In September of 2018 I volunteered at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, New York, co-guiding yoga for men living in the mental health ward. It was apparent to
me that I would benefit from a training focused specifically on leading yoga in jails and prisons, and that led me to this past weekend’s Liberation Prison Yoga (LPY) training.
In New York a jail is where a person is sent if they cannot afford bail and have not yet been sentenced. Prison is where a person winds up once they have been sentenced. Interestingly, we were told that people in prison, particularly maximum security prisons, know the duration of their sentences and therefore are often more accepting of yoga, participation in which is a choice for them.
That’s me on the first day, almost ready to head out the door and meet my friend Stephanie to attend the training together. Usually I attend trainings on my own and it was especially nice to have a friend and colleague with whom to share the experience and debrief.
LPY is a trauma informed yoga training. According to the American Psychological Association “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” I was disappointed that the training did not include a more comprehensive discussion of trauma (the focus was on sexual trauma), and what happens neurologically as a result of trauma. (The National Institutes of Health provides an in-depth look at traumatic stress: effects on the brain.)
Anneke Lucas, our workshop leader and founder of LPY, shared Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) as a framework for understanding the nature of people and how a person’s system might devolve. Anneke noted that “self-esteem acts as a moral compass” and “in the moment of trauma there is a pause in emotional growth and development.”
While there was not as much as I would have like regarding the physiology and neurology of trauma, Anneke did spend time demystifying power dynamics, which I found quite interesting. She explained that abuse is a trauma-based system where the abuser has the power and the abused comes to love the abuser as a matter of survival. The abused feels a lack of self worth and therefore begins to think the abuser must be okay. For those of us wanting to share a trauma-informed yoga practice, the question becomes how do we share healing?
These are the stages of power dynamics:
- Authority – student projects authority on the teacher, perceiving them as an authority figure in the healing role
- Placating – student tends to placate the teacher
- Humility – teacher needs humility to not accept the praise/placating of the student
- Testing – student moves beyond placating to testing the teacher in their healing role
- No Judgement – as long as the teacher is physically safe then s/he can be non-judgmental of themselves and of the student by not playing the role of the authority figure
- Affirmation – the teacher says something positive and real about the student, thereby flipping the power dynamics around
Ultimately, as Anneke said, this work is all about personal empowerment. Thus, those of us interested in being of use should view this work as serving rather than helping or fixing. The distinction being that serving implies a connection and a sense of being equal, whereas helping suggests a relationship of inequality, and fixing focuses on a part that is broken rather than looking at the whole person. These distinctions called to mind a similar conversation regarding healing versus curing that took place in a recent yoga therapy training I took this past November and December.
Trauma-informed Yoga Practice
The training did provide much practical information about guiding a trauma-informed yoga practice. The second day of the training was especially informative as we broke up into small groups and practiced what a LPY yoga session might be like. We also heard from a LPY teacher who, with grace, heart and humor, shared stories and lessons from her experiences.
The highlights of a trauma-informed yoga practice include:
- bringing conscious awareness in the form of body awareness, fostering of emotional intelligence, and journaling
- inviting language with no commands – “I invite you to…,” providing choice, speaking in first person (I am lifting my arms…) or first person plural (we can bend the front knee…), no Sanskrit
- connecting with the student – mats are in a circle, teacher practices with students and does not walk around, beginning with group discussion, teacher does not present as authority, no sustained silences, teacher checks in often with students, have fun, simple and direct communication
- creating a safe space
- self-acceptance via body-positive language and cueing that the student cannot do anything wrong
- self-care via non-competitiveness, students respect their own limits and choose what to do
- relaxation via meditation
- respect for student by teacher being part of the class rather than the authority
- trust resulting from teacher arriving on time and keeps students informed if s/he will be absent
- mindfulness of one’s inner experience without judgement
- meditation that highlights one’s inner light
- living yoga philosophy by following these guidelines
Our first day concluded with an extensive and passionate discussion about privilege. Privilege comes in many forms, among them age, money, race, sex, religion, citizenship, class, ability, sexual orientation, gender, physical attractiveness and where you live. While these were listed on a handout, the bulk of our group discussion revolved around race, sexual orientation and gender, and a relatively few people dominated the conversation.
Perhaps the best summation of the exploration is the quote that concluded the handout.
Recognizing Privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things you take for granted (if they ever can experience them at all.)
This quote works two ways, in that those of us in positions of privilege need to work much harder to understand those of us not in positions of privilege.
- Belleruth Naparstek – Guided Imagery and Meditation at healthjourneys
- Yoga Service Council
- The New Jim Crow – a book by Michelle Alexander about “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness”
Below is our group photo as posted on Instagram.