Did I tell you about my jail gig?

11 Jul

The students file into the room and stand uncertainly near the door, watching curiously as I take out and unroll yoga mats. One woman, about 60, stands with her shoulders slightly elevated and her chin dropped toward her breastbone, a cautious, wary look on her face. Another, perhaps 22, crosses her arms over her chest and stands with her weight one one leg, hip thrust to the side. They keep their distance and remain silent but watchful.  

Their workout wear is not chic or cute or form-fitting or even comfortable. Each woman wears an oversized top and baggy pants made of red-and-white striped heavy canvas. Their hair is not styled nor colored, they wear no makeup. Their eyebrows are not shaped. Red cotton socks give up the fight and loosely puddle around their ankles. Their plastic sandals scuff listlessly on the concrete floor.

The color of the stripes identify them as inmates of R-Pod. I am struck by how trapped they appear. Trapped, obviously by their circumstances, the concrete walls, heavy steel doors and reinforced windows; but they are held just as securely by their circumstances of origin. These are inmates awaiting sentencing and perhaps transfer to the state prison or they are in the process of serving their sentence at the Monterey County jail.

For the next hour, I teach a basic Pilates mat class and the principles of using imagery. My students warm up physically as we move and stretch, breathe and experiment. Silly props and proprioceptive games warm them up emotionally. Their faces are relaxed and I even hear sighs and see smiles by the time we stretch into the Mermaid. I ask them to notice their state of mind after class. What do you feel? I ask. The women respond “calm”, “relaxed”, “strong”, and “focused”. 


I have been teaching Pilates at my studios in Monterey and Salinas, California since 1997. I trained with Marie-Jose Blom at Long Beach Dance Conditioning for my Pilates certificate, and did my Gyrotonic certificate in 1998. In 2005 I added the Franklin Method Level 1 certificate; by 2011 I had completed his training in the use of imagery with a Level 3 certificate. A deep curiosity to know everything I could about teaching and coaching drove me to complete an M.S. in Kinesiology in 2011. I have taught in private studios, health clubs, a racket club, dance studios, a church hall, elementary school gymnasiums, a boutique hotel and a booth at a 5K finish line but I never anticipated teaching in a prison. Life is funny that way sometimes.

About ten years ago I attended one of those knock-out weekend seminars where you look at your life-goals and purposefully create a future that you would love to live into. I spent three days in that course and transformed my teaching philosophy of “mind conquering body” into a mission statement for all aspects of my life: the unification of mind, body and spirit. It directs me in everything I do as a parent, wife, coach, daughter, friend and mentor; it is my North Star. 

For sixteen years, my teaching had been all about body and mind, degrees and certificates, methods and exercises, clients, sessions and workshops. I needed to purposefully create an opportunity for Spirit to really shine through, even if it was going to be scary or make me vulnerable. A good friend of mine is the Jail Chaplain and during a casual conversation about her job, the challenge presented itself.  This is how I came to be teaching Pilates and imagery in a women’s prison.


They are sleepy, having just stumbled from their bunks and hustled to class. Apparently many of them doze away their days; in a way they are escaping the prison by being unconscious. Today a guard is surprisingly unfriendly to me. I imagine I represent a change in her schedule, an introduction of some risk that she never agreed to assume. The noisy, heavy sliding door grinds as the guard in the tower closes and locks it electronically. My students and I constantly risk being disconnected from our work: disruptive noise (an unhappy inmate in another pod can make an astonishing amount of noise), smells (the place reeks of hot dogs), people entering our work-out space (new inmates being processed come into our area to receive a mattress roll, towel, cup and spoon). In the ordinary world, I am annoyed by a student’s cell phone ringing or chatter during class; here my students often leave for a conference with a defense lawyer. 

My intention for today’s session is to improve spinal mechanics. I use plastic vertebrae to demonstrate how they slide on each other, how each vertebra must participate fully for healthy, fluid movement. We partner up and with our fingers gentle on the other’s spine, we orient the nervous system and improve proprioception. One partner does a standing roll down while the other observes and visualizes the vertebral movement. We trade places. I set an exercise (the Pelvic Bridge) and the students move to their mats. I provide a few examples of imagery for a mobile spine: the ubiquitous pearl necklace, a slinky. I ask for suggestions and at first there is nothing but silence.  I repeat the question and wait. A tentative voice suggests a vacuum hose, so we repeat the exercise imagining our spine as a vacuum hose. I say “The most meaningful imagery for you is unlikely to come from me. The very best imagery is going to be out of your brain, out of your imagination. So bring it on.” Over multiple sessions, the women get more comfortable using imagery with their bodies, with marrying ideas of force, leverage, energy and power to visual images or sensations of weight, depth, or even emotions.

At the end of class I tell them a little about Joe Pilates and his remarkable back-story of internment in World War I England. Their astonished “No way!” is skeptical. “He was really incarcerated?” I try to be tactful as I explain the circumstances of his imprisonment, after all he wasn’t a felon, he was just the wrong enemy alien in the wrong country during the wrong war. They are impressed by his commitment to developing his method and helping others. We discuss how being empowered in the face of daily dis-empowerment can impact your life.   


Way back when I was a new teacher, my burning desire was to unlock the body’s secrets, to know everything there was to know about the body and how it moves. By learning everything I could about the Pilates Method, biomechanics and anatomy, I planned to force my own body (and a domain of knowledge) to submit to me. Obviously, not a very holistic way of unlocking movement! After developing my skills as teacher and getting a handle on the material, I no longer felt the need to focus solely on these nuts and bolts. Over time, and through studying with many teachers of various methodologies, I began to flirt with a layer of knowing and wisdom beneath cognitive knowledge, where an often covert dialogue resides between body and mind. This dialogue creates the context in which movement happens or doesn’t happen. I realized that for the most part, we as teachers and as students either aren’t aware of this dialogue or aren’t able to meaningfully influence it. I realized the time was ripe to open up to this dialogue in myself and let it teach me whatever it had to say. This is the unification of mind, body and spirit: to be in dialogue... in balance.... empowered.  

My paramount goal is empowering each of these women to be her Source of Knowledge, the expert on her own body. After all, each will return to her pod with nothing more than her own mind, her own body and her own spirit. Beyond that, when she returns to her home and neighborhood, I hope she will generate her personal well-being. This can only help her to make good choices in the future for herself and her family.

Great teaching never comes through blunt force or talking at our students, or positioning ourselves as The Source of Knowledge. A great teacher lays a path of stepping stones and then gives the student space to discover each one. When the student is allowed that pleasure of discovery, she owns that knowledge, and she can then generate and re-generate it from her own experience. The teacher disappears and the student is empowered to stand alone and rely on her own curiosity.

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