Yoga

The Great Escape

Yoga and meditation help Pippin Ross escape the hell of America’s oldest prison for women. 

Illustration by Kim Rosen

“Release your diabetics!

“Release your diabetics to trauma!”

This is prison’s wake-up song—the deafening, metallic squawk of the PA—and, for many women here, it signals a trip to medical for a morning insulin shot. I’m at MCI Framingham, a medium-security prison twenty miles from Boston that’s a catchall for female offenders: homicidal lifers, sex workers ravaged by crack and meth, check-kiting welfare moms, scared high-school kids caught with a joint during a crackdown.

“Court trips! Medical trips!

“Transfers! Releases to admissions!”

I whisper my day’s mantra: “May Ibe at peace. May my heart stay open.” I pace my cinderblock ashram, warily eyeing the dreamer in the narrow bottom bunk. She’s my twelfth “roomie” since my arrival two years ago. Unconcerned about her crime, I have few criteria for successful co-habitation: I don’t want her to steal my pens and I want her to be a sound, late sleeper—giving me the relative bliss of an uninterrupted hour of morning yoga and meditation. In a ten-by-ten cell, with a metal sink on one side and a metal desk on the other, the only way to navigate through a sun salutation is to have my roomie’s sleeping body within inches of my face.

In cotton pajama bottoms and Department of Corrections T-shirt, I greet the splash of sunrise spilling through the grated and providentially eastern-facing window. “Breathing in, I vow to speak loving words. Breathing out, I vow to think loving thoughts.”

Kuh-thunk!

Cell doors open, and the first wave of human babble breaks over me, the sound of seven hundred angry, depressed, and confused hearts slowly breaking. Ready or not, we’re propelled into the day. A day not much different from the one before—imagine subtle shades of gray, punctuated by achingly brief bursts of color, like fireworks in the fog.

Breathe.

I leave my room. First task: mop and sweep. It’s a prison version of the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”

“Ross! Report to meds! Now!”

I join a line of women, who on the outside tend toward anorexic-
thin from their spartan diet of street drugs and the constant stress of living under the radar, but who are now swelling from inactivity, a diet heavy with refined sugar and white flour, and high daily doses of pharmaceuticals.

“We’d like to put you on trazadone, a heterocyclic antidepressant,” offers a kind and friendly nurse. I suspect this solicitation comes from my involvement in a mental health relaxation group, prison code for the yoga and meditation group I lead. If the lesson of breathing in, breathing out is good, they rationalize, stirring an antidepressant into the mix must be better.

“Thanks,” I say, “but I’d rather cop my serotonin high naturally. You folks should think about offering some herbal teas. Maybe a little St. John’s wort.”

Her response is standard issue in a bureaucracy with all the self-defeating grace and logic of the Department of Motor Vehicles: “Ha! Not in our lifetime!”

“Ten-minute movement!

“Ten-minute movement!”

From 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., prison days are fragmented into fifty-minute hours, each with a ten-minute finale tacked on to allow for movement.

I enter my steps-to-recovery class.

“We’re going to go deep today,” our teacher says. She’s part of a new wave of outside social-service professionals contracted by the DOC to add a human face to the corrections process. Guards in jackboots can only go so far in rebuilding broken spirits.

“I want you to write about the reason you became an addict,” she says. “Not the fun reason—the real reason.”

In prison, there’s a war between the attitudinal poles of punishment and rehabilitation. To put them down or prop them up, that is the question. Make them pound rocks or foster recovery and redemption? Prescribe them into pharmaceutical oblivion or teach them how to meditate and salute the sun? Bouncing many times a day between classes and the corridors and cells—where we’re constantly barked at for walking too slowly or punished with loss of yard time for wearing an ID tag too low—generates an advanced state of agitation that, with luck and a whole lot of determination, eventually morphs into acceptance.

A Supreme Court ruling that allows all religions to be practiced in prison—Native American, Buddhism, Islam, and Wicca included—is the main reason yoga and meditation have subtly but surely seeped into the correctional culture. But the yoga class I teach once a week is listed on the formal daily schedule as “mental health relaxation.” Otherwise, I wouldn’t be allowed, along with several other women, to wriggle out of my morning steps-to-recovery class.

“Time for mental health on a mat,’ I whisper to my steps instructor.

“I wish I could make yoga part of this class instead of all this talk,” she whispers, shuffling a stack of handouts titled “The Wounded Inner Child.”

“Yo, Pimpin.” A woman approaches me as I haul my load of mats from the gym to a classroom down the hall.

“You doin’ that yogurt stuff?”

“Yup. Coming?”

“Damn straight. Takes me outta here to a much better place.”

I enter the large, windowed room and count heads. The word is out: there are new women with nervous smiles. Most come for the distraction, to forget this place where there’s, both figuratively and literally, no escape. Boredom and depression are the primary motivators, not learning a new skill, being hip, or losing a few pounds. They simply want to forget where they are.

The staff therapist who cleverly designed this hour of yoga and meditation had an advanced degree in institutional inertia. She understood how to circumvent the sludge that can incapacitate worthy, but hard-to-pigeonhole programs.

“Rumor has it you know yoga,” she said. “Want to teach it?”

“I’m not certified,” I told her. “I’m just a longtime practitioner. Do we have to get me cleared, or searched, or something?”

She shook her head and smiled. “If we ask for formal approval, it’ll turn into a protracted ordeal of micro-analyzing something into six pounds of wasted paper.”

I’ve been amazed by the rapt attention I receive from my fledgling students. They’re unaccustomed to contortions, and to sensations other than crack, junk, booze, and beatings. For me the gift is simple: to teach something based entirely on love, not technique or discipline. Here, I’m liberated to share with them what I know, free of the outside world’s performance pressures. Here, I can be as ignorant of yoga’s precise terminology and subtle choreography as I am, and still be the guide to their first awkward forays into physicality and purpose.

Because we’re all in this together, my teachings get personal and appropriate. One of the most popular requests is the warrior pose. “Think of this as a full-force way of saying no,” I suggest. “Your hand is blocking whatever it is you no longer want: addiction, abuse, selling your body. Now, push it into the ground beside your foot. Crush it. Bury it. Say goodbye for good. Turn your head away from all that dark stuff and reach for the sky. Reach for the light.”

“What’s up with this yoga stuff, Pimpin?” someone asks at the end of class. “You took me from cobra to camel to bridge to fish. It’s like I’m on safari! I am definitely coming back, girl. You got some kinda healing bomb!”

Compliments don’t get better than that.

“Chow! Now! Go to chow!”

Chow. Think neon green Jell-O and mystery soup. Some women here have spent years negotiating with prison officials, documenting religious and/or medical reasons why they require a vegetarian diet.

“It took me about five years to convince this place that Buddhism is a legitimate religion,” says my friend Joli, a woman brimming with incongruous, stunning beatitude.

Our friendship evolved after, in the tiny prison library, we simultaneously reached for a copy of We’re All Doing Time: A Guide to Getting Free, which has become an unofficial prison bible. The book was written in 1985 by Bo Lozoff, the founder of the Human Kindness Foundation. Lozoff and his wife, Sita, became dedicated to the concept that we can achieve freedom—anywhere—when Sita’s brother ended up in prison over a shipment of marijuana from Jamaica to Miami. This led to the Prison-Ashram Project. Its motto: “Be a monk, not a convict.”

Leaving chow, Joli and I spoon the remains of our sugar-infused, additive-rich, carb-loaded lunches into a slop barrel rumored to feed a neighboring farmer’s pigs.

A guard barks, “Hey, you two! Get moving!” and we part, still laughing, like high-school cheerleaders dawdling before the next class.

“End of ten-minute movement!

“End of ten-minute movement!”

Tonight is mindful meditation class, a once-a-week, two-hour sangha. The class owes its existence to Joli’s long, frustrating efforts to convince skeptical Massachusetts DOC officials that Buddhism is a legitimate religion. As soon as the approval was posted on the Corrections website, people from “outside” sanghas rallied to the dharma call. That they endure scrutiny, pat-downs, and a draconian, two-hour orientation just to spend two hours of their lives here touches us deeply. Often the feeling is reciprocal; they say they find our sessions powerful and enlightening.

The cacophony in the corridor sounds like a distant, angry river as we sit on meditation cushions our mentors have donated. We form a circle, facing a collection of battery-operated candles and a vase of plastic flowers. In the beginning, the flowers were real and the overhead fluorescent lights were turned off. One of our friends brought us baby carrots or grapes or raisins—precious ambrosia to us—and we’d do eating meditations. But that didn’t last. The food was banned and the lights were turned back on. In the dim flicker of candles, we might plot escape; the raisins could be smuggled out under our tongues to brew cell “hooch.” The flowers? Who knows. But now they’re fake.

There are many prison rules with no apparent point. Visitors can’t wear clothing with corporate logos, such as Adidas or Nike. No sitting on the grass in the exercise yard. No lending or borrowing. Luckily, they haven’t figured out how to ban caring, a regular component in this jury-rigged sangha of ours.

“I thought I’d kill myself when I first got here,” Joli tells us. “Then it dawned on me: This is an amazing time right here, right now. I haven’t felt this alive and safe in years!” She pauses and beams. “Go figure.”

Her remarks elicit a collective laugh over the paradox of not simply surviving, but thriving in a place where suffering is standard operating procedure.

“Final downward movement!

“Final downward movement!”

Two hours of meditation, readings, and yoga, and it’s a wrap. Ending a day here is always more satisfying than beginning one. In post-meditation bliss, after chasing our version of satori for nearly two hours, re-entry into the high-pitched gridlock lurking outside our sangha’s steel door feels as though we’re cruising over an L.A. freeway using environmentally friendly jet-packs.

“Check out the sky,” Joli says as we spill into the yard, heading for our units to be counted and locked in for the night. We all look up.

Framingham is the country’s oldest prison for women, erected on a bucolic piece of farmland in 1847. Were it not wrapped in razor wire and covered with cement, this place would be a gorgeous piece of real estate, encircled by grand maples and offering splendid dusks and dawns.

“Whoa!” We gasp as a shooting star blazes across the sky.

“Know what that was?” Joli asks us.

“An angel bomb,” says one.

“The tear of our watchful goddess,” says another.

“One of the thousands of souls who were here before us,” says a third.

My turn. It comes with crystalline lucidity.

“Liberation. Right here. Right now.”