The following conversation happened in a re-entry program facility in downtown Newark, New Jersey. This program is a mandatory requirement of probation. Participants have to attend daily groups and complete a host of other mandatory requirements to remain “free.” The bottom line is, most of these people feel as though they left one prison to enter another one.
The room in which I guide yoga and meditation in this facility is a large, windowless, multi-purpose room. The walls are line with tables. Metal chairs are configured in a large circle in the center of the room. During every class, a program counselor sits in with the group to observe, some even participate which I greatly appreciate. Typically, I end up teaching in the center of the circle of chairs. I invite the participants sit in the chairs or lie on yoga mats which they can set up anywhere in the room they prefer. Admittedly, this is the least “yoga-like” situation any self-respecting yogi could imagine. Frankly, I don’t care if they sit, stand, lie on a mat or do a headstand for the duration of the class. As long as they are in the room, I have a chance to connect with them.
I’ve been teaching yoga to this group twice a week for about 2 months. This group is made up of 12-15 men and two women. Up until this conversation, I was struggling with finding a connection with this group. The conversation came at the end of me guiding the group through a body-scan mediation. The idea of the meditation is to help create awareness of the mind/body connection. At the end of the mediation, I asked them to share their experience.
You know the old saying, be careful what you ask for, you might just get it? Yeah, that happened.
Participant (fake name) George: “Lockey, you have to understand something; it’s hard for us to find peace in this place. I mean, we are all forced to be here. If we don’t come here, we go back to jail. So, no offense but, none of us want to be here let alone find peace.”
I watched as nods of agreement quickly traveled around the room. To the dismay of the counselor in the back of the room, I agreed with George. “George, I understand that sometimes life gives you a shit sandwich and you have no choice but to eat it. That said, I am not here to make you “do” anything, nor do I want to. What I am here to do is to help you discover self regulation techniques that I guarantee will support you in getting through this phase of your life as smoothly as possible. As I’ve mentioned many times, I don’t care what put your butts in these chairs. In fact, I don’t want to know why you are here because if I know why, it might bring up my judgements and then I can’t be present with you as an individual which will hinder my ability to effectively do my job.
At this point another participant, (fake name), Blaze interrupted the conversation… “Lockey what about us sitting here listening to a white lady, how do you think that is for us?” This comment was followed by nervous laughter and the vibe of the room quickly shifted from the possibility of an elephant in the room to the reality that I am, in fact, the elephant.
I smiled; “Good point Blaze. Here’s the thing, I would never be arrogant enough to assume I know how that is for you. And, quite frankly, this is not my first rodeo, I gave up apologizing for being a white lady a long time ago.” (This candid admission was met with an eruption of laughter.) When the laughter died down, I continued. “I have absolutely no idea what it must be like for men of color to sit here listening to this white lady talk about connecting the mind and body through the breath. But as you know from me sharing my own history of trauma, I definitely know the value of what I am offering, which is way more important to me. I also understand for me to be effective at my job, I have to give you time sort out your judgments and considerations about all the white ladies you have encountered throughout your life before you and I meeting in this room. Now that we’ve uncovered the elephant in the room, I ask that you consider that being the only white lady in this room literally surrounded by men of color, I too have to sort out and set aside all of my previous experiences with men of color until I can get to interact directly with you.”
The whole room erupted in laughter, a few of the men even applauded. Blaze offered me a huge smile and said; “You alright Lockey.”
Once the room settled down I continued; “I appreciate that you trust me enough to be honest about your feelings. I only come here to offer you what worked for me which is the mind body connection I found useful in my own healing journey. What you do with it is entirely up to you. But I can promise you this, if you at least attempt to make the connection to your breath and bring yourself present in your mind and body, you will experience a positive shift. I don’t know how or when it will occur for you because it will be your experience, but I know it will happen, in fact I guarantee it. And I sincerely hope you test me on it because I love to be right.” We had a little laugh, then I requested permission return to doing my job. Every man in the room gave me permission, even George.