Monday, May 27, 2019

Bringing Yoga into Prisons with Amma María Fandino

This interview with Amma María Fandino is by Elliot Kesse, Accessible Yoga Ambassador.

Elliot: How did you get into teaching yoga in prisons?

Amma: I became a yoga teacher when I moved to Santa Barbara, California, with my family in 2014 and soon connected with the Accessible Yoga vision of sharing the benefits of yoga with anyone regardless of ability or background, especially with communities that have been excluded or underserved. In 2017, the last year of my stay in the US before returning to my home country, Colombia, I had my first experience teaching yoga in a prison. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt an empathy for incarcerated people and wondered how it would be to experience this difficult situation. Ginny Kuhn, Director and Founder of Prison Yoga Santa Barbara, gave me the occasion to achieve my dream. I taught a group of young women participating in the drug and alcohol recovery program at the Santa Barbara County Jail.

At the end of 2017, I went back to Colombia and started to look for an institution that could help me bring yoga to a prison. I found Fundación Acción Interna, a non-profit founded in 2013 to dignify and improve the quality of life of inmates and those that have already been released in Colombia. The founder and director, Johana Bahamon, gave me the opportunity to participate as a volunteer teacher at the Buen Pastor women’s prison in Bogotá. I’m so grateful of being able to continue with my passion of teaching in prisons, sharing the practice with one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in my country.

Elliot: What is the attitude like in the prisons towards you and yoga?

Amma: At the Santa Barbara County Jail they had a specific space for the practice, like a classroom, that was comfortable and the staff was very supportive of the yoga program. The inmates were very interested in the classes especially because the incarcerated population had very minimal sunlight hours each week, and only about 10% of them had outdoor activities to do throughout the day. 

On the other hand, the experience with the Colombian prison has been very different. Although the staff and inmates have been very welcoming, the conditions to teach there are extremely precarious. At the beginning we had to move from one place to another within the prison until we finally got a spot that fulfills the basic conditions to teach a yoga class. So far, both the staff and the students seem very happy with the program. There’s even talk of teaching yoga to the guards.

Most people would probably be kind of afraid of a prison or a jail and working with inmates of any kind. What were your thoughts before and what would you tell somebody who may be interested in it but isa little nervous?

Well, for me, I always had a connection and desire to go there so I think that makes a difference. But I will say that as a yoga teacher, the most important thing to remember is what the essence of the practice teaches us—recognizing that the light that you have inside is the same pure light present in any other person regardless of their external conditions or the situation they are facing. Teaching in a prison is one of the most beautiful opportunities for a yoga teacher to cultivate the yoga values. It’s the perfect environment if you want to grow as a yoga teacher.

Elliot: You’ve talked about this a little bit already but can you say more about how teaching a class at a prison is different from teaching a studio class?

Amma: I think the most general and useful advice about teaching in a prison is one of Swami Satchidananda’s teachings: “adapt, adjust, and accommodate.” For me, those three actions are the main attitudes you have to take with you when teaching in a prison. I know they apply also to many situations in life, but they are especially valuable with the unpredictable environment of a prison. So, if you have a plan, it is very likely that you will have to change it.

The second thing I would say is very important to keep in mind is that the purpose of teaching yoga in a prison is to find ways to help with the rehabilitation process of the inmates. This means teaching a class that will assist the inmates deal with the aspects of their daily life. Some of the inmates are addicts, some have been abused, some are homeless, or have experienced a certain level of violence. These conditions have made them very reactive and violent. Also, many have lots of shame regarding their past actions. From my experience, it has been very useful when I approached the class in a very practical manner.

Along with teaching asanas, I usually try to give the participants insights about how to invite a personal connection with the different attitudes of the postures, explaining how it would help them to deal with different life situations. For example, child’s pose will invite a sense of surrender, a sense of acceptance about what you are currently experiencing in your life. For women, warrior poses have been very important to empower them and allow them to feel that they have the possibility to transform their lives and to not give up.

I have found it very useful to teach practices that help with impulse control. Following Viktor Frankl's teachings, I encourage students to be attentive to their reactions, "to be aware of the space that always exists between what is happening on the outside and the response; that space is where they can find the freedom to choose how to respond." I have received testimonials from students of how this teaching has begun to make their lives in prison a little different.

Mindfulness practices are important too; that is, observing the self and connecting with the emotions in a non-judgmental attitude. Incarcerated students need the space to be present and the willingness to take responsibility for their past actions in order to heal. A mindfulness practice may prompt them to deal with their emotions and with their current situation, facing it, and taking responsibility for it, as a primary condition to make change. It may help a lot in the rehabilitation process.

Another aspect that I love to apply in my teaching practice at prison is to encourage students to connect with their bodies. Most inmates have experienced trauma, and a resulting disassociation from the body is a very common effect. It is very likely that they keep living in their head without any connection to the body. So during the practice, I usually keep encouraging them to feel the sensations of the body and any other subtle sensations or emotions.

The words you use are important. As James Fox says, instead of saying “Be aware of your breath,” you could say “Feel your body breathing.” Promoting that connection with the body is very important to allow incarcerated students to come back to their bodies with confidence and love. This is one of the biggest challenges because inmates have done things that perhaps make them hate themselves. So a good way to start everything is to begin with the body.

Maintaining simplicity has been important for my classes in prison. For example, I do a very basic asana practice that the students learn and practice by themselves during the week. I love to give options to practice the poses in their bunks telling them to start their day with a yoga practice and stretching, even though they don’t have much physical space. For example, they do many asanas in bed including knees to the chest, bridge pose, and reclined twists.

Because inmates are often inactive, I have found many have issues with their neck, back, and even digestion. I offer adaptations and gentle options for the postures and avoid Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) and Sirshasana (Headstand)that put pressure on the neck. You have to be very attentive to prison students’ specific conditions because of their inactivity.

Because of the inactivity, students in prison want to move. I love to put in practice the dynamic sequences I learned from my training with James Fox, founder of Prison Yoga Project. For example, beginning the class with jogging in place is a beautiful way to help raise the energy of the class. So I do a very active warm-up then I go to Tadasana (Mountain Pose). I tell them to place their palms on their heart and their belly and then to just feel the sensation of their body and of their heart beating. I have found that they just love it and it’s a beautiful way to regain self-love and self-appreciation. Usually, I focus on the heart as a theme for the class, promoting connection, self-acceptance, and love. It is very, very important.

I also keep the language simple. I don’t use any Sanskrit for the poses. Students love Cat/Cow and other poses with animal names. Sometimes they like to chat and comment on different things about the class, at the beginning especially. I have found that they’re in need of community and a different space from their cells that allows them to connect in a different way. So I try to give them the space to chat a little bit, to comment on things. After that, they shortly come back to the practice.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it's very helpful to have students arranged in a circle for the class. The circle means unity and it gives everyone the opportunity to make eye contact with each other. Since prisons can be threatening spaces, the students appreciate the feeling of safety and, when in a circle, no one is behind you.

I give the option to practice with closed eyes or not by saying: if you feel comfortable, close your eyes, but if you don’t, keep your eyes open with a soft gaze downward. In the same sense, when doing Savasana (Corpse Pose), you have to be very attentive because this is a very vulnerable pose. It can remind them of traumatic experiences. I always give them the option to lay down on their side if that would help them feel more protected.

Finally, I’d say that you need to show students that they can trust you. I’ve found that this space becomes really important to them so it is important to honor that. Usually, students approach me to tell me that they have been waiting the entire week for this class. This is huge; I feel I have the responsibility to show up every week on time and try not to miss any class, so they know I will come.

Elliot: Any final words of wisdom?

Amma: Every time I go to the prison, I feel that I get way more than what I give. You can’t imagine the love and appreciation that you get from the inmates. They are just in need of attention, in need of kindness, and in need of connection and interaction with someone in an equitable way. They’re always receiving orders and sometimes mistreated, so the possibility to relate to someone in another way is so valuable for them. And in this sense, they just give in return the best of themselves — love, appreciation, kindness, always with a smile. It’s so beautiful.

So I would tell other yoga teachers to not be afraid. What you’re giving is what you’ll receive back. If you give love, you’ll receive love. It’s as simple as that. And the yoga philosophy states this universal principle. It’s in the difficult environments that make you feel afraid or intimidated where you can really prove yourself about what you've been cultivating as a yogi. At least that has been my experience.

Amma María Fandino is a biologist with a Master's degree in environmental management from Yale University, and a devoted yogini with 27 years of dedication. As an Integral Yoga and Accessible Yoga teacher, Amma's passion is to contribute to the construction of a community that advocates a broad, diverse, and inclusive yoga culture. Under the support of his main mentor and teacher, Jivana Heyman, she has been an active member of the Accessible Yoga organization (AY) since 2015 and currently acts as a representative of the regional group of AY for Spanish-speaking countries.

She was certified as a yoga instructor (RYT-500) in the United States and her initial teaching experience was in Santa Barbara, CA, where for more than two years she taught Integral Hatha Yoga and Accessible Yoga classes at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, to older adults and people with different physical and health conditions. She was also part of the Accessible Yoga teacher´s team of the program offered to patients in the Cottage Hospital Rehabilitation Unit, in the same city. Upon her return to Colombia, her home country, and in her interest to share the practice of yoga with those who do not have access to it, Amma offers Accessible Yoga classes to terminal cancer patients and their caregivers in the Integral Center for Palliative Care of San Ignacio University Hospital in Bogotá. Another area of interest of her vocation is the teaching of yoga to people with conditions of anxiety, depression, and addictions. Thus, Amma offered Accessible Yoga in Santa Barbara County Jail, CA, to inmates who were part of the drug and alcohol recovery program. At present, Amma gives classes to the inmates of the Buen Pastor women's prison in Bogotá. Her most recent commitment, about she feels honored and fortunate, is to support the training of yoga teachers interested in taking the practice to all people without distinction of conditions, health or history.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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