Namaste: A Practice in Oneness with Incarcerated Yogis
Namaste. More than just a word or greeting, it’s a gesture of bearing witness to the Divine within another person, and recognizing that same Divine presence is within you.
“Namaste allows two individuals to come together energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-connection. If it is done with deep feeling in the heart and with the mind surrendered, a deep union of spirits can blossom.” Yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala explains in Yoga Journal.
No doubt you’ve heard it expressed in many different phrases:
“The light in me, acknowledges the light in you.”
”The teacher and student in me, honors the teacher and student in you.”
“The place in me where the entire Universe resides, recognizes that same place in you.”
Learning and experiencing Namaste has been one of the greatest gifts that yoga has bestowed upon me. I consider it to be a spiritual practice of mindfulness and compassion.
It allows me to drop whatever is swirling in my mind, and experience one small-but-mighty feeling of connection and unity with another person.
For a moment, feelings of separateness are dissolved.
Judgments are dropped.
Insecurities about myself fade as I recognize that we are both spiritual beings having a human experience and just trying to do our best.
Each and every time I practice Namaste toward others, I can’t help but smile and feel a warmth in my heart-space.
I say Namaste silently to myself when I pass people on the street, to the folks at the grocery store, and to people I meet for the first time. My hope is that the smile that forms on my face and the soft, friendly eye contact I make resonates with them. And just as Aadil Palkhivala said, “...a deep union of spirits can blossom.”
Maybe just for a moment, they feel welcomed in the presence of a stranger.
Maybe just for a few seconds, their nervous system finds ease.
Namaste has been especially impactful while sharing the practice of yoga to incarcerated adults and teens. From February 2017 - June 2018 I served as a volunteer yoga teacher for Yoga Behind Bars, a nonprofit that brings trauma-informed yoga and meditation practices to incarcerated people in jails, prisons, and detention centers across Washington state.
All of my senses were on-alert the first time I entered the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, WA. As I signed in and provided my ID in the very small check-in space, I was making friendly conversation with the other volunteer teacher – but was nervous on the inside. Not in fear for my safety; I was nervous about not knowing what to expect. It was not uncommon for these students (our "yogis") to be detoxing, suffering from old or current injuries, pregnant, or experiencing a wide variety of intense emotions. As a teacher and, most importantly, as a space-holder we needed to be as open and flexible to the energy of the group.
Dressed in baggy grey sweatpants, socks, and a long sleeve tee under my Yoga Behind Bars t-shirt, me and the other teacher were escorted by an officer down a hallway to the room where yoga classes and other activities where held. The walls, floor and ceiling were all white.
We walked on one side of the hallway while the officer walked on the other side; those are the safety rules. We picked up a cart of yoga mats, foam blocks, and mat cleaning supplies and made it to our final destination: the practice space. The room had grey-blue carpet (like what’s common in offices), a couple of dry-erase boards, and windows on one wall that looked out to the hallway. The door could only be locked and unlocked from the control hub nearby, where officers could monitor all hallway foot traffic as well as in our group meeting room.
The other teacher, a veteran yoga teacher and YBB volunteer, guided me on how to lay out the mats and blocks to get the room set up for class: One mat and two blocks per person. The mats (all the same color) were to be staggered so that no one was directly in front of another, and everyone would have visibility to both of us teachers. We didn’t know how many women* were attending that evening, but my co-teacher gave an estimated guess based on experience.
Soon about 13-15 yogis, our students, were escorted into the room by an officer.
Each person wore a red uniform and slip-on plastic sandals with socks. The uniforms resembled doctor’s scrubs, but I’m told that the fabric is a little thicker and less stretchy (and not comfortable).
While they came into the room and picked a mat, many appeared to be excited, some acted indifferent, and one or two acted slightly guarded. Of course these were only my perceptions. The fellow teacher and I smiled and warmly greeted them: “good evening ladies*! Pick a mat.” Most of the yogis met our eye-contact and smiled back to us.
(*It’s important to bring awareness to the fact that transgender and non-binary people are detained according to an institution’s gender discernment. Therefore not all of the yoga students identify as women or girls, even if they are in women’s or girl’s units within the institution.)
One woman looked like she could have been my sister.
Many had their hair braided; some didn’t.
Two women had visible marks and scars down each arm. One of them had significant scabbing on both of her cheeks. When we made eye contact, she smiled a very gentle and honest smile. Both of us being Spirits having a human experience, I took a moment, inwardly, to acknowledge that her human experience has been a lot more painful and traumatic than mine.
But this is the point where it’s easy to think of the other person as separate.
Practicing Namaste requires a release of any labels, assumptions, and judgments.
Gabby Bernstein explains this beautifully: “Identifying this sameness is what allows us to shift our focus from separation to love. The same way we share the thought system of fear, we also share a loving mind.”
What’s left is a feeling of connection; deep connection on a spiritual level. Of course there’s no guarantee that both people will honor or even recognize this connection. I have faith that on a spiritual level, however, this connection makes a difference.
And as we all practiced yoga together that evening, I experienced this beautiful connection over and over. Namaste.
As we held Warrior 2 pose, one women met my eyes with an expression of pride and maybe even happiness or joy. Namaste.
As we flowed between Goddess pose on the exhale and Star pose on the inhale, my eyes were met with either expressions of focus and determination, or humorous frustration (like, “my thigh muscles are really feeling this! How many more reps?!”) Namaste.
Practicing Namaste in an environment like this, behind bars – where there exists so much stigma, judgment, separation, and oppression – has changed me. It’s been a practice of observing my perceptions of separateness, of facing my own fears, and meeting them with love.
My hope for the incarcerated adults and teens that I’ve been blessed to practice yoga with is for them to have felt this connection and this love as well; even if just for a moment.
Namaste to you.