The First Step

 Photo by  Chris Noble

Photo by Chris Noble

For over a year I volunteered to teach a yoga class once a week to a group of men at a place called The First Step House. This was an institution established for men who had just come out of jail and who needed a positive first step into managing a new life outside of prison. At the First Step House, these guys, many of whom were court-ordered to be there, would receive group therapy and courses about things like anger management, personal finances, and how to get a job.

I remember showing up on my first morning, sometime in the late spring or early summer. I left my wallet locked in my car not knowing how cautious I should be about people who had just left the Big House. I walked into the large red-bricked building, an old renovated church, past a fat calico cat who looked at me like he owned the place. Inside, it smelled like bleach, bacon grease, and coffee. There was a scruffy man wearing a camo jacket and heavy boots standing at a kitchen window placing an order to a uniformed cook for some eggs and pancakes. I mingled around until I found Sabrina, the director; she was debriefing the staff for the day's events in her office. "Oh Scott!" she said enthusiastically. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet our new yoga instructor. He's going to be teaching every Wednesday morning." I was greeted with several polite hellos.

After the meeting, the director showed me around the class rooms, therapy rooms, the grounds, and the kitchen and even invited me to order food there whenever I wanted. Finally she led me to a group of about 20 men in a large meeting room, all shuffling and slouching, consumed in the art of killing time before some institutionalized activity. "Gentlemen!" Sabrina said in a loud and cheery voice that both commanded attention and simultaneously demanded and conveyed respect. "This is Scott, our new yoga instructor." There was a long moment of uneasy quiet as this group of men shifted their eyes skeptically between Sabrina and me, processing the bomb that had just been dropped on them: they were now going to be required to practice yoga. A few less-than-subtle curses skittered around the room to which Sabrina paid no attention and instead marched out of the room leading me and the curmudgeonly group in tow. She led us to a large shed-like structure behind the main building. Inside, there was industrial carpet on the floor, a few small windows, some fluorescent lights, and several chairs arranged a circle. We all began stacking chairs, some still complaining loudly at the fact that they had to do "@#$%ing YO-GA!" Everyone was instructed to grab a mat and sit on the floor which they did, noticeably uncomfortable with tight hips, curved backs, and stiff knees, vestiges of long years of bodily neglect and abuse.

I looked around and saw that many of these men with their military tattoos, dog-tags, and post-Vietnam-era chic apparel were veterans. A pang of bitter realization washed through me. It was a feeling that in some ways this country had forgotten and neglected these people and that blindness resulted in one way or other processing these people into our prisons. Yes, these men had made their own decisions but I wondered how many of these choices had been made as the result of a broken soul, horrific memories, and an impossible sacrifice for a country that all but shunned them when they came back from the living nightmare of Vietnam. I saw men almost void of consciousness, desperately trying to just make it for one more day.

Not all of them were veterans. Some of these men were drug dealers, woman beaters, thieves, cheats, deserters, liars, and addicts. I stood there and looked around the room at these cut-throat, busted sons of America. This was their next step. This was their second chance, or their third or fourth. It didn't matter. They were there and so was I. And what we all shared in common was that we were going to do yoga together in some shed with industrial carpet and stacked chairs, under garish fluorescent lighting and try to see what could come of it.

I stood at the front of the class and introduced myself. I explained who I was, why I think yoga is cool, and that I also like jazz and running and reading. I told them that I didn't like yoga that much at first and that it took me a while to understand it enough to really love it. I shared how much I love the way it makes my body feel and how valuable it is to me to keep my body healthy in order to be a good vehicle of my mind and heart. I shared how well I've come to know my inner-self through this practice. My definition of yoga was very simple: understanding Self through listening; a union of body, mind, and heart. My introduction over, I asked if anybody had any injuries that I could be aware of and spent the next 10 minutes listening to almost every person in the room explain something like an injured back, a shattered elbow, or broken foot. Yoga suggests that everything is connected and in my mind I wondered if these broken bodies were perhaps scars of deeper wounds.

I think something happened to me as I stood there and listened to them describe their injuries. My fears and prejudices melted away and I didn't see ex-cons anymore, I saw hurt people. Aren't we all just bodies with hearts and minds doing our best to know ourselves and this world? Aren't we all just trying to mend and move forward? My nervousness subsided a bit and suddenly I found myself caught up with an excitement to be there, to offer something that we all could share, a way to connect, a way to heal, a way to simply feel good in our bodies and maybe find some inner peace. I shared a few jokes and anecdotes. This lightened the mood and greased the resistance a little. Then we started the practice with a simple focus on our breath and some easy breathing techniques which caused a sputtering of coughs and gasps. We moved our bodies in cat-cow position on hands and knees and mobilized the spine. Together, we moved the body through some slow and gentle sun salutations. We mobilized shoulders, wrists, hips, neck, knees, and ankles. When we did supine pigeon pose to loosen up tight hips, you'd have thought it was a dungeon of hell with all the groans and curses through clenched teeth. But they were doing it. And whether they realized it or not, the intensity of stretching such tight muscles entered them into a very deep practice of mindfulness. I believe that there is scarcely anything in the world that hones one's attention like pigeon pose, any of its incarnations, applied to tight hips. Pigeon: the fast-track to enlightenment! We finished our session with a rest as I led them through a guided meditation. After, I taught them the meaning of Namaste, an honoring salutation that acknowledges the common goodness in all of us. I bowed to them, offered a Namaste, and even received a few timid Namastes in return.

That started my year-plus stint at The First Step House. There were several different groups of men at the First Step House. I would meet with the same group each Wednesday for four weeks then change groups. Invariably the first session of each new group started with the same curses and objections but just as predicable came the subsequent sessions marked more and more acceptance, even happy anticipation about the practice. Yoga was helping their bodies to feel better, helping their minds to be more focused, and their hearts to be more calm. We grew to trust each other. I cherished their demonstrative respect for me, a respect that came easily once they got to know me. I stopped leaving my wallet locked in the car. I would come in to the center on Wednesday mornings and on my way back to the yoga shed, several of the men who had been in my previous groups would enthusiastically greet me with a hello and handshake or high-five. They followed my instructions and asked some great questions. Some admitted it, some didn't, but almost everyone grew to really love the practice. I'll never forget the sight and sound of these gruff dudes, sitting the best they could cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed in a squint and hands to heart, chanting the most gravely OOOOmmmm ever heard on this side of steel bars and razor wire.

Thanks to the First Step House, I learned a lot about yoga and teaching yoga. I learned that yoga can touch anybody. I learned that more than being a fantastic teacher, yoga itself is the teacher. I learned that the power of yoga lies in its current application to the situation and time at hand. I learned to offer this practice to people in a way that meets them where they are. My classes at The First Step House were the only classes I've taught where I instituted a 10-minute smoke break in the middle of class; perfectly appropriate. I learned that no matter how broken you might be this practice puts you on a pathway toward wholeness. Thank you, First Step House for all that you taught me. Though I wasn't paid money, The First Step House gave me deep riches of yogic knowledge, insight to teaching, and deep personal connection.

About 8 years after my stint at The First Step House, my friend Sarah asked me if I would offer a brief ceremony of heart-connection and mindfulness in remembrance of a friend who had recently passed. And so at an outdoor party, I gathered a group of people and lead them through some gentle movement then a heart-felt meditation in remembrance of their friend. After the ceremony, a man approached me very excitedly and said, "Scott! It's Dusty from The First Step House!" We gave each other a big hug and caught up for a brief moment. Dusty told me how great he was doing and emphasized how the yoga we did together had become so important to him. I told him that likewise, the yoga we had done together had meant so much to me. What a thrill to see someone from The First Step House.

Regardless of our circumstances, there is always somewhere we want and need to go. That journey requires the first step, one of courage, determination, and open-heartedness. Let's take this step together!

See you in class.