OMmm…she started giggling… OMmm…her face crinkled up trying hard not to explode into laughter…OM….I love it when this happens, it’s spontaneous and can make me giggle too. At school I used to giggle a lot especially when being told off, then the teacher would feel insulted and go harder! This made it worse and resulted in a tennis match between being shouted at and laughing uncontrollably. I see now it was a release of nervous energy and the same for the woman in front of me, who was new to the rehabilitation group. I smiled at her and said, it’s cool it’s just that you didn’t expect it? She said yes. I said it used to make me laugh too and briefly explained a bit more about why I use this sound mantra, which relaxes our nervous system and is particularly useful for anxiety or panic attacks.
I don’t hold back on the sound of OM when teaching and it’s a small room in the rehabilitation centre on the prison grounds. There are about 10 women, it’s a morning class at 8.30am, the room is functional, although today there were some beautiful and colourful *NAIDOC flags and creations. They all wander in, usually, one or two of the women have cleared the floor and brushed, but hey it’s rehab and things don’t always go to plan, sometimes I brush too, or have to gather them inside.
The mats are laid out close to each other, we all make room, there maybe comments like ‘can I go for a quick smoke beforehand?’, I say yes if you need to that’s fine, but we’re starting now so it’s up to you. I’m not there to ‘discipline’ them, definitely not! It’s their choice, and ‘choice’ is one of the first privileges we lose if we’ve experienced anytime in correctional facilities.
I make eye contact and have a quick chat with the women who are there and ask how their week has been, it’s a relaxed start and I get to feel out where they are all at today, things can change quickly and dramatically here, the women are residents in this center, instead of prison, as part of their sentence, they are also going through intense detoxification from different substances including alcohol, and usually have complex family lives.
One woman recently was absolutely loving the yoga, she had ADHD and was on numerous medications, yoga was really helping her, she was focused and calm through the practice, it lit her up and she felt able to cope. I arrived this week and she’s back in prison so I’m not sure if I’ll see her again. There can be a few cycles of this before the women are able to move forward and change their lives, it’s understandable, there’s complexity, more than any of us realise. I’m grateful she got a little taste of yoga and loved it, I believe she’ll find a way to continue somehow. There was that curiosity in her, she was hungry to learn more – my fingers are crossed for her.
We start sitting with our right hand on heart, our left hand on belly opening the practice with OM. During the yoga practice the group are focused, occasionally there may be some talk but I keep it to questions about the practice, this is one area where we do need to concentrate so that they can feel the benefits and I will ask for any chit chat to be saved for later so that we can all experience being present in our bodies. There’s generally not been a problem with that as the women are respectful of this when I explain why.
By the end of the practice, there are often smiles, words of gratitude and a brighter energetic feeling in the room. This isn’t always the case though and there have definitely been a few challenges where I’ve needed to be clear in my role and boundaries. I’ll talk a little more about the approach that seems to have worked best for me in this environment and the teaching practices that the women have particularly resonated with next time.
Oh and if you can, go and have a giggle with someone. Like I said to the woman who laughed at the OM’s, it releases our natural happy hormones, like Oxytocin, which can help us to feel more connected. I think that was felt when the other women in the room started giggling along too, it takes some of that sense of separation away and for women who’ve experienced life in prison, feeling a sense of togetherness and connection is a basic human need that I’m sure we can all relate to in some way.
*NAIDOC – National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee
*Om – spelt as ‘Aum’ a Sanskrit word often chanted at the beginning and end of a yoga class, a universal sound vibration representing the whole of consciousness.