Freeing the Prisoner Inside

Making yoga accessible to everyone is something I am passionate about. It is an absolute privilege to have access to studio or gym classes and instructors. However, some people who need yoga most do not ever experience it’s benefits. Here is a repost of an incredible blog about bringing yoga into a jail setting.

I am teaching a class to raise money for the Yoga Prison Project on October 29. Click here to join me.

“Now you’re in.” James said to me with a playful smile. The heaviest steel door I’d ever seen, covered in two-inch rivets and decades of paint to hold back the rust, had just slammed behind me and the electric lock mechanism buzzed with a scream. Just moments ago I had been looking out over the San Francisco Bay, waves lapping at the shore. And now I was quite literally locked in to San Quentin State Prison, a maximum security prison and home to nearly seven thousand inmates, most serving life sentences.

James, the Founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project, had invited me to teach some classes with his students “on the inside”. I had leapt at the chance. As a male teacher with illusions of grandeur, I often fantasize about reaching more men through yoga, and reducing violence by developing sensitivity through practice. Of course, there aren’t many male students in your average yoga studio, so I look elsewhere.

The yoga classes at San Quentin have, ah, a few less women than your average urban studio. There is no incense, no stereo system, no warm recessed lighting or radiant bamboo floors or whispering receptionists who bow and say “Namaste”. But there IS a small group of men, sentenced to life behind bars, who are far more dedicated to their yoga than anyone I’ve met “outside”.

These men have stories. Their ages, their faiths, their tattoos are diverse and varied. Some of them have committed intense acts of violence to end up where they are. Some of them grew up in an atmosphere where violence was the only tactic proven to work, and the tactic they learned to use. Some of them have never been violent.

But in the present moment, all of these men now live in an atmosphere with more stress and anxiety than any place I’ve ever been. They are told when and where to eat, defecate, bathe, and sleep. Potential violence is quite literally around every corner.

That’s a level of fear that I can hardly imagine. For these men, yoga isn’t just something to open their hamstrings or connect to community. It’s a way to stay sane. Once a week, they have an opportunity to move consciously, to breathe, to let go just a little. And the effect is palpable. In the room where we practice, there are no guards. The door to the yard stays open. And yet, for seventy-five minutes, the atmosphere in that little room changes. Exhales are lengthened. Muscles soften. Eyes grow heavy.

Each step, each posture, each breath is loaded with meaning and significance for them. Each movement is an opportunity to experience a freedom available to all of us. Say what you want about the crimes committed to put these men behind bars, but in my short experiences, these men need our attention and care far more than they need our cages. They are just as interested, just as committed, and perhaps even more dedicated to the transformational effect of a yoga practice. For you and me, ‘feeling free’ is a buzzword, an attempt to encapsulate the experience of moksha or nirvana. But for the men at San Quentin, ‘feeling free’ is something altogether different. For just one brief moment each week, they have an opportunity to let their guard down, to turn the attention inward, and to make a choice about the direction of their lives.

For more information about James Fox and the Prison Yoga Project or to buy a yoga book for a prisoner, please click here.

Food, Shelter, Safety, and Yoga.

In a world where people experiencing homelessness are ignored and literally pushed to the fringes of society, I am continually amazed by the resilience and kindness of the human spirit in spite of life’s unimaginable circumstances. And I have been honored to witness how these qualities are continually cultivated and grown in a simple yoga practice.

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The reasons why people find themselves homeless are as varied as the trees you find in the forest. Given that people experiencing homelessness are often reduced to focusing on meeting their basic needs: food, shelter and safety, it is a wonder to me that anyone would find their way to a yoga class.

However, one beautiful woman that I met at SOME (So Others Might Eat), a community-based organization that assists the poor and homeless in Washington, DC, exemplified the importance of a yoga practice that is accessible and specifically designed to take place in the jail system.  She shared with me about the impact of a program she took part in offered by Yoga District while she was in a local jail.  While practicing yoga, she learned and clearly now understood how to connect with the present moment, the impact of exercising to reduce stress, and the joy found in simply finding activities and people that we enjoy.  As she shared her experience with me, she was so present and connected with a sparkle in her eye. I was in the moment with her.

While there was nothing particularly special about my conversation with this woman at SOME to set it apart from any other conversation. But for that brief moment I’d like to believe we connected as humans are supposed to, seeing and honoring each other’s light.  Namaste.

Calls to Action:

  1. Do you know anyone at Yoga District in DC who could connect me with an instructor for the jail program? Right now, the woman I met is not connected to a yoga studio and I have been trying to reconnect her with her instructor from Yoga District.
  2. Would you like to support yoga for the underserved? Check out my upcoming class in Gainesville, Georgia at Flip Your Dog Yoga Studio on October 29.  Let me know and I’ll set you up.

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Scientific Research: The Benefits of Meditation for Beginners

When you hear the word meditation, what comes to mind? Peace? Clarity? A particular practice or technique? The image of a yogi in lotus pose? Or perhaps you think, “Sounds great, but I really don’t have the time to meditate.” Maybe you’ve heard about the benefits, how meditation reduces stress levels and produces a calmer state of mind. Maybe you’ve even experienced these benefits yourself.

 

For those who are interested in the healing effects of meditation, there’s been plenty of research over the past several decades that attests to the validity of many a meditator’s anecdotal evidence. Time and again, researchers are finding that people who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma. While the causal relationship between meditation and these psychological benefits may be (as of yet) somewhat unknown, evidence does suggest that they may have a lot to do with a restructuring of the brain itself.

People who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma.

Recently a team of researchers from the University of Sienna came together to study mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). They described the practice as a “meditation-based program in which participants are invited to connect with their physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and behaviour over a period of eight weeks with a ‘non-judgmental’ attitude.”

The purpose was to measure the possible scope of neuroanatomical changes resulting from meditative practices, specifically at both the cortical and subcortical brain levels. The research was groundbreaking as most studies over the past decade have focused on highly accomplished meditators, while all of the 48 participants in this study were “meditation-naïve subjects.”

Requisites to their participation included a score higher than 27 on the Mini-Mental Status Examination (a 30-point questionnaire often used to measure cognitive impairment), the absence of psychiatric or neurological disorders in their personal medical history, and the ability to participate in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. Participants were divided into two groups—24 of the subjects underwent MBSR training and were primarily taught methods such as body scanning, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful stretching movements, while the remaining 24 (the control group) were not. Those involved in the training were asked to attend in-class sessions for 2.5 hours every week and encouraged to use the meditative techniques they learned in their developing personal practice for 45 minutes daily. They were also asked to journal about their experience. Between the sixth and seventh class, the participants were invited to a silent retreat.

Meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

Both the trainees and the control group submitted to MRI scans and psychological testing before and after the eight-week training period. Among the MBSR-trained participants, the results indicated “an increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex,” as well as “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression, and alexithymia.” (Alexithymia is difficulty in experiencing and describing one’s emotions.) In short, meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

What does this mean for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners of meditation? According to Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, the findings are not only validating for beginners they also speak to a larger inquiry.

“The findings suggest that even beginning-level meditation training can have potentially powerful neurological effects. And as the researchers involved in this experiment have taken a broad-minded approach in their examination of meditation, it also raises an intriguing question: What is the active ingredient that makes meditation meditation, the ingredient that is responsible for any changes observed in the study?”

According to the researchers themselves, the benefits of meditation may simply have been the result of the practitioners’ increasing non-judgmental awareness of their moment-to-moment bodily sensations. In his 2012 interview with Omega, Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of MSBR training, came to a similar conclusion, emphasizing the transformative ability of the meditative process. “Science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important; it’s the process of paying attention to them—the attending—that actually influences the organism in a whole range of different ways.”

As to the power of focused attention, author and teacher Sandra Anderson states that it gives us a key to our inner life and offers the potential for mastery over the mind (which is, of course, the goal of yoga). She likens a life lived on autopilot to doors within a mansion that are never opened. “To be able to find a way to see what’s present in those unused rooms, and to be nonjudgmental about it, that’s a huge part of what this gives you. To be able to do that means you’re living [from] a bigger part of your psyche, and that expansiveness gives you a groundedness and a capacity to entertain things that you couldn’t otherwise. Your mind is freer. Your responses are more spontaneous. And the world becomes much bigger because you now have more space, as well as the ability to understand the reality of situations and your responses to them.”

Anderson states that the study is validating and encouraging in a number of ways. For instance, because these practices have such subtle effects, their benefits aren’t always easily recognizable and so practitioners sometimes become discouraged, believing that meditation is a “waste of time.” This study demonstrates that an investment in meditation is indeed a powerful means to reclaiming mental health. “What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life,” says Anderson. “And the fact that [meditation] also changes the way that your brain functions is hugely reassuring to people. It also validates the understanding that we have from the scriptures of the mind being habituated and falling into grooves. When you start practicing, you begin to catch your mind running in certain patterns, emotionally laden patterns perhaps, and you come to realize that they’re not inevitable.”

“What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life.”

According to the Bhagavad Gita, “Yoga is the breaking of contact with pain.” And while this study was not specifically tailored toward yogic meditation techniques, sitting meditation and mindful stretching movements are, without a doubt, central components of the yoga tradition. Yet perhaps what is most exciting about this and other neurological studies is that they suggest that these practices may cause an increase in emotional resilience and brain elasticity. They also indicate that there does seem to be a sort of “active ingredient” that ties practices of meditation and mindfulness together. As to what that is, whether it’s the process of attending or something far more mysterious, the suggestion seems to be that the healing effects of these practices are powerfully real.

Has your practice changed you? Please leave your comments below.

I’m Too Busy to Meditate and other Stories

Hello Lovely People.  I am writing you a little note today and I hope it encourages you. I want to share that meditation doesn’t have to be big or scary.  It can be simple and short.  Even a short and simple meditation can be beneficial.

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One barrier we may need to break down is to answer a question.  What does it mean to meditate?

Meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training yourself to be more aware and getting a healthy sense of perspective. It’s important to note that you’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe thoughts and feelings without judgment. While your inner skeptic may be questioning, I will confirm that this process worked for me.  I have changed so much and am authentically happier.

I recently created a series of one-minute meditations to help people learn from easy ways to plug in and meditate anywhere/anytime.  Check it out on Instagram:  Bex Yoga IGTV .

I also highly recommend these free resources:

I hope this helps you break through the barrier to try meditating.  Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Be Well.

What to Expect at Your First SUP Yoga Class

In the heyday of a precious New England summer, outbound adventures reign prevalent. The feel of the welcomed sunshine, the smell of a salt-tinged air, the blooming trees chocked full of wind chimed leaves – these and more are the draw to the great outdoors this season. And what better place is there to be than out on the water, in the vortex of all this bounty? Around this time of year, the Long Island Sound and its inlets are like a bouncy castle for the summertime spirit and a salve for the timeless soul.

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Paddleboard yoga provides the platform for play. On a paddleboard, the rock of the sea beneath the board is an experience that leaves ripples. Often the reflection after a class is marked as deeply memorable. Here’s why –

The following are five things to expect from your SUP Yoga class this summer:

1.       PREPARATION: Each SUP Yoga class will include a preparatory overview of the general stand up paddle “How Tos”: How to hold a paddle, load the board, stand up and get back down, paddle efficiently, tie up for yoga and call out for support. In addition to the nuts to bolts (or in this case, nose to tail) instruction, be prepared to be guided in your SUP Yoga sequence in a clear way. You may feel unsteady but the overarching approach will be to move slowly. Also to move in acknowledgment and acceptance of unsteadiness; even with reverence to that which is not within control.

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2.       KNOWLEDGE: The insights on a paddle board may be abundant. The experience may be highly informative to your studio practice, like recognizing intrinsic muscles in your body used to hold a balance. And on a personal level, the time on board might reflect an emotional state of being – one that reminds you of your courage, strength, playfulness, gusto, and compassion.

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3.       POWER: There is an old adage in yoga – while the teacher is the designer of the framework of the sequence of postures, the approach, response, and experience is entirely up to you. The SUP Yoga teacher will articulate tools to help maneuver a stable board through postural transitions, however, the student will rely on the teacher within and use their own felt sense to activate appropriately for optimal stability. It’s a highly empowering experience to command a 32-inch wide board and it’s totally doable.

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4.       CREATIVITY: Call me crazy, but each class you attend will be unique. Expect a fresh class sequence, theme and an individual landscape to that moment and tide. Nature speaks of the day, calling attention out of the busyness of the mind and into the far-flung beauty of the sky and sea. Curious adventures in form and thought will zing and reverberate in these out of the box experiences.

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5.       CALLING: As below, so is above. Mediation and mindful movement on board may cause alignment to those dreams spoken or whispered of off the board. By catching the wake of an experience in nature, without walls, be prepared to ride that wave into a feeling of spaciousness and possibility.

Sup yoga friends

Here is my personal favorite paddle board which I love to take out on the take behind my parents house or up in Maine in Acadia National Park.