Brazilian adult education professional Isabelle Tabachi taught Kundalini yoga in women’s prison for six months. Her mission was to help inmates to take care of their mental health. Here she shares her own experience with Elm readers. The text is a column written for issue 3/2017 on Adult Education and Mental Health.
Being physically locked in a prison is one thing, but is there any way adult education could help the inmates to free themselves of their inner prisons?
Trying to find an answer to this question, I decided to volunteer at a women’s prison in Brazil in 2007 as part of my Teacher Training Course at Kundal Yoga, São Paulo.
At the course, we were asked to choose any place we would like to have a first experience of teaching and write a diary for 40 days. I had asked many yoga studios, I had tried to create groups, but I found the doors open, or half open, at a women’s prison. Once I had decided where to teach, I wondered if Kundalini Yoga would bring benefits for their confined lives and who knows, a certain degree of freedom.
A Kundalini Yoga class consists of stretching, a sequence of positions, resting and meditation. Teachers of Kundalini Yoga do not usually do yoga with the students; we give them the instructions orally, so I noticed that the students had a tough time with the exercises and breathing.
Much has been said and researched about the benefits of meditation and relaxation to mental health. For instance, meditation can alter the structure of the brain, increase frontal brain activity, prevent mental illnesses and relaxation can protect the brain from being damaged by stress.
WHAT I LEARNED TEACHING Kundalini Yoga in a women’s prison was that meditation played an important part for them in reducing stress and anxiety.
The women spontaneously shared how they felt after the meditation; in their words, they would “arrive with a head full of things and go away relieved”. They also felt that “external noise was reduced”, “anger went away”, they heard “the sound of sea waves”, had “out of body” experiences and thought about “things from the past”.
For the women, the weekly practice not only made them more relaxed, but also helped them to understand this inner practice of self-awareness. Watching the students, I noticed that they improved their body awareness and enhanced perceptions, especially because the class instructions were given orally. Their experience with meditation and with their own bodies brought relaxation, consequently generating wellbeing.
Surprisingly, they enjoyed the meditations with mantras. In each class, I chose a different mantra in Gurmukhi, a sacred Indian language, for the relaxation and meditation. During the meditation, they listened and chanted Gurmukhi mantras with mudras, hand positions.
HOWEVER, THE CLASSES DID not succeed immediately.
The women and I were being constantly challenged. The first obstacle I encountered was that, although I was told I could volunteer at the prison, there was no space or room available. I therefore suggested we use the parking lot, but that meant that the students would need to leave the prison and sometimes that would not be possible for security reasons. Considering the situation, I suggested I could teach in the inner courtyard (where I was often kept longer than in the classes) on the days when the students were not allowed to go out.
The second obstacle was in the parking lot, where the classes usually took place. The prison guards were constantly screaming at the inmates. The policemen watched the classes and made unpleasant comments about the ladies, calling them “chickens ready to fly” or asking me “do they think they are in a Spa?”. Unfortunately, it seemed that the word ‘rehabilitation’ was still being misunderstood at that institution.
A third obstacle was that, in the beginning, three students just conversed, laughing a lot, chatting, not doing the activities, as if they were not interested in anything, even though they themselves had signed up to the classes. Nobody was obliged to do the classes, which in my opinion was a positive way to start.
Some younger women felt pain in simple positions, such as lifting their arms up. They also felt dizzy and showed resistance, while the older ones did not seem to feel any pain, or just did not express it.
THESE CHALLENGES also made me realize the importance of my daily practice of yoga and meditation. My personal practice was essential for awareness of the present and for giving me the strength to deal with everyday stress. After all, the purpose of yoga is to control the mind.
I think that, prison institutions can help inmates take care of their mental health by implementing activities to enhance body awareness, relax, and teach breathing techniques or meditation, which are good tools to ensure good health.
The same training should be offered to workers, prison guards and police officers.
I was very enthusiastic to teach in a prison and I accepted all the challenges that came with it.
Not all the results can be measured, but I have to say that it was very rewarding to hear that “yoga is great for my head”.