November 19, 2019
Teaching in Solitary Confinement
Recently, I was invited to teach yoga in solitary confinement within a maximum security prison.
The inmates refer to this part of the prison complex as “the belly of the beast.”
In this podcast, I share the uplifting story of journeying into the belly of the beast — armed with compassion, wisdom and illumination.
Hope you enjoy this inspiring episode!
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Welcome to Episode No. 40 of the Be Ultimate podcast, Teaching in Solitary Confinement.
Now, if you haven’t heard some of the other podcasts that I’ve done on teaching in prison, I highly, highly recommend that you go check out Episode No. 16, The Path of Redemption, and also, Episode No. 23, How Yoga Inspired a Prison of Hope.
In those podcasts, I share a lot of the background context of really, how I got invited to teach in yoga with my wife, Lauren, and some of these amazing, transformative stories about these inmates in the Maine State Prison that will just blow your mind.
So I just got back from teaching the Ultimate Yogi Retreat at Kripalu, and if you’re unfamiliar, Kripalu is one of these legendary retreat centers located in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Shoutout to anybody and everybody that showed up at this year’s Ultimate Yogi Retreat. It was amazing. It’s hard to explain and to put into words what happens on these yoga retreats, but we had about a weekend of just diving deep into four thematic, epic practices. Some of them being power-yoga practices, but also, on Saturday afternoon, we got to do a three-hour long yen-yoga practice, and you want to talk about getting yoga stoned? You can’t help but be completely stoned when you do three hours of yen-yoga, but it was just so, so special, so so special.
And after the Kripalu retreat, I went to the state of Maine and got to go back to teach at the Maine State Prison, and my wife, Lauren was with me, both at Kripalu and in Maine, and this was our fourth visit there. And every time we go there, we focus on providing continuing education to these men that are inside the prison that are getting certified, and many of them already are certified to teach yoga.
We specialize on specific subjects like advance sequencing or the holistic yoga flow method, philosophy, meditation, mindfulness. This last visit, we focused on pranayama and breath work. I want to thank, always, the people that have invited me and my wife, Lauren to come teach there and that’s Piers and Jess at the Liberation Institute. I’ve said this on other podcasts related to teaching in the prison, but these guys are the real heroes. Piers and Jess are the ones that are there on a regular basis dedicating their time and their energy to really be of service to these men. And we’re brought in and we have been fortunate to get out there a couple of times a year, but those guys are doing the work. They’re the real karma yogis.
Also, want to thank Leida and Sgt. Mike who head up the programming. Every time we go and teach at the prison, these guys are there to help make sure that things run smoothly. And if it wasn’t for them, we also wouldn’t have this opportunity to teach. Lastly, I want to thank and give gratitude to Commissioner Randall Liberty who used to be the warden of the Maine State Prison, but now, he oversees all the correctional facilities in the state of Maine, and a very, very, very special man who’s doing his best to rehabilitate these men so that they transform. He’s very, very dedicated to breaking the brutal cycle of going in prison, and coming out worse than when you go in. He wants people to come out and he wants them to be better. He wants them to be better human beings so that they don’t reoffend, and that they can integrate into our society and be set up for success.
So this last visit was really, really amazing, in the sense that, we usually start the day off with a 90-minute to a two-hour-long yoga practice. And these guys are ready to rock and roll when we come in and teach the class, and they’re strong guys, as you can imagine. So whatever I throw at them pose-wise, sequence-wise, they handle it pretty well. They still struggle. It ain’t easy, but they like the intensity. And so, I love bringing the passion and the strong, intense power-yoga, but also, allowing these guys to really sweat with soul.
After the opening class, we take a short break and then we come back, and we usually have this opening circle. In this particular visit, there were over 20 men that were in the program in the class, and many of them were new faces. Many of them we hadn’t seen before. So we’re going around the circle and some of these new guys are introducing themselves, and they’re talking and sharing their story about how they got into the yoga certification program. And they’re giving gratitude and shouting out their teachers, which are the students that we’ve been providing the teachings to.
So it’s really amazing to see this ripple effect where these guys that we’ve been empowering with these teachings are going off inside the prison, they’re teaching their own classes and what they’re teaching and spreading to a whole, new generation of prison yogis. And then now, these guys are inspired to now get certified themselves. So, now that we’ve been there four times, you can really, really see how it’s spreading and how it’s expanding, and that just brings so much meaning and fulfillment to my soul.
At the end of the day, we were invited to go teach in solitary, which is really what this podcast is about.
I did a social media post, and I talked a little bit about what that experience was like. It was profound to see the reaction to that social media post. People talked about how the post gave them chills. People talked about how the post brought them to tears, that they were so moved. People were really cracked open by the post, and I felt an obligation to share this story through this platform of the Be Ultimate podcast.
Now, along those lines, just to digress for a moment here, when I was at Kripalu, I had lunch with one of my friends, Robert Sturman. Robert is known as one of the most prolific yoga photographers in the industry and in our community. So at the same time I was doing a program at Kripalu, Robert was also there. And we had lunch together, and it was me, Lauren, him and then also, a friend of Robert’s, this woman named, Michelle, who happens to be a police officer in the Boston area. And she was really special because she’s very much into yoga and mindfulness as well, so she’s bringing mindfulness to what she does as a police officer. And we are all kind of sharing our stories, we are talking a little bit about our work in the prisons. Robert has also been in San Quentin Prison. He’s been in a prison outside of Mexico City and he’s been brought in, he’s taken pictures, and he’s documented these visits and shared these stories.
And we are talking about how these stories need to be told. They need to be told, whether it’s through photography or a documentary or through this podcast. These stories need to get out there, right, because when you turn on the news so much of it is negative. So much of what you see is toxic, and it leaves you just feeling hopeless. There’s not enough attention given to these stories of hope, like the one that I’m about to share with you.
At the end of the day, we finished at around 3:30 PM and we had been there seven hours. We started around 8:00 AM, left around 3:30 PM or so, and we were invited to go back to solitary confinement.
Now, out of the four visits that I’ve been to at the Maine State Prison, I’ve gone back to solitary three times, total, now. So this was the third time. And the way that it works is usually, we go back there with two of our students, who are inmates, regular inmates in general population at Maine State Prison, and these two guys I’ve spoken about in other podcasts. One of them is Mike Bailey, who I talked a lot about in the episode called, The Path of Redemption, Episode No. 16. And then, also, we went back there with Abdi, and Abdi is this guy from Somalia and he’s like a poet. He writes us letters, and it’s full of poetry.
Mike Bailey’s amazing as well, in many ways, a lot of the powerful work that’s happened at the Maine State Prison is due to Mike Bailey and his passion for yoga. He’s the one who used to be in solitary confinement, and then he discovered my program, the Ultimate Yogi, and he used that to change his whole, entire life.
So me, Mike Bailey, Abdi, Lauren were escorted back into solitary confinement by this woman named, Leida, and she is an angel. She’s this woman that heads up the programming at the facility. So any special curriculum, she’s in charge of overseeing it.
We went back into solitary, which is known by Mike Bailey and Abdi as, the belly of the beast. You have to go down multiple corridors. You go through multiple checkpoints, and the first time I went back into solitary confinement, it was really, really intense. But now that this was my third time, I actually felt very comfortable and very at peace.
After going through the corridors and checkpoints, we finally get back to the area where solitary confinement is. Now solitary is for the men that are struggling the most. These are men who are not behaving well inside the prison. These are men that are a risk to other people in the general population or a risk to themselves so they have to isolate them, and they don’t refer to this place as solitary. They refer to it as SEG, and SEG stands for segregation. They’re segregated from the general population, which is about a thousand men at Maine State Prison, MSP.
There’s different tiers of solitary confinement. There’s the highest level security, and this is where the men, anytime they’re outside of their cell, are handcuffed at the wrists, the ankles, and they have a chain that connects the hands all the way down to the feet. They have this little, tiny courtyard where they get a little bit of exposure to daylight. Now, from what I’ve seen, the Maine State Prison is doing a really good job of handling these people that are high-security issues, but also, doing their best to help them get better. And I have to applaud them because I know it’s got to be tough to strike that balance of punishing people, and putting them inside time out– or the time out within the time out, the prison within the prison, the belly of the beast. And at the same time, trying to do as good of a job, as they possibly can, of helping these men improve.
So we get back to this area and we’re speaking to one of the COs, the correctional officers, and at this point of the day, the sun has set. It was cold. It’s Maine and it had started raining. We are debating whether to go out into the concrete courtyard or my other option was to leave them in their cells and just teach in the middle of the room. And they would practice yoga and meditation inside of their cells, which didn’t really seem that ideal but given the weather situation, we were a little bit torn.
We talked it over with the CO, talked it over with Mike and Abdi and I said, “You know what, guys, I’m game to go out into the courtyard.”
I actually like this little courtyard in solitary confinement. To me, it’s one of the most peaceful parts of the prison. It’s quiet. Something about it, just, is really ‘still’ out there.
I said, “I don’t care if it’s cold. I don’t care if it’s raining, if the guys that are going to participate in the class are open to it, and they don’t mind getting wet and they don’t mind being cold then let’s go outside.” And Mike and Abdi said, “Trust me, these guys will love to get outside. They’ll love to get out their cells.” So I said, “All right. Let’s do it. Let’s go outside.”
So we go into this little area, the CO opens up the door to the courtyard. As we’re about to go outside, on the wall, are all these really heavy, thick, orange jackets that are for the inmates. And Mike Bailey says, “Hey, Travis, you want one of these? You want one of these orange coats?” And I said, “Yeah. Hook me up, man. I know it’s going to be cold out there.”
We all went outside in the courtyard. And they started to bring out the men, one-by-one, and they put each one in a separate cage. So that’s the deal, when you’re not handcuffed, you have to be locked up inside your cell or the cage. Each of the men went inside their respective cage.
There were three of them me, Mike, Abdi, another guy with us in the courtyard, and then Lauren was over by the exit door. And then the CO peaced out because it was cold and rainy so he went back indoors. And our contact, Leida, also went indoors because it was pouring rain at this point and again, a cold rain.
Interestingly, when the staff went inside and it was just me and the guys and Lauren, we created this kind of lopsided circle, and you couldn’t make it a perfect circle because you had to work within the restrictions of where the cages were placed.
But we managed to create this beautiful circle, and in many of the spiritual wisdom traditions, ceremonies and practices are done in this kind of a way where you are forming a circle. And this is symbolic of the circle of humanity, and how everything is a cycle and a circle. Our breath is a cycle. The turning of the seasons is a cycle. The way that the Earth spins around the sun and the solar system and the galaxies are all turning.
These ancient cultures would often do their ceremonies in that circular position. So we’re in that configuration, and we don’t have yoga mats. We don’t have yoga props. It’s pouring rain. There’s concrete right beneath us. How do you teach a yoga class, given all these obstacles and challenges?
Well, you don’t really have a choice. You just have to do everything standing. So we stood in the mountain pose, tadasana, and I had everybody close their eyes, start to connect to the breathing. And through the energy of focused attention and presence, just inviting everyone to let go of whatever their day had been like. To get so present, to get so still, to get so quiet that some of your identification with your identity and your ego begins to become a little bit more fuzzy and a little bit more blurred. So you become less and less of a prisoner, which is what I really wanted them to feel. I wanted them to have a little bit of time in their day, their week, or month or year where they could feel that sense of spaciousness, of freedom.
After invoking this intention, we move through some standing yoga poses, and it was beautiful. We’re just moving the body slowly almost like a yoga version of Taichi.
The rain’s coming down. It’s dark. It’s cold and we move through these practices, and the guys in the cages were totally present.
We’re all moving together. We’re breathing together.
After about 30 minutes of doing yoga movements, we did alternate nostril breathing as a way to activate both hemispheres of the brain.
This is very important because these men are in such a stressful environment. They’re in survival mode the majority of their time inside the prison. They’re in a chronic state of stress response.
But as we’re doing the yoga, and we start doing alternate nostril breathing, we start to switch on higher functioning areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, the cortex. We start to get out of the survival part of the brain where the amygdala resides, which is the brain’s alarm system that goes on to create the cortisol and the adrenaline that creates the stress cocktail that affects the blood chemistry. We shift the chemistry, all through the practices of yoga and now, the breathing. Then we’re balancing out both hemispheres of the brain. We get more coherence between the right hemisphere of the brain, the left hemisphere of the brain, they’re able to speak to each other in a more efficient, effective way. And this begins to create wholeness and oneness, which is the goal of all yoga.
Yoga is not about down-dog. It’s not about handstands. It’s not about Lululemon stretchy, tight pants. It’s about oneness and wholeness. And we can use the poses, we can use our Lululemon outfits, as a way to support that, but let’s not forget what this practice is all about.
After we did the breathing, we moved into the meditation, which, for me, just thinking about it right now gives me chills and goosebumps. And we started off– we moved through a meditation that has multiple stages, and this is one of the most powerful meditations that I know of.
In fact, I just released this meditation last week, Episode No. 39 called, “An Amazing Day Meditation.”
So we’re all standing and we start off, first, by giving gratitude, and these men are probably thinking quite a bit about being a victim and how bad things are.
What you focus on expands.
Where the attention goes, the energy flows.
So the invitation became, “Let’s focus on what we’re grateful for, even though we’re in prison, even though we’re in solitary confinement. What’s something you can be grateful for, even if it’s just the fact that you have this body right here that’s alive, or the breath that’s coming in and out through the nose or this moment right here where, collectively, we’re in this circle where we’re connected. We’re united.”
Now, we’re in this state of gratitude and the energy really begins to shift. The heart begins to open up. We begin to feel more full, and our cup begins to spill with the river of gratitude.
After that, we did an energetic sweep almost like chigung where you inhale, float the arms up overhead, interlace the fingers, hold the breath in at the top. And then on the exhale, we move the chi. We move the energy, all the way down the torso to the lower belly as a way to purify the energetic field known as the, electromagnetic signature. This is the part of us that we’re made of this frequency of magnetic energy and electricity, and our thoughts and our words and our actions all affect this field.
Now we’re purifying that.
After giving gratitude and purifying the field, we hold the hands out in front of us. There’s a Nadi (energy channel) that runs from the heart, down the arm, through the center of the palm. We hold the hands out, and now, we begin to offer prayers of loving-kindness.
We start with ourselves,
“May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you be at peace.”
Can you imagine, for these guys, the gift of that?
“May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I be at peace,”
…and repeating that over and over again, bringing compassion to yourself. And then spreading that through our circle in the pouring rain. And the rains coming down and imagine, with the rain coming down, we all have our big, heavy, orange jackets on. The hoods are over our head. You can’t see anybody’s face. Everything’s blurred because of the downpour of rain, and you don’t know who the prisoner is. You don’t know who the teacher is. You don’t know who’s in solitary. You don’t know who’s in general population. We’re just all a bunch of people standing, connected, united together with these hoods, these orange jackets like modern-day prison Jedi’s doing the work, doing the practice of yoga and breathwork and now, meditation. And offering loving-kindness to each other, to everybody else in the prison, expanding that through the state of Maine. Expanding that throughout the entire country of the United States. Spreading it out through the North American continent and eventually, spreading it out all the way until it pervaded the whole, entire world.
So while we were in SEG, we sent you loving-kindness. These men, in solitary confinement, sent you prayers,
“May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
And may you be at peace.”.
They sent you blessings. How beautiful is that?!
The last thing that we finished up with was mental rehearsing, envisioning yourself moving through the routines and the rhythms of your day as the best version of yourself.
What would the best version of you do? How would they behave? What words were they choose? What thoughts would they think? What if you were Jesus or Buddha or Mother Teresa or Muhammad or whatever your favorite wisdom figure is? What if that person existed within you, and you behaved like that person?
After all of that, we stood in complete stillness, silence for many, many moments, and you all you could hear was the rain coming down.
I’m flooded, at this point, with bliss, and tears of gratitude coming out of my eyes like, “How did I get so blessed to get invited into this place where most people don’t get to go? How did I end up here? How did I get here? And how did I get to be in this place of just being of service to these men?”
I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Later, when I was talking to Lauren that evening over dinner about it, she said, “You can’t imagine, from my perspective, where I was standing, and I could see you and Mike and Abdi and all the guys. I’ll never forget that image.”
She said she was taking mental pictures nonstop. It was so picturesque.
After practice, I acknowledged each of the men in their respective cages. They have a tiny, little slit where they can slide their hands out to get cuffed. We each shook hands through the slit. All I could do was each one in the eyes and send good vibes. Send blessings. Thank them for being there. Thank them for being open to receive the teachings, and they couldn’t have been more gracious and more grateful. It meant so much to them that somebody would come in there and see them as a human being.
As always, leaving solitary confinement, and then leaving the prison, the person that I am when I walk into the prison complex, and the person that I am when I leave the complex is not the same person.
When you have that kind of experience it really puts everything into perspective. A lot of us, we get wrapped up within the things that just don’t matter. Things that are not important at all, and we sweat the small stuff. You go in there where the stakes are high, and it puts everything into perspective.
Each time, I remember, from those experiences, the theme of shared humanity. When we practice the way that we did, you start to disidentify with your name and your age and your identity and your role in society. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re just all standing there in the same orange coats. We’re all connected on this deeper level, and when you have that experience and when you feel that connection, it’s so immensely powerful.
In my opinion, there’s nothing bigger and there’s nothing greater than that.
“To be an effective agent for peace, you have to seek not only to change the community and the world. What is more difficult is to change yourself before you seek to change others.”
A lot of you are listening and, maybe, you feel called to do something, and yes, you can do something. And I want to address that momentarily, but it starts with you. It starts with you, on a daily basis, getting on your yoga mat, getting on your meditation cushion, and strengthening these benevolent qualities inside of you.
How can you expect the world around you to become more peaceful, positive, and joyful, if you don’t have it within yourself?
So, on a daily basis, do your practices. Do your practices that are going to invoke the very things that you want to see in your external world and the environment around you.
My call to action for you is look within, bring awareness to the parts of you that you’ve turned your back on. The parts of you that, maybe, you’re not even conscious or aware of. The parts of you that are your own solitary confinement within you, and this could be shame or guilt or old, repressed emotions. Things that you haven’t dealt with, and bring light and bring presence and bring compassion to those aspects of you.
Change yourself from the inside out. And then, naturally, that’ll send the ripple effect into the world around you.
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching to mend the part that is within our reach.”
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Again, we don’t want you to feel like you have to fix the whole world, that you have to go out there and save the planet and save the world. A lot of us, maybe, feel that. We feel that level of intensity. We want to fix everything.
Start with yourself. Fix yourself. Take care of yourself. And then, as Nelson Mandela says, as you find that within yourself, then bring that to the people that you share relationships with. Bring that to your family, your significant other, your community members, your children. And then start to find a way to give back, to play a positive role somehow in your community, in the world, no matter how small that might feel. If you can affect one person’s life, mission accomplished. If everybody did that, we’d have a whole, different planet right now.
“Don’t be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Live justly. Love Mercy. And walk humbly now. You’re not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
So you wanting to fix the world is not all on your shoulders. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we need community. We’re all in this together. That’s what this podcast is really, ultimately, about. It’s about being the ultimate version of ourselves, and then bringing that forth into the world.
At the same time, we can’t retreat to the caves of the Himalayan Mountains. We can’t go become a monk or a nun and just renounce our self from the world. On some level, it’s much more effective to be in the world, to be deep in the trenches. We don’t want to turn our eyes to the things that are confronting. And it’s that dance, right, of being aware of what’s going on in the news, but at the same time, not being consumed. So having wise discernment of knowing when you can touch in to know what’s going on, and at the same time, when to retreat, get back to yourself, take care of yourself and do these practices.
Let’s finish with the ultimate prayer.
“May we bring strength where there is weakness.
May we bring courage where there is fear.
May we bring compassion where there is suffering.
And may we bring light where there is darkness.
May we be ultimate.”