06/22/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Yoga for Lifers

Last December I visited a state prison in Northern California (Deuel Vocational Institute) and not only had the opportunity to teach yoga to inmates but also to talk with them afterward about their yoga practices. It was an incredibly profound and humbling experience. To a man they were articulate, eloquent and astute. In terms of their depth of understanding of the potency of yoga practice, it was way beyond what I read in most of the yoga blogs online these days. They were freedom yogis, practicing to find liberation behind bars. Imagine how confronting and challenging -- and how meaningful and transformative -- it would be to show up to your yoga mat every day if you were in jail for life.

One of the geniuses of yoga it that it also helps us get clearer about what we value in the rest of our lives through the opportunity it gives for self study (svadhyaya). Sustained practice over time leads to greater self-awareness because of the meditative aspects of the practice. Yoga is designed to make us more connected to ourselves, more aware of our tendencies and better able to witness our thoughts, emotions, sensations and feelings without reacting to them.

We know that we are reaping the more subtle benefits of yoga practice when we start responding to things rather than blindly reacting. Much suffering -- our own and other people's -- is borne of reactivity. In contrast to reacting, responding allows us to alleviate suffering. When we can pause and take a breath, or several breaths, and get a handle on our emotions and the heightened visceral sense of arousal before we speak or act, then we are practicing yoga. The space between reactivity and responsiveness is freedom.

This is what the prison yogis were talking about. Most of them had ended up behind bars because of their own reactivity and inability to manage their emotions, to be with the sensations in their body. Yoga was actually helping them get a handle on their propensities to act out. In their own words, they were becoming more equanimous, more chilled-out, and better able to deal with stress.

When you slow your breathing down and link movement to breath and measure the time you spend in a pose by breaths, rather than seconds and minutes, you cannot help but become more connected to what's going on inside. When you slow down, you become more present. Asana practice takes us deeper into ourselves, helps us navigate the murky depths beneath the skin to grow the lotus of the resilient heart. It can happen anywhere, and just like the lotus emerges from the darkest waters, the light of awareness can shine in the most unlikely places, like cellblocks in maximum-security prisons.

Awareness illuminates the secret chambers of the heart and mind, shows us what we care about. We need this. Human beings are value-making machines. We have to be. A world without things we care about, without reasons to continue when our grip becomes tenuous, is unlivable. Yoga practice not only gives us something to value as an end in itself, it helps us get clear about the rest of our values by providing a lens into our deepest selves, our innermost secret places. The breath becomes the light of awareness; do enough practice and eventually it will reach all those nooks and crannies, all those dusty places where the cobwebs have settled.

Without self-knowledge there is no freedom. Automatons don't get to choose their actions, they simply respond to a stimulus. Yoga practice gives us the gift of self-knowledge and freedom, helps us get clearer about those things we care about. These rewards are available to anyone who shows up and does the work. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian. Male, female, gay, straight. Serial killer, rapist, thief, drug dealer. Soccer mom, lawyer, dancer. The practice doesn't care; all it requires is breath, focus and tenacity. It's happening all kinds of places, not just in yoga studios.

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