James Fox: Prison Yoga Project NYC 2011
June 21, 2011
I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since last winter when I first met James Fox and a group of us got acquainted with his experience and why it’s so important. Here is someone that speaks my language: an authentic yogi who knows the value of practical language that can get the message across to anyone. When using absolutes like “anyone”, that most certainly includes incarcerated men in the American prison system who have never experienced yoga. The added benefit here is that there is no dilly-dallying with the yoga that Fox teaches, which happens to be the only yoga there is. If you ever felt like you have been doing yoga for a certain amount of time, or have attended x number of classes but you still don’t quite get it, the lack of gray area in Fox’s approach guarantees you won’t be left in the dark.
To go along with the weekend-long workshop, we received four hand-outs, the first one setting the tone for what was to come. The heading reads, “Do not lose heart…”. By the end of the training, this first sheet of paper held the most significance. I was one of only 6 men attending. It was a packed house, packed with 25 women, some of whom also had experience teaching the incarcerated. There were many questions and many discussions about specifics, and after we used our brains to think it all through exhaustively, we were left with our intuition. When you are alone in a room full of men who operate mainly with a strong connection to the survival instinct, the animal nature of man, the part in direct opposition to the thinking, rational mind, it is your intuition and non-thinking gut feeling that ultimately will prevail in this work.
James Fox was very clear that he does what works for him. Another teacher may have a totally different way of approaching a class, and completely different things may work for different teachers. His way is not the only way, it is his way. Another person may be more successful getting to students through different intuitive action. The lesson is to be yourself, and intuitively do what you think is the best thing within the guidelines of what needs to be done.
One of the brick walls that people questioning what he does in prison constantly beat their heads up against is, “Why do these incarcerated people deserve to be taught yoga?”, and the answer is simple if you become aware of the world in which we live. If you realized that you or one of your friends and family could be incarcerated tomorrow, and that a majority of incarcerated prisoners will be released and in traffic with you, buying groceries with you, at the gym with you, even possibly doing yoga in a class with you, then you’d realize that prison is not some place we send bad people and forget about them forever. Prison is made up of people in our communities, and prisoners are released back into our communities. If you would prefer to have people in your community bringing the prison way of life to your everyday life, then by all means, oppose this work.
From an economic standpoint, more tax dollars go to running prisons than education. Prisons are number one on the list when dividing up state budgets, and paying into this broken system means your children don’t get the education they could get, and increases the likelihood that they will themselves become prisoners under the current system.
Men and women in prison are met with constant resistance. These are human beings that are being told every minute of every day that they are not worthy of being treated fairly. These people go into prison with addictions that continue within prison walls without difficulty. Whatever psychological and emotional issues were present before incarceration are still there and possibly amplified through constant stress and anxiety. If a prisoner has a health issue in prison, it is not going to be cured or treated properly, but most likely will get worse. The person who was in need of rehabilitation before prison becomes a person in greater need of rehabilitation in prison.
Enter Taoist Yoga. Taoist practices seek to exercise the path of least resistance. Tao means “the flow of the universe”, and the goal of Taoist Yoga is to bring the mind and body into harmony for self-healing and spiritual development. After explaining these principles, James Fox took us through two Taoist Yoga sessions over the weekend. The structure of the flow had us access our grounding energy by using the legs and feet primarily in the beginning, and ending with postures focused specifically on the torso and upper extremities. Further balance was infused by mixing yang and yin poses. The yang poses are considered assertive, and strength oriented, exercising muscles and bones, whereas the yin poses are receptive, targeting joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue. The yin poses promote the flow of chi energy to the organs of the body.
Wording is very important in getting to individuals who, although coming in voluntarily, can be turned off very easily if the wrong sentiment is expressed. Phrases like “open your heart” are a no-no, and forget about anything in the realm of “feel the love” or similar phrases a yoga instructor may be caught saying in the free world. Instead, postures that are heart openers are a priority and explained simply and clearly with descriptions like “gently bring your shoulder blades together”.
If you ever thought practicing yoga was difficult, imagine participating in a practice while coping with substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, and the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that come with prison life. Students enter the class coming from the impact of trauma, they are physically over-stimulated and mentally under-stimulated, they are hyper vigilant, and mental imbalances are very common. Knowing these things about your students dictates that the program must be straight and to the point, a fast track to enlightenment. It’s as if there is no time to waste because there is no telling what can happen when they leave you back into the unpredictable world of prison.
The strongest sell James Fox incorporates is the fact that volunteers can walk in to the room and leave prison behind. Once it is realized this is true, no prodding is necessary for students to give it their all. One has to resort to behavioral facades to survive in prison, but these behaviors have no place in James’ yoga class inside the walls of San Quentin. Firm boundaries are drawn and as long as respect in both directions is demonstrated, progress can be made. Outside of the constant noise there is a quiet place that can serve as the highest reference for peace and relaxation, something you can’t find inside a prison. Meditation before and after the asana practice is a must in James’ classes, and the concepts of OM and Namaste are explained clearly and practically, with great success.
The saving philosophical and instructional teachings expressed in Fox’s classes include the ultimate goal of self-realization, the 8 limbs of yoga, and mindfulness as the foundation for practice. Sound heavy? This is emergency room yoga, and I can’t help thinking that Fox’s classes are the perfect model for all classes in America, especially during this time when the yoga boom in the West is all about having a great ass and wearing the trendy outfits that “help” you “do yoga”.
Can a prisoner be self-realized? Let’s rephrase the question, and ask, can someone in prison discover who they truly are? Maybe not among the din of distraction that has to be dealt with, but definitely in a yoga class where spirituality is discovered by connecting the mind, the heart, and the body. I walked away from this workshop understanding that I can be an incarcerated individual at any time in this country, and so can everyone else that attended, Fox included. If a yoga practice is right for you outside of prison, then it is also right for those inside prison, and even more so. Do not lose heart…