I walked toward the back entrance of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, looking up at a seemingly endless stretch of sky-high chain-link fencing topped with spiraling barbed wire, punctuated by looming guard towers. And I had to admit to myself...
I walked toward the back entrance of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, looking up at a seemingly endless stretch of sky-high chain-link fencing topped with spiraling barbed wire, punctuated by looming guard towers. And I had to admit to myself that yes, I did feel somewhat intimated. And that I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d been naïve to imagine that having a nice college-educated white girl like me teach yoga to a bunch of women locked up inside there was really, in fact, such a bright idea.
I met up with Rachael Hudak, my fellow volunteer from the Chicago nonprofit, Yoga for Recovery (YFR), in front of the first checkpoint. Together, we walked up to several uniformed, armed guards manning the back gate. One opened the fencing and let us in. “Oh, you’re here for yoga!” He smiled at us. “Yeah, come on in!”
We walked through and found ourselves standing in front of two female guards. As we pulled out our passes and IDs, one of them exclaimed to everyone at once and no one in particular, “I want to take some yoga classes, too!” Her voice sounded playful and half-joking, but also serious. I looked at her and smiled. What I saw in her eyes told me that she really would like to do it. “We’d love to have you sometime,” I replied.
Rachael and I moved on to the indoor checkpoint. Showed our IDs and passes again. Placed our coats and car keys in plastic boxes and then onto the conveyor belt for x-ray scanning, just like at an airport. Took turns holding our arms out and getting wanded. Stepped through the metal detector, which seemed to beep every time, no matter what. Shuffled through a set of double doors with a synchronized locking mechanism. And walked down a long, institutional hallway into a huge gym.
I spotted a set of black yoga mats neatly laid out in rows at the far end of the room. We walked over to them. Soon, a group of a dozen women dressed in orange jumpsuits came in and was led over to the mat area by a female guard who reminded me of a Chicago street cop.
“OK! LISTEN UP!,” the guard boomed. ‘IT’S TIME TO DO YOGA! YOGA IS GREAT FOR INNER PEACE!” We all looked over at her, dutifully paying attention. I was finding the combination of her booming voice and sincere pro-yoga sentiments surprising, charming, and somewhat humorous. “I’M HAPPY THAT YA’LL HAVE A CHANCE TO DO SOMETHING SPIRITUAL!,” she added. And then, after a few personal asides to some of the women (who seemed to like and respect her), she left.
So far, none of this was unfolding according to my stereotypes – or fears. But there was no time to think about that. It was time to start class.
So I did. And it flowed beautifully. Despite being temporarily distracted by a rather loud group of inmates who came in and assembled at the other end of the gym, our students managed to regroup and maintain focus. It was clear they were serious about this. They wanted to learn some yoga.
The end of the class was graced with a sweet, still moment of silence. Then, the women spontaneously broke into applause. There was a quick peppering of comments and questions. “That was great!” “I feel good!” “Will you come back next week?”
We assured them that while the teachers rotate, yoga classes will be offered every Thursday. And then the women lined up, got handcuffed, and were escorted out. Soon, the next group of inmates was led in. Rachael taught and I assisted. Once again, the energy was beautiful, and the women clapped at the end of the class.
And that was my first experience teaching yoga in Division 4, which holds over 700 women of all security classifications in Chicago’s Cook County Jail.
Expect the Unexpected
The purpose of telling this story is not to suggest that teaching yoga in settings such as jails is necessarily going to be easy. On the contrary, I’m well aware that my surprisingly smooth experience was facilitated by years of preceding work on the part of the YFR leadership and several dedicated staffers in the jail system. And while I wasn’t involved with YFR when i