history, something he wrote made me wonder if he was a neo-Nazi; at first I wanted to send his letter back and have nothing more to do with him. I know something about violence and Nazis, and I was very scared, angry, and feeling vengeful, too. Most of my husband’s family was killed in Europe by the Nazis before my husband was born. When he grew up, he had no grandparents, only one cousin, and a single aunt and uncle. His family could have celebrated holidays in a telephone booth. I wanted to stay as far away from Michael as I could. Maybe this project wasn’t for me, and I considered giving it up before it had really started. Why was I helping someone who might be the enemy? Some people might even think I was a traitor.

Parts of the Sutras include very good and concrete advice about living an aware, compassionate, and contemplative life, which is my personal goal. Was refusing to work with Michael a way to accomplish this? What kind of yoga lesson was that, for either of us? And my psychotherapist’s superego agreed with the Sutras—escape was faint-hearted and unethical. How can I teach the Yoga Sutras, or work with people who have problems, if I’m too cowardly to take an honest look at myself? This doesn’t imply necessarily having to work with Michael, though—both yogis and psychologists agree that people are not always suited to one another. Maybe someone else would do a better job.

I sat with my feelings for more than a few days. That’s pretty yogic and psychotherapeutic, too—acknowledging and understanding your feelings, living with them, and trying not to react automatically. I talked to my family and close friends. I meditated. I read and re-read Michael’s letter and his questions and answers about the Yoga Sutras. I decided to give Michael a chance; after all, I didn’t know for sure that he was a neo-Nazi.

When I wrote back, I asked him to think more about some of his responses and write about them again. He did. He also wrote that he was a neo-Nazi and had beaten up some of what he called “my people.” I had a lot to think about.

Once, when I was in the supermarket with my then-12-year-old son, David, who was wearing a yarmulke, a man spewed his nasty feelings about Jews in general and about David in particular. He listed the dirty, cruel things he would like to do to David, in detail. He spoke his filthy invective in Spanish, which he assumed I didn’t understand—but I did. I speak Spanish. Fluently. And I told him off in Spanish, fluently. I thought he would be embarrassed, but instead he turned on me and looked like he was ready to hit me.

I wanted to rip his face off, and I thought I could take him, or at least that I had a chance to mess him up—after all, surprise was on my side; he clearly expected me to cower and withdraw. He was little. I am, too, but bigger than he was. Then I stopped to wonder if he might have a knife, and I changed my mind. I remembered that the last time I threw a punch, play fighting when I was a young teenager, I was immediately knocked to the ground by a kid who knew how to fight, who knew how to kick my legs out from under me.

By this time the supermarket manager appeared and told the little, bullying punk not to bother the customers. I paid for my groceries and left the store, David in tow, asking what was going on. I told him. I told him I wanted to mash the guy’s face and I was still angry, but that it’s usually better not to get into fist fights. I looked all around to see if the punk was lurking anywhere, waiting to get me, and felt relieved when we got to our apartment and I closed and locked the door. I was scared.

I admire pacifism and I prefer nonviolent encounters, but between you and me, let’s be honest—I chose not to fight the guy because I knew I would lose, not because I’m a pacifist. My feelings were clear: If I thought I could win, I would have beaten him up and run over his body with my loaded shopping cart.

Michael’s violent history reminded me of this story, of my own savagery, and of my own goals and ideals. We both have a lot to learn.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT, Object Relations Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • crystal

    September 19th, 2013 at 3:49 AM

    I appreciate so much your candid honesty.
    I really think that there are times when people get kind of turned off by some writers because we think that they can’t relate to us, that you have moved so far past these feelings that most of us still have. We try not to have these ugly feelings about others but there are times when they come up and almost nothing that you can do can take them away.
    You seem like the kind of person who would always find a way to keep those in check, and for the most part in this situation you did, but thanks for letting us see that you are human too and that sometimes these base emotions still come out.
    Vut what it is all about is how you then choose to react upon them. We are all going to feel something, but what we choose to do with those feelings is the true mark and emasure of who and what we are.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 19th, 2013 at 8:28 AM

    Thanks, Crystal,
    You’ve got it exactly right, and I am grateful for your letter. We all have a range of emotions, and they are not all sweetness and light–it’s what we do with them that counts, exactly as you said.

  • Shelly

    September 19th, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    I commend you for wanting to teach the yoga sutras to prisoners. I think it’s a brilliant idea! I understand your anger towards both men you have describe here. I would encourage you to go ahead and give it a try with Michael because from a yogic prospective this sound like a golden opportunity to deepen your own practice as well as maybe help Michael. Remember everyone who stands before us is a teacher and I believe karma has brought you two together for a reason. Don’t give up! Yoga teaches us that we are not our bodies or our minds we are something much greater. The neo-nazi stuff is a part of Michael’s mind, his programming, see beneath that if you can and see that he is a soul underneath all the muck. Your reaction to it is of your mind also and opportunity for you to work to still those ripples in the pool and go deeper. I know it’s not easy!!! I’ve been practicing the sutras for 10 years now and I can say it has made a huge difference in my life! More than words can describe. I’m an adult child of an alcoholic father and a codependent mother both of which had serious anger issues. I no longer carry anger towards them or about my childhood. Yoga hasn’t been my only path for healing but I think over time it has helped me make the most progress. Ahimsa is the sutra I keep going back to over and over again, inflicting no injury or harm to others or even to one’s own self. Anger for example is harmful to ones self and to others. Over and over again when people or situations push my buttons I tell myself “respond not react”. It was really hard to override that automatic reaction at first but I’m pretty good at it now. This is good from a psychological perspective too because you have to go deeper to see what the root cause of the anger is especially if your need to appropriately communicate your feels without being harmful to the other person. I’ve seen yoga heal some pretty dark and destructive people where everything else failed. Sorry this is a bit long and a bit of a ramble but seriously yoga is hard work but it offers unimaginable rewards if you keep at it and keep moving a little deeper.

  • Ben

    September 20th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    This must be a tough population to work with because you never know their past, you never can truly tell if you are being conned, and you want to try to help without failing to be true to yourself too.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 20th, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    Wow, Ben, that is so right. It’s a balancing act.
    Thanks for spelling it out.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 20th, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    Hi Shelly,
    Hari Om!
    I can see that we have a lot in common, and I feel happy reading your lovely understanding, encouraging remarks. I totally agree that this is a deep learning experience for me.
    Learning “respond, not react,” as you say, is a hard lesson— lucky I keep getting it over and over.

  • jayden

    September 23rd, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    Isn’t it funny when you go into something like this expecting that you will be the one doing all the teaching and others will be taking from you, but then you get into them and you find that you learn sometimes far more than what they could be getting from you?
    I have been in situations like that before too and you think that you are going to be on one end of the equation but then you find yourself on the other and it feels kind of strange, like this is not what you signed up for. But in those cases you just have to try to take away as much as you are giving because it is those little lessons that then allows you to be more open for the next person that you encounter.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    September 24th, 2013 at 6:17 PM

    HEy Jayden-
    That’s the joy of it, you got it, what you get is not always what you signed up for. Love those “little lessons.”
    Take care,

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