Prison yoga offers inmates 90-minute pursuits of inner peace

05/08/2014 12:00 AM

09/01/2014 2:17 PM

Each week, Zack Pasillas hops behind the wheel of his car and drives off to seek the pleasure and satisfaction of teaching yoga to a group of adults he’s identified as his very “best students.”

Never mind that to reach them Pasillas must pass through barred, locked metal gates and several uniformed security inspectors demanding duplicate IDs. Never mind that he must cross a dismal, barren yard devoid of greenery, toward the building called C Facility, erected with all the architectural finesse of a massive, Third World concrete box.

Never mind that his prize pupils are a captive audience. Literally.

This is yoga class California State Prison, Sacramento-style, with thin blue yoga mats and scratchy gray woolen blankets set out in rows to accommodate perhaps 20 students at a time. A prominent sign at the head of the gymnasium says: “WARNING: No warning shots will be fired in this area. Warden.” The gym once brimmed with inmates and stacked bunks, with barely room to mingle. But prison-overcrowding regulations took care of that, and the cavernous room is now back to being a recreation hall.

Pasillas, 35, couldn’t feel more fulfilled than when he’s at the prison. Dressed all in black, he was accompanying yoga instructor Iwona, a Polish-born, British-accented teacher who would narrate and lead the inmates in a rigorous program of physically challenging poses. Pasillas was to stay by her side, demonstrating the poses at the front of the class.

“It’s kind of exciting to have a role in trying to bring the right healing to the right group,” he said. “These men here are having realizations in a really powerful way. It’s really inspiring to see and it’s convinced me that transformation is real.”

Likewise, inmates at this Level IV facility near the famous Folsom Prison respond to the lessons with authenticity, respect and an earnest devotion to absorbing what Vinyasa yoga has to offer.

“Wow,” responded Richard Robinson, when asked his thoughts. “I get so much out of it. I get a sense of peace. Having a prison yoga program is way outside the box. The more I got into it, the more I found peace and calm.

“What I am learning is that everything starts from the inside out, instead of outside in.” Robinson said. “It’s not living in the past or pining for something in the future. It’s learning to live in the moment. Life works the same way. The more you practice these new things in life, the more you benefit.”

Robinson, 39, is an introvert, he said, serving a life sentence for attempted murder, a crime he did not commit, he told the state parole board. “The application of yoga and meditation is really grounding. The fact that I’m in here for something I didn’t do used to bug me. Now I have inner peace. I can accept we are where we are. Everything happens for a reason.”

Robinson, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones. As an African American from Compton, he’s able to attend both twice-a-week yoga classes. Others, namely opposing Latino gang members of the rival Northerners and Southerners factions cannot occupy the same gym or a bloody melee would erupt. So the Northerners take the class only on Tuesdays, and the Southerners on Thursdays.

Pasillas is a founder and the outreach director of the nonprofit Yoga Seed Collective in Sacramento, which is devoted to sharing the practice’s benefits with under-served populations, such as veterans, diabetic American Indians, LGBT community members, inmates and patients at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry. He also teaches at California State Prison, Solano.

Pasillas’ bona fides include 200 hours of yoga teacher training and high school classroom management. He’s currently working through a 500-hour yoga therapy program, so he can tap yoga and mindfulness for those who’ve suffered trauma.

Teacher of the Year in 2009 at Heritage Peak Charter School, Pasillas also offers yoga to students at Sierra School and hopes to expand his yoga-in-the-schools program. This fall, he’ll teach at Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis.

“I’ve seen some of my favorite students end up in prison, incarcerated, because they don’t have the same resources and support as others,” Pasillas said. “I’m really driven to try to break that cycle.”

But back to C Facility. The class here is an offshoot of the Prison Yoga Program founded by James Fox at San Quentin State Prison, where inmates have been learning yoga and mindfulness practices since 2002. Pasillas, Iwona (whose last name is withheld for her personal security) and other teachers he recruits have all been trained in the Prison Yoga Program system.

The ancient art of yoga is decidely different on the inside than it is on the outside. Prison Yoga Program teachers, Pasillas said, “are less open-ended in what we do as a group. In the prison, we’re addressing nonviolence and impulse-control, not patronizing our customers. We have to be completely aware and attuned to the gang culture for safety reasons. In extending our leadership, we acknowledge that nature may have led them to this path that they don’t want to be on any more.”

Ninety minutes is quite awhile to keep up with the fast-paced, challenging cycle of positions called out by Iwona on a recent day. But these inmates, buff, tattooed, physically fit, moved with military-like precision. Iwona led them through downward facing dog, uncounted planks, side planks (supporting themselves with just one arm), cobra, child and warrior I and warrior II poses, among others.

“Part of the yoga practice is to be with what is, practice being present and allowing things to be as they are,” she told her students. “There’s a saying in yoga that what goes around, comes around. I’m offering this time to you to support you.” And, always, the emphasis on breathing. “Yoga is the process. It’s not the destination. It might take many practices before we have our moment. If your intention is there, this will carry you.”

Pasillas explained that the sequence of poses were meant to challenge the inmates. Take warrior I and II, for instance. “These are physically demanding poses that give the students that element of distress tolerance that’s good for impulse control,” he said. “The state you feel in the pose is the same kind of state you feel when something upsets you. Then you can use those skills, with breathing, to give yourself a little buffer time when something triggers you.”

Already, after more than a year and a half at California State Prison, Sacramento, Pasillas has noticed change in some inmates. Kevin Lewis, 45, of Oakland is one of these inmates. Lewis was found guilty of second-degree murder and has been locked up for 20 years.

“Yoga gives me a way to combat the things going on in The Yard,” Lewis said. “If you can relax through the painful positions, you can relax through painful situations in life. It also helps spiritually and keeps you calm and tolerant.”

Once class has ended and all the Northerners have been escorted out, a 112-pound coach escorts Christopher Salazar, 43, into the gym to give a testimonial about yoga and its transformative nature.

“I’m definitely into yoga,” said Salazar, who had covered up his elaborate tattoos, including a Mayan image, with a white T-shirt. “Maybe because we are in prison, we do yoga because we’re looking for an outlet, anything that can give us peace of mind. For an hour and a half, we forget about The Yard and all the madness out there.”

He added that he’s from Orange County, was convicted of second-degree murder, and misses the ocean at Huntington Beach more than he can say. “I’ve been in here since I was 18. It’s been a hard journey.”

Salazar is one in whom Pasillas said he’s seen a change for the better. When Pasillas first met him, the inmate had a hardened gaze. These days, Pasillas said he sees calm instead, as in a yogi’s eyes.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed from a previous version to more accurately describe the demeanor and tattoos of inmate Christopher Salazar.

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