In October 2011, two students were granted a scholarship to study during Yogi-nomad's 6 weeks Teacher Training Program in Nepal. In exchange, the student had to invest their new skills and knowledge in a welfare project. Ana Paula decided to teach Yoga in a women's jail in her native country of Mexico. The following interview was a result of Ana Paula's participation in the "Yoga in Cholula Prison project".
Yogi-nomad is profoundly grateful to Ana Paula for spreading the light of Yoga.
Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves.
It is a daily practice. No one can prevent you from being aware of each step you take or each breath in and breath out. Thich Nhat Hanh
This interview was made on October 27, 2012.
The following interviewed person was an inmate in San Pedro Cholula prison, in Puebla, Mexico, for 4 years and 8 months. During the last 9 months she received yoga classes from the Yoga in Cholula Prison Project. Very soon she started feeling a deep transformation, and later she became a guide for other inmates.
I am very grateful with this person for sharing her experience in this interview, and I also want to thank Ilyanna Berman, coordinator of the Yoga in Cholula Prison Project, for inviting me to be a part of it.
What was your first impression when yoga was presented to you? Did you know what yoga was?
I had already heard about yoga, and to me it was discipline, religion. So I thought, I do like discipline, but I do not follow any religion, so I will see what it offers me and maybe it will be interesting, but I will not change my ideas because of one course. But as I kept listening to the concepts about yoga, I started getting more and more interested. I understood that it is very personal and that you cannot understand it if you don't practice it. At first I thought that it was related to Buddhism and to Asia, and I doubted if I was going to like it. But after hearing more about it I felt more interested. I was attracted to it because you can enjoy every moment in your life, the good and the bad times, and it is just a matter of paying attention to what you are doing. I felt that it was something that was going to help me, at least, to accept my self as I am.
Did your experience in prison change after you started practicing yoga?
Yes, a lot. I have always been a very calm person. When someone new arrived I used to think, 'if she speaks to me, good, but if not, that's better cause then I will not get in trouble' (laughter). Before yoga, I was in my own bubble, I barely got out of bed. I knitted and did other activities but it was really hard to get along with the other women because it was only problems with them. I started doing yoga and then understood that, no matter how people are, everyone deserves respect and attention because that's what I want to receive. I like being respected in my space and in my character, so I have to do the same towards others, so I started to understand that way of life. Sometimes we didn't agree in some ideas but I knew that their reasons were not the same as mine, and just to try and listen to the other's ideas, even if I didn't agree, but the attention to listen was very important to me, and that was a huge step. Or when I was yelled by a guard, at first I would get really angry and thought: 'I would like to see her inside this place', but afterward I learned to respect her work, because she didn't put me there, she was just doing her job. In a physical level, yoga helped me because my body started reacting in a different way, I got very relaxed and felt that my body was useful. The space that we had was very small, we were very limited about the physical activity, so I was really happy when I realized that I just needed the space for my mat, where I could do so many things. When Jesús started teaching us meditation it also helped a lot because then I also started using the space in my bed to meditate. Outside was for yoga, all the asanas that all the teachers taught us. With meditation, I learned how to experience wellness, despite what was going on around me, I was feeling fine. My experience changed so much, everything changed a lot. I started seeing beauty in all things, even if it was a smoke circle, it is beautiful because it is real. I became more sensitive, less superficial, and I let go of many attachments. I realized many things, that we have to live now, always in present time because you have nothing else.
Can you tell me how you became a guide for the other women in your yoga practice?
I started doing Sun Salutations everyday by myself when some of my fellow inmates started asking me to guide them. The officer told us that somebody should be responsible if someone got injured. I couldn't be responsible for them so I told them that we could practice together but each one on their own thing. They insisted me to guide them, they said that I knew more and did it better. So I started little by little, first just Sun Salutations. I would go out at 8 am everyday, no matter what, with company or by myself, I would find a little space for my mat and started doing yoga. Before that, I meditated, I would be aware of my breath and at the end I did relaxation exercises. We started like that and then with some vinyasas, the sequences that all the yoga teachers showed us, and then some other more advanced postures. But by then, we were already practicing every morning, even if we didn't have class, we had our yoga for the day which cheered us up.
How many of you were practicing by then?
Seven. Sometimes there was another fellow but I got very nervous with her because she was very impulsive, she wanted to do a headstand right away. I told her that she needed to practice slowly and with patience, but she was hyperactive and always asked: 'what can I do?! what can I do?!', 'stop drinking coffee', I would tell her (laughter). I explained to her that she would get to do the headstand but only by working step by step.
Do you think that the other women had any changes with yoga practice?
Yes. Specially one of them, changed a lot. Before yoga, she used to keep her feelings to herself, she didn't talk to anyone. Afterward, when she wanted to cry, she asked me to meditate together, so she would join me before going to bed. Sometimes we did vipassana breathing, which we learned from other two guys, and then when we opened our eyes or came back, she cried or laughed and then she would tell me that she was feeling better after expressing her feelings, not like before when she kept all her emotions to herself and she was bitter (laughter). I think she really changed. If she fell down, she would laugh. She became more positive, in advanced postures, she told me 'yes you can, try again, and if you fall down, just stand up'. Every time I looked at her I made a face and she laughed, so I thought 'she is fine, even though she is in here, she is ok'. Another fellow inmate, with just a little time practicing yoga, I saw that all she was trying to do was to assimilate her situation. I never asked her anything, I heard some gossip from the other women but I didn't really know why she was there. But she tried to accept her responsibility by being honest to herself. She used yoga to feel real, that's what she told me. 'I need to stay calm knowing that I will be here I don't know for how long', she said to me. She liked doing breathing exercises, that was what mostly relaxed her. And she sang mantras, she sings really beautiful. We chant Om or Lam, which Sol taught us, to activate muladahara chakra.
Do you still practice yoga?
Yes. I go outside at 6:00 am because my sister likes to run and I go with her. First we walk, then we run, and then we practice yoga. At night I try to meditate and sometimes I do some Sun Salutations to release tension from the day because I am very stressed now, the house work stresses me a lot. So I do practice, but not like before when I had a lot of time. I am trying to organize my daytime to practice properly.
Would you like to learn how to teach Yoga?
Yes. I really enjoy my practice but I also like sharing it with other people. Like now, for example, I am doing yoga with my sisters and I explain to them a posture step by step, and my sister really enjoys it, the youngest, she didn't know what yoga was and she loves it now. She says that she wants to take a yoga course but she is not going to pay for it now because she has me at home (laughter).
In the future, if you become a yoga teacher, Would you like to be part of the Yoga in Prison Project and teach there?
Yes. I would have no problem with going back, but I would have to get very prepared to teach. In one of the spare time that I had back there, I memorized all the names of the body bones. I also know some sanscrit names for the postures. I left all my copies and books that I had, I can get everything out here, or in the internet. They can't.
Would you like to share something else about your yoga experience in prison?
I think that it went deeper and deeper in me, until it reached something very profound, because it attracted good things for me. They say that yoga always brings good things to your life. I saw my exit from there, and I really saw it. I also observed that I had to be more peaceful, more humble, be more, always more. But mainly, and most important, it helped me to assimilate my imprisonment, not because of the place, but to learn not to lock myself in my head, in my problems, not to invent my own world because it is not mine. I am here, and I exist as a part of a whole. I should not imprison myself, and I don't mean between walls, but in my mind. To open my head and to know that, even though I was living in that place, I had my own way of thinking, and acting. It really helped me to open my head and liberate myself from my mind. I also learned about impermanence, so I don't want to get used to anything, I don't want to make my life boring or repetitive. I got free from that place and I learned how to let go of my feelings when they have to go. I was very limited in many ways but they couldn't limit my thoughts or my heart. Your freedom is inside of you, inside. You are free to think, to feel and to live whatever you want.
Thank you very much for sharing your experience, your thoughts and feelings.
Ana Paula, Mexico, November 2013.