Yoga for Women of the Belize Central Prison

It seems lately yoga has an extreme spectrum. For some, it’s becoming Instagram famous for being able to get your leg behind your head in your sponsored designer yoga pants. For others, it’s meditating in a forest for a few days because ‘earthing’ is helping you find your center. Not all yogis go out of bounds, but in the digital age, yoga can seem out of reach for those who aren’t willing to go ‘that far’.

The contrary is true – Yoga is inclusive of all of us. Whether you want to move your body for five minutes in the morning, or for hours until you perfect your headstand, the practice has no judgement. In fact, as part of the spiritual practice of yoga, we learn that Svadhyaya means self study inclusive of practicing non-judgment.

Today, as a yoga teacher in the United States, I teach people how to be present in their bodies and breathe in and out their nose with intention to regulate their emotions. Most recently, I was able to take that messaging to a unique audience: the women of the Belize Central Prison.

Of the fifty women I’ll meet in class today, nearly half are in prison for illegally entering the country. Most left their homes in search of a better life but ended up in a world of sex work in a bar through human trafficking.  These women are incarcerated after bar raids by Belizan police, which will leave them with an option to pay $1,000 (BZE) or spend six months in jail. Six months of time in Belizan prison costs the country four times as much as the $1,000 fine.

Other crimes that have led this group of fifty women together include drug trafficking, crimes of dishonesty such as stealing and other non-violent crimes. No matter what led the individual to the prison, they are all equal in yoga class. Yoga is inclusive of all of us.

On the day, I’m nervous as we pull into the building, yellow and blue, then the gate opens and myself and two members of the not for profit I’m working with, just drive on in. I start to relax a little bit as my expectations had us walking into something more along the lines of ‘Locked Up Abroad’.

We enter into the small building and pass a few male inmates who are polite enough. The women are sitting on church pew benches and are awaiting the volunteers of Rhythm of Change, the not for profit who offers free yoga twice a week to the inmates, to bring out the sign in sheet. As each of them sign in, we unload mats from the car and prepare to teach.

I’m shaking as I’m feeling a complex variety of emotions, including but not limited to, “How did I get here? This is scary, incredible, weird…” then I’m zapped into the present moment, strap on my microphone and start to teach, business as usual.

The class concludes with after laughter as the past hour, a girl from Alabama, taught a majority Spanish speaking class her version of yoga. When I got to speak with the inmates about how yoga changed their lives, one common message occurred: patience.

The women were able to finally connect with themselves from a place of non-judgement, with the gift of two hours a week on their mats. As each person learned to breathe more deeply and move their body, they have become more connected to their internal voices, allowing them to make better choices. In fact, the prison has seen a significant decrease in altercations amongst inmates since ROC started the program.

“I thank God for bringing you here and treating us like civilized humans, and helping us find our peace,” an elderly inmate in Belize Central Prison expressed after our practice.

Yoga is inclusive of  all of us. The women who showed up on their mats in prison taught me that we can all find a way to relate to one another, we can all breathe more deeply and judge ourselves and others less. For when we can feel at home in our bodies, we can start to help others feel at home in theirs. It’s from these small gestures and human connections that we can start to make our world a brighter place.

Photos Credits Gabi Garrett