Yoga on the “Inside”: An Inmate’s Story

Yoga on the “Inside”

By Allistair Middleton
Originally published in Yoga Bridge - AUTUMN 2012 VOLUME 12 ISSUE 3

I am a thirty-two year old aspiring yogi who is currently serving a thirteen year sentence for a brutal act of violence. I was arrested in 2005 and sentenced in 2007. Strangely, without really being aware of it, I was already in prison long before I was ever arrested. I was a prisoner in my own mind – locked up in there twenty four hours a day, totally isolated from society and left to ruminate in my negative thoughts.

In the years preceding my downward spiral I was full of life. I was involved in Mike Miles National Kickboxing and Muay Thai, in which I had just begun fighting competitively. I was enveloped in a loving relationship with my high-school sweetheart. My future of becoming a finishing carpenter and starting my own business was looking very promising and to top it off I had recently become an uncle. I was a very happy young man with aspirations and dreams and the motivation to make it all come true. Unfortunately I wasn’t prepared for what was to occur in the months that followed.

In February 2002, my life began to spiral out of control. After a very upsetting break-up with my girlfriend of five years I was charged with stabbing my roommate in the face during an altercation. The circumstances and stress of the break-up was too much for me to deal with. I felt I had lost my life with losing her. She was everything – my best friend, my partner and my soul-mate. In one moment she was gone and I was truly broken and lost. The future that I once envisioned no longer existed. The overwhelming emotions I was feeling and my unwillingness to face them prompted me to “run and numb.” I was facing five to eight years in prison and I wanted nothing to do with it. I never dealt with the consequences, which greatly contributed to the stress that I was already under. Regrettably in the years that followed I created more havoc.

Essentially, I was driving the self-pity bus and I was on the road to nowhere. I made meager attempts at trying to make a life for myself, whether it was in relationships, work or any other area. I was quick to sabotage anything that was good or positive. This kept me safe from further pain, or so I made myself believe. This couldn’t have been further from the truth, as this tactic only enabled me to sink further and further into a world of isolation and emptiness.

My daily routine became like that of a hamster running and running but only remaining trapped in an endless cycle of insanity. I was ensnared by my mind – the brutal thoughts and emotions constantly tormented me like a schoolyard bully. I felt like there was nothing for me to do but to live a life where my only objective for the day was to numb the pain that pursued me moment after moment.

The day unfortunately came when all my repressed anger, hatred, guilt, shame and resentment revealed itself. As a result of my violent and reckless actions I destroyed and permanently changed the lives of many people. Sadly, there is nothing I can do to take back the terrible things I have done. I can however do everything in my power to prevent it from happening again. I can never erase the memories that exist in the minds of those who were affected that terrible day. I never want to hurt anyone ever again. In addition to all the other programming that I have completed, I deeply believe that yoga is a key ingredient in the antidote that has and will continue to cure me of any violent tendencies.

In June of 2008, I was introduced to the practice of yoga by a friend of mine who was a fellow inmate at the time. One day out of the blue he asked me, “Do you want to try yoga?” Looking at him like he was a crazy person I replied, “What? Are you out of your mind?”

“Well, as a matter of fact yes I am,” was his reply. At the time I had no idea what he meant by that statement, but I never forgot it. In fact it bothered me until I eventually asked him about it. All he said was, “Come and do yoga with me and you’ll answer every question you have in due course of time.”

Prison is not a fun place to be, as one might expect; and it is the last place you would expect to find a group of guys holding downward facing dog. Still, I remained openminded enough to at least give this yoga thing a try. Thus, after going through all the details and consequences that I was sure to endure, I hesitantly agreed to try it.

I was totally shocked and humbled by my first experience. My friend took me through various asanas followed by some relaxation and then introduced meditation to me. The feeling of contentment and calmness that blanketed my body and mind was truly unbelievable. There was no doubt about it, I was hooked. I knew from that moment that yoga would forever be a part of my life. What I did not yet realize was that it would soon become a way of life.

During the next year I practised with my friend and we managed to convince three, then four, then five more guys to join us in our practice. Before I knew it there were eight of us. We practised for one hour each day. I could feel a transformation happening. I couldn’t quite explain it, but I knew something was happening to me and I LIKED IT!

My friend then transferred to another institution and we were left without our guide. That left me with only one option and it was a blessing in disguise. We were never a formal group and I wanted to change that. So I did. After nine long months of doing research; seeking help from the Yoga Association of Alberta (to which Debbie Spence, the Executive Director, answered the call in a big way); and promoting a yoga group within the Institution, I finally had everything I needed to write the proposal to the Warden requesting that he allow us to establish a formal group within the Institution – a first for the Institution.

Within weeks we had our answer and we were off and practising yoga as a formal group with our own room, music and “homemade” props. It was pretty cool. We had wonderful support from the staff and I was quickly able to purchase Rodney Yee’s Eightweek program. I studied it tirelessly and was quickly able to get to a skill level where I was able to correctly and easily instruct the eight other guys I had in the group. We became like a family; the brotherhood was like nothing I had ever experienced in the past. We were able to laugh at ourselves and at each other and just truly enjoy each and every moment that we all shared. That is so rare in a prison environment and we managed to pull it off. To this day I remain friends with every person who was in that group.

In prison you’re supposed to be hard and stone-faced -- so it is said. However, I honestly didn’t see that helping me or anyone else so we did the unexpected and amazing things resulted. I believe my life and the lives of those with whom I shared yoga were changed forever. I have since transferred twice and in each Institution I have continued my efforts promoting the practice of yoga, establishing yoga groups and continuing to bring the gift to others as it was once brought to me.

Being able to share the humbling and calming effects of yoga with friends and all people alike inside the walls has been, as I have said, life changing. Because somebody cared enough about me to share what he had, an amazing community now exists within the walls of the forgotten. The community that exists amongst yoga practitioners is second to none in my experience and so I look forward to furthering my involvement in this great community upon my eventual release.

As a result of the efforts of the yoga community inside the walls and with the help from Debbie and Anita Sielecki (YAA President), we were successful in our attempts at having a wonderful man and yoga instructor, David McAmmond (YAA Vice- President) selflessly volunteer to teach workshops at each of the three Institutions that now have yoga groups. Everyone just loves him. We now have daily quote provides an opportunity for reflection and the essay helps to make sense of the philosophical concepts. Yoga teachers can share these with students to inspire them in their practice.

I have used the quotes and reflections for students to set their intention prior to initiating a yoga class as well as at the end, prior to meditation or Savasana (corpse pose). One quote that has significance for me in my yoga practice is:

Day 145: Perfection in Asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.

This meditation refers to Yoga Sutra 2.47, prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam. A stumbling block that most of us encounter in our practice is that we try too hard. This meditation and sutra reminds us that when we practice with intelligent effort and meditate on the infinite that we can realize the infinite within ourselves.

Meditations from the Mat is uncomplicated, down to earth and demonstrates how we as yoga practitioners are able to take some of the complexity out of the philosophy of yoga and how we are able to apply the principles on a practical level in our own everyday lives guiding us on our path to self-realization or liberation. This is a wonderful book to keep as a resource as well as recommend to other teachers and students.

Mary Janet Schouten is currently enrolled as a student in the YAA Teacher Training Program.

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