The Prison Yoga Project In Uganda
By Leyla Ahmet
“Yoga IS magic.” After 8 years of teaching it’s easy to forget the transformational, magic that happens each time you step on the mat. It is easy to get caught up with green avocado smoothies and handstands on the beach, the yoga world can at times seem like it is for the super human, hypermobile. Don’t get me wrong - I love looking at those instagram movies - it is motivating and I am in awe daily but there is more. It just might not make such spectacular viewing, does watching someone breathe get followers, or likes? It is in controlling the breath and in the simplicity of an asana where so much of the magic lies.
I began teaching yoga in the Jinja prison about a year ago. And about 6 months ago, I brought in a local male Ugandan teacher Timothy. This has brought me back to the essentials of yoga: self inquiry, centering, letting go, present moment awareness and being of service to others. Together we have approached the students with an open heart and mind. Prisons in Uganda are very different from the rest of the world. Lawyers go missing, people are held without bail, judges are bribed, people are held for years without trial. Instead of assuming they are inherently evil and deserve to be locked away, we look at each student as a human being with a story. We approach our students, knowing that they are all are most likely dealing with unresolved trauma.
Our teaching methodology unpacks and addresses years of malnourishment, no education, abuse and trauma. Through breathing exercises, dynamic sequences, and deep relaxation, we teach anger management, stress reduction, and how to create inner peace wherever you are.
I have wondered how I fit into this role, me being a white female yogi in a male prison. I’m good at creating flows, finding ways to adjust asanas to suit individuals, but in an African prison, where do I fit in? I wonder if my traumas are enough to help me understand their traumas. Do my wounds, stories, hurts, failures, abandonment issues even scratch the surface in comparison? In my heart I know I don’t need to compare or compete. We have all endured trauma, sadness, loss and the feeling of being let down. The only thing that is different is that I have been privileged enough to get an education, have financial stability, family and community support. These things have given me tools, stability and safety to overcome life’s challenges. The prisoners don’t necessarily have these luxuries. So many times unresolved trauma stays unresolved.
Unresolved trauma stays locked in the body. The body holds onto painful memories that are not dealt with and we can hold stress in our bodies as well. Many even hold armor around the heart to protect it from loss and hurt. This is where the power of yoga can help us heal, the magic gets to happen. As we stretch and strengthen the body, we begin to create space for movement, space for letting go and space for change. We develop a sensitivity and awareness to our body and our breath. Many people begin to develop an appreciation for what the body is capable of and of what it does each moment that goes unnoticed. This simultaneous strengthening, sensitivity and awareness are incredibly healing.
I remind the prisoners when I am teaching that there are many distractions on the outside; pain, war and illness to name a few. Even with the privileges that many of us have, there is an immense amount of suffering everywhere and that the only way out of the inner prisons we all seem to live in, is to discover the wealth that abounds in our hearts, bodies and minds.
What I have realized, is that if I can lift one student then I know I have found a place.
To learn more about the author and Yoga in Uganda, you can visit her website at www.yogauganda.com.