At last, the summer season is upon us. For most teenagers, the break from the regular school schedule creates an opportunity for increased recreation, fun with friends, and vacations with family. Adversely, for the incarcerated teens locked up at Delaware County's Detention Center in Lima, it translates to separation, isolation, and less opportunities for enrichment. There are no summer school classes at this facility and limited funding from the county/state makes it impossible to offer alternative educational programs or physical fitness activities. According to staff members, this idle time generally equates to restlessness, short tempers, fights, and behavioral issues.
Transformation Yoga Project's Tuesday sessions are a true respite in the monotony that is a life behind bars and barbed wire, especially during this time of year. The difference we're making is all too evident. It's remarkable to witness the change in attitudes and energy in a group or individual from the time they enter the gymnasium- trudging feet, hunched back, gaze down- to the time they emerge from the surrender of savasana- eyes bright, shoulders relaxed, spine straight.
At the beginning of each class, we go around the mat circle and "check in". The kids are asked to share their name and something simple, such as how they're feeling or how they'd rate their energy level (balanced, high, low). This morning, one young man reported that he was "tired". That didn't stop him from giving his all to the practice. It was his first experience with yoga and, judging by the noticeable shift in his energy at the end of class, it will certainly be a memorable one. The boy had stepped onto his mat hesitantly in the beginning but, by the conclusion, he was practically levitating. He reported feeling "GREAT" and literally skipped his way out the double doors to return to his cell block in happy-go-lucky fashion.
Not all of the kids are quite so eager to give yoga a chance. There's usually a contingency of hold outs and benchwarmers observing the practice from a safe distance. Just because I can't reach them through breathwork, asana, and guided meditation doesn't mean I'm willing to give up on them entirely. I keep a case of books stashed away in a storage closet as an alternate option for participants. The crowd favorite is Letters to My Younger Self: An Anthology of Writings by Incarcerated Men at S.C.I. Graterford.
Summary: "In this anthology incarcerated men in the Prison Literacy Project at S.C.I. Graterford contribute pieces about regretful decisions made or painful experiences in their youth, fearlessly exposing their vulnerability. The men chose many methods for sharing their messages; some wrote letters to their young selves or family members, telling of their struggles growing up in difficult circumstances. They reached out from behind the prison walls to caution young offenders while they still have time to change their lives, but they speak to us all. They remind us all about choices, consequences, and caring for others."
As I present a copy to each seemingly skeptical teen, I explain the premise of the paperback in my trademark real-talk-street-smart style and inform them that we're currently in the process of training a group of men at Graterford to become registered yoga teachers. At the end of class, I make a point of reconnecting with each kid to collect their book and ask their opinion about what they read. Today, one teen who's been faithfully reading on the sideline for two weeks clutched the book closely to his chest and asked if he could borrow it until we meet again next week.
After permission from staff was granted, I happily presented him with a second title from my secret stash, We're All Doing Time: A Guide to Getting Free, and gave him a bit of a homework assignment. I asked if he'd be willing to write a letter to his younger self to share on the Transformation Yoga Project blog. He was surprised that anyone would be interested in something he'd write, but assured me he would give it a shot. He lined up with his peers and exited into the hallway bearing his precious cargo with a sense of purpose amidst the summertime detention doldrums.
Judging by the engagement we've been experiencing over the last year while offering only one weekly class per cell block, I can only dare to imagine the positive impact we'd have upon the troubled youth of Delaware County if we were able to expand our reach at Lima. The lack of summer programs has created a gap and the administration at the facility has expressed an interest in allowing Transformation Yoga Project to fill it, but we need your support! Your tax deductible contribution will make this aspiration a reality. Please consider making a donation today!
Transformation Yoga Project is grateful for the support of Tula Software which sponsors a portion of our work at the Lima Juvenile Detention Center, and for the support of all of our donors who make this yoga service possible.