I created the Yoga 4 Change class curriculum based on my personal diary entries while bedridden after my second surgery during the summer of 2014. I had a hard time accepting my situation after I got injured and placed a ton of blame on the decisions I made, and on decisions made by the medical professionals who were assigned to my case. I fell very easily into a state of depression and was not able to find any happiness or gratitude in my new life.
Practicing yoga allowed me to find my way out of the depression, and back into my life – because when I was doing yoga I did not feel judged or inadequate. It helped me learn to love my body again and after each class I became content and grateful for what I could do, and less focused on what I couldn’t finish or achieve. This practice of gratitude helped me through my tough time, and that is why it is the first lesson in our curriculum.
My family and friends frequently ask me what it is like teaching incarcerated men and women inside the jail. It gets even better when they hear that I start every lesson by asking the students to say one thing that they are grateful for from the past week. Questions like “how could they be grateful for anything while they are in jail?” and “what do you say when they say nothing?” come up quite often. The disconnect between what is occurring in our Yoga 4 Change classes, and what the public believes to be occurring, lies in the simple fact that my students aren’t monsters – they are humans. Their answers are the same as if I were to ask anyone on the outside. At first some students may be apprehensive, but eventually they respond with answers like “their children”, “their sobriety”, “their full bellies”.
I am not going to lie though, I have had quite a few students say something like “NOTHING. I’M IN JAIL AND IT’S THE HOLIDAYS, AND I MISS MY FAMILY, AND I MISS MY DOG, AND I HATE IT HERE. I HAVE NOTHING TO BE GRATEFUL FOR.”.
When this does occur, I simply remind them that they are alive; that they have the ability to get out of jail and back to their family. That they will eventually get out, and NOW is the time to work on changing for the better – not push it off until they are finally free. Filling our students with the sense of gratitude, even the simple reminder that they woke up in the morning is important because it brings them to a place of “it could be worse”: they could be dead, they could be cold, they could be hungry, they could be alone.
Our lesson of gratitude is taught to all of our populations, not just to incarcerated men and women. I have taught veterans who felt guilt and shame for being the sole survivor from their platoon to return alive, I have taught children who are struggling in every aspect of their lives and who have nothing, and I have taught individuals who are battling their addiction while in the middle of detox. Each one of these students has looked into my eyes and said “I have nothing to be grateful for” and meant it with every bone in their body. It breaks my heart each and every time.
Nevertheless, at the end of class of this particular lesson in our curriculum, I re-ask the question “What are you grateful for”. Those students who did not have anything to say before, or who had nothing to be grateful for – those students who were hopeless, each of them now has something to say. Some of them say “my family” or “being alive” and the majority of them say “Yoga”.
This simple practice, something they could do on their own no matter where they are, has shown them they can be grateful for something. And this gratitude turns into hope, because “it could be worse”.
One of my goals for 2016 is to start my day in gratitude. Every morning I pick one thing to be grateful for. It doesn’t have to be anything grand, and it doesn’t have to be something perfect. It can be simple and small. Starting my day with gratefulness has changed my perspective, and I would love to hear and see what YOU are grateful for! I invite you to join me by using: #366DaysofGratitude.