Yesterday was an exciting day in the StrongHeart world. After a brief hiatus, in which my partner and I were in Washington for a family wedding, StrongHeart is back in action. I had my first yoga class with a group of women at the halfway house here in Fort Collins, a facility that houses people who are transitioning from prison back in to society, as well as people who have received alternative sentencing for whatever they’ve been convicted of. The women I am teaching are all in a 90-day substance abuse program, and there will be 12 gals in all, though yesterday we started out with six, plus me.
When I got into the room, I was confronted with six rather sullen faces. They greeted me kindly, however, and I got the sense they were only mildly apprehensive of yoga, and of me. I noticed immediately a difference between these women and the guys I teach down at the jail. Aside from the obvious difference in gender, there was a marked difference in physical readiness. The guys down in Boulder have one opportunity to be outdoors, which is recreation time, and they usually spend it playing basketball or doing cross-fit type exercises (as they have no access to weights). Though many of them are wracked with joint issues, muscles stiffness and chronic pain from old injuries, the guys in my class are basically fit and capable within their bodies.
The gals at Midpoint were, as a group, less so. This seemed mostly due to chronic pain, but also to stories they had been telling themselves for years about their bodies. I heard of lot of “I can’ts,” and I spent a good amount of the class encouraging them to change their language from “I can’t” to “Not today.” They liked this, especially after a few of them ended up doing poses they swore up and down they weren’t able to do. “It’s not that you can’t do it,” I told them in so many words, “it’s just that you haven’t done it yet. And if you don’t do it today, there’s always some other time. Try to have the courage to be okay with not doing it today.”
There were a few really amazing “Aha!” moments.
There was the gal with a spinal disorder that almost began crying with joy after getting into downward dog for the first time: “I haven’t stretched…or done anything really…in years and years!” she said. “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
There was another girl, probably the youngest in the group, who emitted cries of glee whenever we moved into a new pose: “This feels so good!” she said during cat-and-cow, as if amazed that her body could feel that good just from stretching and moving. She began asking all sorts of questions, like, what poses would be good to improve her posture? We paused as I demonstrated a couple of simple heart-openers. The whole group tried them and it was like a revelation. I got chills from how excited they were just to be there, in their own bodies, having this experience. I realized in a new way that for many people with a history of substance abuse, there is an inherent discomfort in their own skin, in their own minds, and that they use in order to quell that discomfort. Yoga has the power to offer physical comfort and even a sort of high (from all of the extra oxygen moving through the body due to the different way of breathing) while simultaneously teaching people not to escape their bodies and minds, but to inhabit them fully, with joy.
At the end of our asana practice, before moving into our final relaxation, we did progressive muscular relaxation, tensing and releasing various muscle groups throughout the body to promote even great surrender and more delicious relaxedness during savasana. There were murmurs of delight from almost all the ladies, and this group that was so fidgety during our tune-in and opening meditation did not stir at all during savasana. When we came back up to seated, I sealed the practice with an Om and was delighted to find that all of the women, even the couple that didn’t speak much during the rest of the class, Omed with gusto along with me. After our Om, the gals broke into an enormous round of applause, and I joined in–applause for them, for their bodies, their open minds and hearts, and for this amazing practice that I am blessed to share with such beautiful people.
One of my clients, an amazing woman named Bea, wanted to share her story on the blog, to show people the power that yoga has to help women suffering from trauma and anxiety, and to inspire others to try it for themselves. She is incredibly brave and strong for writing this, let alone sharing it in such a public venue. I want to thank Bea from the center of my heart for her courageousness in trying to help others with pain similar to her own. Here is her story, in her own words [minimal edits made for clarity].
“Let me begin by saying this story is true. It might sound like a horror movie, but it is not. This is what has happened to me and my daughter.
My name is Bea. From the age of 5 to 15, my father sexually, emotionally, mentally and physically abused me. Then, at the age of 16, my dad forced me to marry my first husband because my dad did not want to deal with me anymore. Over the course of my marriage to him we had three kids. I gave my first two children to my godparents because I was too young to take care of them, and my husband at the time had become very abusive towards them and myself. He physically abused them, and abused me in every way imaginable. Then in July of 2006, I found out I was pregnant with our third child. After she was born in March of 2007, he forced me to stay with him. Finally, in January of 2009, I left him and we were legally divorced in January of 2010. I was free, but my daughter still had visitation with him.
My second husband was also abusive to me. We had a baby together but she died 8 days after she was born. I was heartbroken. Then, in January of 2012, I found out that my daughter’s dad, my first husband, had been sexually abusing her. She was four then, she is six now. Like any good parent I made all the appropriate phone calls, trying to get her help.
To deal with our physical and emotional pain, I tried exercising and different therapies to help with our fear and issues, but nothing seemed to be helping. My daughter got angrier and angrier. Than my therapist suggested we try yoga. I thought to myself, ‘How can yoga help us? We have tried everything else.’ I said I’d try it for a month and if it doesn’t help then I’d quit it. Over the course of that month I noticed that we were getting better. My daughter became a loving, kind, caring little girl again. She started sleeping again and eating again. I became less fearful. It also helped my back–I’ve been able to stop taking two pain medications. Also I take the bus everywhere, and before yoga I would have horrible panic attacks on the bus. But when I started yoga it taught me how to breathe through them, and now I can control my breathing and work through my attacks.
We have been doing yoga for about 5 months now and I can’t believe how it has helped us. My daughter is a little girl again. I’m back in school, and I’m not afraid to leave my house anymore, and—most importantly—my relationship with my daughter is awesome again. Yoga has helped me to find the courage and strength to reach for my dreams and goals.”
This story is a couple weeks old, but since it took me so long to get the gumption to start this blog thing, I feel as though I should backtrack a little and fill you lovely folks in. So, here goes:
I drive down to the Boulder County Jail and actually manage to sign in and get back to the guys on time, which is a minor miracle—some days are so busy there that we volunteers can wait for upwards of 20-30 minutes just to get signed in. That’s all part of it, of course, and if there’s one thing my practice has taught me, it’s a degree of patience.
When I get to the block, I ask the deputy to pull the guys who are in my class. One by one they come out of their cells, some looking sleepy, others pumped and ready to go. One man in particular—I’ll just call him M.—is the unofficial head of the group. He has taken yoga for the entire duration of his time in the jail and told me he credits it with “saving his life.” That is, he hasn’t been in any fights or altercations since being locked up, and he attributes this to his practice.
So there’s M., leading the way, and four other men who have been in class consistently for the last few weeks, and I know it’s going to be a great class. The energy is good, and even the two who seem a little sleepy look me in the eye, smile, and ask how I’m doing.
Then the deputy calls another name, one I haven’t heard before. ‘Cool,’ I think. ‘A newcomer.’ A young man in his early twenties, tall and tan and undeniably pissed off, emerges from his cell, cursing someone, apparently the guy who is responsible for signing the prisoners up for classes.
“That n*gga wanna play? I’ma have words with him,” he says with great emphasis. The newcomer is clearly a man who speaks in italics. M. looks on calmly.
“You’ve gotta take four classes bro,” he tells him.
“Yeah,” says the newcomer, becoming slightly subdued in the face of M., “but I’m already taking domestic violence classes, and that n*gga said Italian would count for two, and…” He trails off, realizing his fate is sealed. The deputy is beginning to look as though his patience with the outburst is waning, and the newcomer slowly begins to resign himself to the inevitable: at least for today, he is coming to yoga.
Let me interject to say that I do not like overhearing things like “I’m already taking domestic violence classes.” Don’t get me wrong—I think the classes are great. But I never ask the guys why they are in jail, and I like our practice together to be a time when they just can embrace who they are in that moment with me. I don’t want to be just another person who sees them as their crimes, as what they’ve done, rather than as what they have the potential to be. So I consciously take a moment to detach from what I had heard, so that I can approach this young man with compassion and clear intention.
We get to our classroom, and the guys begin setting up the room like they always do. They hardly let me lift a finger, and I’ve gotten used to it by now, understanding that it is not based on sexism, but on wanting to be useful, to have a duty. As the others set up, I approach the newcomer, who is staring forlornly at the grey mat stretched out before him.
“Hey bud, what’s your name? I ask lightly.
He tells me his name—I’ll just call him A.—and I say, “You don’t want to be here, do you?”
The question seems to take him aback. “No—it’s not—“ he sputters, “it’s just—I’m already taking enough classes.” All the fire has gone from his argument and he looks uncomfortable.
“Hey man, I understand. Everyone has days where they don’t want to be here. Own that. If you want to sit out during certain poses, or just lie down through the class, feel free!”
He looks as though he thinks this is a trick of some sort. “No,” he says, “no, I’m here now. I’ll do it.”
“All right,” I say with a smile. “Do whatever you feel.”
We begin our opening meditation, and I glance at him from the corner of my eye, expecting, I don’t know, at least a little sneer. ‘I’ll be darned,’ I think.
A. is sitting upright, eyes closed. His belly is moving rhythmically with his breath, and as he breathes, I see his shoulders relax. As we move into our asana sequence, I notice that he cats and cows easily with the rest of them, and by the time we start our sun salutations, I notice that he is actually smiling. Whenever I give a cue, or explain a movement, he looks me straight in the eye and nods. I am tickled, but a little baffled. Had his anger just been an act of posturing for the others in the block? He told me has never done yoga, but his down-dog tells me otherwise. Or is he just a natural?
As I watch my mind ponder these questions, I decide to explain why we seem to wave our arms around so much during our sun salutations.
“We bring our arms from the sides,” I inhale, “above our heads, gathering our energy. Then,” I bring my palms together, “we draw it down to the heart to bless it, in a sense, and then,” I press my palms down toward my center, “we bring it here, to store it, so that it is a source of strength and true power rather than,” I flail my hands around, “being all out here, in our hands and in our heads, in our fists and in our egos.”
I glance at A., and he’s smiling and nodding, and I can tell this has struck a chord. I decide to introduce the Ujjayi way of breathing: breathing as if one is fogging a mirror on both the inhale and the exhale, through the nose with the mouth closed. This breath builds heat in the body and strengthens intention in the mind. When we begin practicing our Ujjayi breath together as group, he stops for a moment and says to me,
“I really feel, with this breath, that connection to the center that you keep talking about.” He smiles. I smile. The next week, guess who’s first in line for yoga?
‘Man,’ I think. ‘I love this work.’
Hello all! Welcome to StrongHeart Yoga and Meditation’s very own blog. I remember an uncle of mine telling me I should start a blog back in, oh, say, the late ’90s? He was obviously ahead of the game and I am now way behind it. I held out for good ole (private!) pen and paper for a long time, but I’ve decided it is now time to let everyone get a glimpse of what StrongHeart is all about and what we are doing here in Northern Colorado.
First, a little (I promise) about me. Known to friends and family alike as the gal with many names (Sarah-Sally-Chandra and so forth), I go by Chandra but will answer to pretty much any of the options listed above. I have a bachelor’s degree in religion and magazine journalism from Syracuse University, which I received in the spring of 2009. After graduating, I decided to go out on a limb and move to Colorado, for no reason other than that I love it here. I worked at a sandwich shop and languished for about a year and a half, steeping in post-college apathy and confusion before a difficult and somewhat traumatizing incident of my own led me to realize that, in the words of an amazing woman and guru, Kali Ma, someone out there was living my dream, and it might as well be me.
I signed up for an immersion yoga teacher training that same week. I was terrified. A couple years of running cross-country in junior high and high school without good coaching left me with painful and limiting injuries in my hips and lower back. Sitting cross-legged, my knees still don’t come anywhere near the floor.
‘Who would want to learn yoga from me?’ I thought. ‘Will anyone take me seriously?’ But still—something told me I had to do it. Despite my critical inner monologues, not doing the training actually didn’t seem like an option. I wrote to the directors of the program and got a scholarship for part of the tuition fee and worked off another big portion by weeding and planting in the farm that was to feed us during our stay. The entire experience was incredible, and, as cliché as it might sound, I was truly transformed at the end of the training. That is to say, for the first time in years, I felt like myself.
I began teaching donation yoga right after getting certified, though my intention from the outset was to bring yoga to incarcerated and underserved populations. I bided my time, and began teaching at Old Town Yoga here in Fort Collins, which I love doing, and tried to get as much experience as possible. Then, in August of 2012, I got a fateful email—or was it a Facebook posting?—technology all blends together for me sometimes. It said that James Fox, leader of the Prison Yoga Project, and teacher of prisoners in California’s maximum-security San Quentin State Prison for over 10 years, was coming to Denver to train other teachers in how to bring yoga to prisoners, those suffering with PTSD, and others who can benefit the most from the practice, but who usually don’t have access to it. I immediately registered for the training.
It was life-changing, and I do not say that lightly. Teaching in prisons is, as one might imagine, a totally different ballgame than teaching in private studios, from the types of sequences you plan, to the types of cues and assists you offer, to the way you dress, to the kind of meditations you guide. I wept multiple times throughout the training (those who know me will be unsurprised by this) and came out of it with the feeling that, somehow, the rest of my life had just begun. I’d met a gal there who gave me information on volunteering at the Boulder County Jail, and I knew I was off and running.
It has been nine-ish months since I took the training with James, and I feel as though I have finally found my heart’s true work. I teach one class a week to male inmates at the Boulder County Jail. I still teach two weekly studio classes at OTY, and am in the process of putting together a weekly donation class for women in recovery with the help of an amazing client who has literally changed her entire life through her yoga practice, as well as the life of her six-year-old daughter, who was struggling after being abused by someone who was supposed to love and support her, but their story—or the few parts that might be appropriate to share, anyway—is for another time. I am also in the process of setting up two weekly classes at Midpoint, the halfway-house, or transition facility, here in town: one for the men and one for the women who live there. Most of the work I do is volunteer-based, so I also wait tables at an amazing restaurant in our community to pay the bills—if you know which one it is, come visit, say hi, and grab some delicious, healthy food!
I look forward to sharing my work and words with anyone who wants to read them. Thank you for visiting StrongHeart Yoga and Meditation, and please—stay tuned!
Welome to StrongHeart yoga’s brand spanking new blog! Here I will update you, the brilliant and wonderful yoga community of Fort Collins, Northern Colorado, and the world in general on all the goings-ons here at StrongHeart. We are committed to bringing yoga to those who need it most–men and women recovering from addiction, trauma, and incarceration, as well as people who just need a little more breath and love in their lives. Thank you for visiting!