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South Central Prison Project #1:  We Are Them, They Are Us

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“Even though both John the Baptist and St. Paul spent much time imprisoned, as did Saints Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, and many others throughout Christian history, it is amazing to me that there is so little awareness of the needs, hopes, and possibilities of the incarcerated in most Christian communities.  They are still “other” people who are “over there” and largely invisible to our daily lives and interests.  Yet jails and prisons have often served as would-be monasteries, seminaries, hermitages, altar calls, and retreat houses—hotbeds of human transformation.” ~Richard Rohr (Foreword from Secrets From A Prison Cell by Tony D. Vick) A must read.

Last Saturday, I was privileged to witness and be an integral part of an unfolding miracle.  Answering a call, through a friend, from a friend, saying ”yes” without a second thought, in the moment, can turn into “scary” the night before.  The Boogie Man of the Great Unknown… in the house… in my bed… in my head!

Trying to get to sleep that night, “what the hell have I gotten myself into now”, kept cycling through my mind, fear & anxiety running amok.  What to do?  I called mom, of course.  She said all the good & comforting things a wise and loving mother would say to bring me back off the ledge of my monkey mind and back into the homeland of my heart.  Thanks, mom.

Low and behold, the next day, as I drove 2 hours southwest from Kingston Springs to Clifton TN, the sun shining brightly through open windows, singing, praying, and repeating mantra, I arrived safely at South Central Corrections Facility.

At first glance, it appears to be a sterile, lifeless industrial complex, surrounded by high fencing and shiny spiraling razor wire, literally, out in the middle of nowhere.  Could there actually be life inside, and if so, what would it look like?
After being stopped by a guard in a van, I got clearance to drive directly up to the front stairs, meeting my dear friend and Bhakti brother, Gayatri das.  Together, we unloaded yoga mats, blankets and blocks, along with my guitar, harmonium, percussion instruments, drums, song sheets, accompanied by our tender, rapidly beating hearts, through the front doors to the security checkpoint.  We waited there for our guide and soon-to-be friend, Dr. B., to take us through to our destination, a pod of incarcerated men, who had been diagnosed with various forms of mental illness, guided and supported by our insider “sage-like” friends, Dean and Jamie. I met both at Riverbend Max Security Institution when I first brought Bhakti Kirtan to the Friday night service, back in Jan. 2013, by the grace of my soul sister, abolitionist/activist, Jeannie Alexander.

Once we figured out where we would be, declining the tiny, windowless cement room offered us, Dr. B. brought us into a common space that was clean; table & stool “onesies” bolted to the concrete floor, with actual windows that invited the much-needed sunlight to infuse & inspire our efforts.  We began preparing the space for our Yoga/Music Therapy program, (hopefully) becoming a healing collaboration with our still unknown explorers.

Spreading the mats and blankets out, we unpacked our instruments and the first group of men began coming through the door.  My inner guidance had been very clear to begin with, asking each one to share their name and what prompted them to sign up for this program; an audible way to see and be seen, to make real, and cast intention for our time together.  The common theme was:  to relax, to experience some peace and calm.  Sound familiar?

We began to breathe together, to explore the sound and direct experience of Om/Aum.  To run breath along the central channel, joining together, heaven & earth, in and out of silence, sound, movement, stillness; together as individuals, being carried into the unified field of Awareness, and back into the room of individual consciousness.  Faces and eyes lighting up, diverse bodies finding their way into shapes of yoga, smiles and even laughter…Joy filled the room.

Practicing this living yoga, sharing an actual “felt-sense” of Peace and Freedom, was happening. Pausing in the space between breaths, between thoughts, adding Om, and letting go.  Recognizing that the direction of Yoga moves first and foremost, INward… to a place of refuge and safety, in the Heart.  No one can take this from us, no matter our present circumstance or environment.

After our first hour, savasana sweetly consumed, our second group was lining up outside the door.  Turns out, our first group did not want to leave!  Dr. B. allowed them to remain while the new arrivals filed in and took their seats on the concrete floor, cushioned by a mat or a blanket, offered by our generous Nashville yoga community. (thank you!)  We raised our voices, in English, Let It Be, Amazing Grace, Down to the River, mixing in sweet Sanskrit mantras, and witnessed miracle unfolding.  Above & beyond anything I could have planned or made happen.  I was simply in awe.

We are not broken humans needing to be fixed.  We long for a sense of connection, peace, and wholeness.  We long to be seen, we long to be heard.  We became alchemists, yogis, holding the dynamic tension of opposites.  Singing, breathing, softening into the accepted and rejected, shadow and shame, joy and longing, too much not enough, light and dark; waiting for that middle way to open, and so it did. Grace made Her Way into that room, on that day, and left Her mark on all of us.

AUTHOR

Amy Barnes

All stories by: Amy Barnes
2 comments
  • Mary Beth Cysewski
    REPLY

    Beautiful story. I am reminded of my awsome experiences singing kirtan with you at Riverbend. What an awakening to share space and sing devotional chants with encarcerated men. My initial reaction to being invited along on that first excursion was Fear! On the inside I found Grace. I would fall back into fear each time we entered the prison and yet each time I trusted and stretched outside my comfort zone and opened my heart. I felt the walls of the prison evaporate as we chanted and played and was reminded of the walls we cast around ourselves in or out of literal prison. I’m proud of you trusting and stretching and bringing your love and compassion to those SouthCentral men .

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