|“Ticket-free field house!” the unit officer called out over the loudspeaker. I stepped into the hallway, joining the crowd streaming from the dayroom and bathroom where they had congregated, anticipating the call. We merged into a tentatively shuffling herd of people, bottle-necked as we exited the building, but bursting into an exaggerated speed-walk (running isn’t allowed on the walks) as we emerged from the building, heading towards our one-hour gym time right after eating chow.
I joined up with my yoga partners on the walk, but pulled ahead so I could grab the few mats available before other (hardened, criminal!) yogis grabbed them. We carefully laid out our four mats next to the benches against the wall, and after wiping them down with disinfectant, we removed our shoes and stood toward the front of the mats in “Mountain pose.” Meanwhile, small groups of other prisoners claimed their small spaces in the gym to do their calisthenics and other workouts, all trying to expend some pent-up energy and stay in shape. A basketball game also formed, and teams clad in state-issued orange shorts and t-shirts were quickly chosen. Each of our exercise groups operated independently, but the crowded gym made it almost feel like a carefully orchestrated school of fish zig-zagging through the ocean. At first, it looked like chaos, but if you paid close attention, you could see the underlying symphony of movement.
I carefully concentrated as I held my mountain pose, part of me searching for the inner Zen characteristic in a yoga routine. Walkers strutted past me, just a foot or two from my tranquil pose, and a few runners risked dodging in, out, and around the walkers in the five-foot strip of space between our exercise groups and the full-court basketball game.
“Warrior One,” our self-appointed yoga leader said, trying to maintain a Zen voice in the din of noise flooding the gym. Although I am right next to him, I can barely hear what he is saying, so I watch his moves and mimic them–I’m familiar with the routines by now. We move gracefully (or not, depending on experience) through the moves until we end up in my favorite, and very relaxing position, Child’s pose. As I lay my forehead on the mat, my arms outstretched in front of me (hopefully nobody steps on my fingers) and my rear end sitting on my heels, I am drawn into the world of sound around me.
“Flip, flip, flip,” goes the quick sound of a jump rope on my right. “Phwap, phwap, phwap,” a louder weighted jump rope calls out on my left, authoritatively striking the wooden floor with each revolution. The solid, less-rhythmic beat of the basketball thumps ten feet from my resting head as the team moves across the court towards the basket–“thump…thump, thump.” As the sound of the bouncing basketball shuttles by my head, it is accompanied by the pounding of feet and the “squeakity, squeakity, squeak” of tennis shoes lunging and stopping, twisting and turning with each play. “AHHHHHHHH!” a player shouts, the sound echoing from wall to wall as he celebrates his basket, loudly pounding his chest in a display of primal pride.
We’ve moved into Tree pose now, and with my back to the room I concentrate on a spot on the wall, tuning out the sounds around me, but remaining vigilant at the same time for the sounds of danger heading in my direction. At other prisons I might worry about rogue fights, stabbings, or other violence–I’d never put my head on a mat just feet from such raucous activity–but here, I’m able to relax enough to at least hold the poses, even if I can’t quite relax while I’m doing so.
We move through several more poses, stretching and holding each, long ago giving up trying to hear the quiet instructions given by our leader. I see him moving into Shavasana (“Dead Man’s pose), and I sit up, putting my shoes and and socks back on–I’m on guard duty from stray basketballs and players who chase them while the other yogis stretch out in a final attempt at ending our yoga session in a relaxing, healing pose. It’s not perfect, but it’s another successful session of yoga in prison.
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Author: Bryan Noonan
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