On Tuesday afternoons I teach yoga in Perth prison. So what, you might say? On the other hand the response might be one of surprise. This does tend to be the more usual response, not that it tends to come up in conversation often.
I wanted to teach yoga in prison because a significant part of my working life was spent working in local government, in the field of regeneration. I believed that it was important to work to improve the lives of people who had not had the chances that I had. Eventually I became disillusioned with the whole agenda and decided that I needed get out. I worked in the private sector for a short time but knew that it was not for me and re-trained to be a yoga instructor and massage therapist. However I did not lose the sense that I had been privileged in my upbringing and the choice that it had brought. Teaching in prison was a way of letting me feel that I was doing something, albeit very little, given the problem.
It would be very easy, teaching yoga in prison, to become disillusioned. I am allocated a small room which can take no more than six people. This does not tend to be a problem however, as I rarely get more than four people coming to the class; this out of a population of around 300 men. However my mindset is very different these days.
I accept that I can do little but if I do a little, I should be content with that. Most of the men who have come to the class are long-term prisoners. I have also had short-term prisoners who have come to the class, get out and come back in again. They rarely come back to the class. I send messages to them through others but I rarely see them. One of the few times that it did happen the young man told me what he was back in for. It was such a trivial offence that it was hard for me to understand and very difficult to comment in a way that would not have been helpful!
Some of the long-term prisoners have stayed with me for years. Over that time you never ask but you begin to piece little bits of information together, perhaps as they learn to accept that you are not judging, and they become more open. While it is good that trust builds up, it can make your ability to remain neutral more difficult; in other words, it is easy to be non-judgemental if you are not in possession of too many facts.
What I have come to believe over the years, and some people may take issue with this, is that there are people in prison who have been caught out doing things which many of us have done and got away with. I think that there are probably very few of us who have not at least once, for example, drank just a little bit more than we should have and then driven. Usually it comes to nothing. However it could turn out very differently, if we were unfortunate enough to be in an accident in which a passenger died. You could be an otherwise model citizen: hard-working, devoted to family and friends and decent. It happens and you meet people in prison that are essentially decent who have done very stupid things and had to pay the price for it.
I have had prisoners admit that the have committed murder and deserve to be where they are. Two in particular I know who came into prison as young men barely out of their teens, one finally got out twenty years later a very different person, not sure how he was going to manage. One still has thirteen years to go before even being considered for release. Try to get your head round the thought of being in prison all through your twenties and thirties. It makes me want to weep at the colossal waste of it all, for the victim, perpetrator and the families of both.
The ability of people to cope with prison always amazes me too. One young man attends class regularly at the moment and he usually comes to class with a smile and asks what kind of a week I have had. He admits that there are very difficult times but he has to make some kind of normality out of the life he has and just cope with it a day at a time. Clearly he works to the prison schedule but he has developed little coping mechanisms for himself at those times when he is left to his own devices.
However you also hear of those who cannot understand the sub-culture within prison, to their cost. In the time I have been in, I have lost regulars who got on the wrong side of someone, were attacked and had to be moved to other prisons.
Yet, I am glad I go because those very few who come tell me that they sleep best of all on a Tuesday night. They love the period of relaxation at the end of the yoga session because it is one of the few times that they can feel completely secure and therefore allow themselves to relax. It is rarely that any inappropriate comments are made or inappropriate language used. I usually let it go the first time if they swear but if it happens again I ask them if they will stop and explain that I am trying to create a different atmosphere for them and they apologise and stop. I have never been threatened or felt insecure as I walk about the prison with an officer. I greet the men that I pass and invariably they respond positively.
What do I get out of it? I expect nothing and when I am told that my visit means something, I treasure it. It reminds me how lucky I am to have had the parents and the upbringing that I have had and to take nothing for granted.