It seems that I have always been a bleeding heart.
I was the kid that would constantly bring in wounded animals. I would befriend the kids who were bullied. I always felt bad for the people who were down and out and on the fringe of society. From a young age, I even remember feeling compassion for criminals.
Somehow, I was always able to look at someone that society labeled as bad and I could see their humanity. I could see the spark of goodness that I believe resides deep inside every human spirit, even if dormant.
I could see the story, the childhood trauma, the internal pain and suffering, the deep wounds that might have led a criminal to make the wrong choices in their lives. I could see all of that and I could feel empathy.
And let me be very clear — in no way does my compassion excuse the crime, or take away the pain and suffering of the victims of such crimes. Those affected souls are on their own deep journeys of trying to make sense out of madness, of trying to find their own healing, their own peace from suffering.
When I stepped into my own healing path in my early 30s, and in the process discovered Yoga, I found that my capacity for empathy, understanding and compassion expanded beyond all imagination.
This was from a series of photos taken at the infamous San Quentin State Prison, the home to some of the most notorious criminals in history, the site of California’s only Death Row for male inmates, and the subject of countless movies and documentaries.
Having experienced firsthand the power of Yoga to transform lives, I immediately knew that I wanted to support this project.
Fast forward several years… since I first saw Robert’s photos, Yoga and synchronicity have allowed his path to cross my own. When Robert recently asked me to join him at San Quentin to write a story about the Prison Yoga Project, I knew in an instant that this was something I had to do.
I had to witness and experience these hardened criminals moving through a Yoga practice, working through their own internal pain, suffering and guilt, stepping deeply into their own spiritual healing journeys. I had to tell this story.
The Project’s mission and curriculum are rooted in the knowledge that “most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma, chronic interpersonal trauma experienced early in life such as poverty, hunger, abandonment, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime — including murder.
We call this “original pain.” Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in prison, where they experience even more trauma.” (prisonyoga.org)
The objective of Prison Yoga Project “is to provide prisoners with mindfulness tools to draw on from their Yoga practice when they’re not doing Yoga.
If they’re tangled in a confrontation on the yard, or upon release, or tempted to go back to using, they can draw on what they have learned from Yoga for practical solutions. They can do it without actually having to do a Yoga pose to get the value.
That’s the transformational, rehabilitative value of Yoga.” (prisonyoga.org)
The day came to visit San Quentin. As I walked through the series of heavy iron gates and heard the loud clangs as they locked shut behind us, I thought about the myriad types of criminals that I would be meeting: perhaps bank robbers, drug dealers, perpetrators of assault, rapists, even murderers.
I was struck by the surreal nature of the experience that was about to unfold. Never in a million years did I think that I would be stepping inside the walls of one of the most notorious prisons in the United States.
As we descended into the prison yard, historically the sight of many brawls and violent incidents, to my surprise, the scene was rather peaceful. All of the prisoners, clad in their blue prison garb, were sitting quietly on the grass, along the road or on metal tables.
They greeted us with friendly hellos as we walked by. This was not what I had expected to see. Shortly thereafter we discovered that the yard was on alert. Because there had been some kind of incident in the prison, all of the prisoners had to stay in their place and sit still until the alert was lifted.
I was quickly reminded of where I was, of how common violent confrontations are in prison life — once again highlighting the value and importance of a Yoga and mindfulness practice inside the walls of a prison.
We walked into the room where the first Yoga class would take place, this class part of the Veterans Healing Veterans From the Inside Out Project. In walked 15 prisoners, all military veterans, men of all different ages and races.
Imagine that all of these men at one time selflessly served our country as members of the armed forces. How can we reconcile that they’ve ended up here?
I recalled a previous conversation with James, in which he told me about the staggering numbers of prisoners that are veterans who suffered from PTSD as a result of their military service.
In 2008, the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) National GAINS Center reported that of the 1.6 million inmates in state and federal prisons, close to 10% are veterans.
Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment. Imagine for a moment that a soldier comes home from military service, deeply traumatized by the horrors of war. Now imagine that this same soldier is back in society, tormented by nightmares, haunted by horrific memories.
One day this soldier finds (him/her)self in a tense confrontation, and the experiences of combat are triggered and he or she loses control. So often it is exactly this type of scenario that lands an otherwise American hero in a life of imprisonment. How can that be anything but tragic?
The class begins with the prisoners seated in meditation. As I look at the words CDCR Prisoner imprinted on their pants, I see not only prisoners, but I also see fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, grandfathers.
I see older, gray-haired men, and all I can think is that if I saw these men on the street they would look like any other grandfather. And yet one wrong choice, one singular out-of-control moment, changed the course of their lives forever.
Instead of holding their grandchildren, they are here, behind these thick walls, in their small cells, for decades if not for a lifetime. How does one make peace with that? How does one not replay the offending moment over and over in his head?
James begins to lead the prisoners through their practice. He reminds the class, “A sun salutation is part of our purification, of letting go. Take the opportunity to download some stuff you’ve been holding on to. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go.”
As I listen to their breathing, I wonder what is coming up for these men. Are they thinking about their crimes and their victims? Are they thinking about their lives lost? Or are they thinking about the jerk from the chow hall that tried to pick a fight with them?
As the men move through their poses, my eyes fall on a fit Asian man to my left. I can see the ripple of his muscles under his worn tank top. He is covered with tattoos. On the back of his shoulder I see a drawing of an older man and woman who appear to be Caucasian.
They look like Norman Rockwell’s version of grandparents. “Were those his victims?” I wonder. It is clear that his tattoos tell a story. I wonder what pieces of that story are playing through his mind as he moves through his Yoga poses.
I survey the room, wondering who I will interview after the class.
My eyes become locked on a Latino man right in front of me. I recognize in him someone who is very serious about his Yoga practice, someone who, to my eyes, appears to be doing the hard internal work. I speak with him after class. His name is Robert. I ask him about the reasons for his imprisonment.
He answers openly, “I committed a murder in 1988. I was 18 years old when I committed my crime.” He then told me that he’s been in prison for 26 years and has a sentence of 36 years to life. He is only 45 years old.
My heart skips a beat. I try to imagine what it must feel like to be him, what chain of events led to that fateful day when he committed his crime, being barely an adult at the tender age of 18.
I ponder the gravity of how that single moment took away a life and altered his life and those of the victim’s loved ones, for a lifetime. A single moment in time. Lives forever changed. No turning back. Unfathomable.
Robert shares with me that he’s been practicing Yoga for seven years, roughly the same span of my own Yoga practice. I contemplate the parallel and I think about my own darkness and the profound healing that my Yoga practice has brought to me.
And I am dumbfounded to ponder that I don’t even know the meaning of darkness in relation to his own or that of his victim’s loved ones. I ask Robert how his Yoga practice has helped him to cope with these painful events in his life.
He answers, “Yoga has helped me a lot spiritually. It has made me mentally stable. It has given me a different understanding of who I am and how I connect with the world.” I ask him how he feels now about his crime, and with sad eyes and a heavy heart, he responds, “Sad, sad, very sad. I hurt a lot of people, including myself.”
There really are no words. I try to wrap my head around the thought of having taken someone’s life, of having destroyed so many lives and of having to spend a lifetime with that guilt. It is impossible for me to imagine how he must feel. I cannot walk for a moment in his shoes.
In that moment, the Yogi, the bleeding heart, in me feels immense compassion for him, for like me, I believe that he too is a spiritual being with goodness inside of him. And I fully understand why he is so serious about his Yoga practice.
Robert may have a lifetime of work ahead of him, of working through deep, resounding pain and unfathomable guilt. But he is doing the work and I honor him for that. I quietly wish him peace along his journey of inner transformation and I wish the same for the loved ones of his victim.
By the afternoon, I have observed two different Yoga classes with close to 30 inmates from all walks of life, imprisoned for a series of different crimes. I interview several different men, asking them how their Yoga practices have impacted their lives.
Ron, a good-looking, strapping guy, is the founder of the Veterans Healing Veterans From the Inside Out program and he tells me that he’s been in prison for 18 years (of a 25-life sentence) for attempted murder.
Having served as a Marine for 10 years, Ron is a veteran of the first Gulf War and was diagnosed with PTSD. He tells me that his PTSD has dissipated almost completely since Yoga was brought into the program.
With just a mat and a block, he practices Yoga for an hour every day in his cell, this, a man with multiple gun-shot wounds and injuries from a broken back.
He tells me, “I am rated at 100% disability by the VA. Quite literally for me, if I didn’t do the Yoga in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to walk. When I first started Yoga with James, they had prescribed me 60mg of morphine a day for the pain. I was able to completely stop taking the morphine because of the Yoga.”
Hollis (Gary Valentino Hollis) has been in prison for 19 years for attempted murder, with one year remaining on his sentence. A veteran of the US Navy, Hollis tells me that he has been practicing Yoga for about a year.
I ask him what he thinks of it, and he replies, “I love it. I wouldn’t do anything in the world to change it. It gives me a way out of here, to escape, to get freedom and rejuvenate my soul.”
When asked how long into the practice he started to notice something happening, without hesitation he replies, “The first day.” Hollis plans to continue practicing Yoga when he is released from prison next year.
Gino started practicing Yoga in India years before he came to prison, when he was on a soul-searching journey, trying to heal himself from a difficult childhood. He has been in prison for 18 years, of a 25-year sentence under the three-strikes law. He’s been practicing Yoga for around six years.
“Being in here is stressful,” he explains, “so not to be affected by the environment is a huge thing, especially when inmates get in your face. Little things happen that get blown up really fast in prison and just finding a way to not react. That’s the main thing.”
T (nickname for Anthony) has been practicing Yoga with Prison Yoga Project for about a year.
He explains that they want to give him a knee replacement but he is not letting them because he said that the Yoga has been helping his knee and has allowed him to discontinue taking his pain medication. A familiar story. I nod in recognition at the power of Yoga to heal, both physically and emotionally.
He tells me about his two-year-old grandson, and he smiles as he says, “When I get out with my grandkids, we’re going to Yoga class.”
These men all came to prison from different walks of life, with different stories and for different crimes. But they all have one thing in common: they are all searching for inner peace and redemption. They all come to Yoga class with Prison Yoga Project, week after week, in dedicated pursuit of that peace.
James closes the second Yoga class with the Buddhist Loving Kindness Mantra, and it is with this same prayer that I would like to end this story:
May I be filled with loving kindness towards myself.
May I be healthy in mind and body.
May I be safe from internal and external harm.
May I be happy and at peace within myself.
May you be filled with loving kindness towards yourself.
May you be healthy in mind and body.
May you be safe from internal and external harm.
May you be happy and at peace within yourself.
May all beings know peace.
*Photography courtesy of Robert Sturman.