This summer I visited the lifers’ section of San Quentin prison for the first time. I discovered how trauma-sensitive yoga, mindfulness and compassion is transforming the lives of those inside, and outside of California’s oldest penitentiary. I was with the founder of the Prison Yoga Project, James Fox, and Josefin Wikstrøm, of the Swedish Prison Yoga Project.
James Fox was wolf-whistled by the inmates the first time he carried yoga mats through San Quentin prison yard. They saw yoga as exercise for girls. Fourteen years later and things are very different. When James led us through the cold steel entrance of the prison into the sunny exercise yard, we were met with smiles, fist bumps and introductions. We could hear James’ name being called from all directions.
My first experience in the prison building was witnessing fellow guest Josefin taking hefty, tattooed prisoners through a wild, theatrical Bollywood dance routine. Josefin combines trauma-sensitive yoga with trauma-discharging dance. Her immense, compassionate energy filled the room. She made it feel safe to explore. The inmates left calm, focused and grateful.
At the time of such trauma, the central nervous system buffers overwhelming pain. It shuts down parts of the brain involved in connection, emotion and feeling. This leaves the body feeling disconnected, or dissociated from the painful event. The individual may experience their body as a stranger or an enemy. The body however still holds the trauma.
Consequently, unresolved feelings such as fear, lack of self-worth and chronic self-blame develop into anxiety, depression, addictions and other mental health concerns. The result can be violent, chaotic and unpredictable behaviour.
Trauma has affected everyone in some way. For instance a relationship break up can trigger our early childhood wounds. When this happens, our unconscious mind wants to escape from pain. It tries different tactics to protect our vulnerability. We might self-soothe with ice cream, or seek solace in work, sex, drugs or alcohol. Obviously, this defense response can cause harm to ourselves and others.
However for some, the extreme nature of their trauma results in equally extreme outcomes.
The Prison Yoga Project are tackling such extreme trauma head on. Teachers encourage prisoners to reestablish a more friendly, communicative relationship with their own bodies. They do this by inviting students to slowly reconnect with their experience of breath, movement and physical sensations. In such a way, mind, body and heart become more integrated.
Most men will enter prison believing masculinity means withstanding pain. PYP teachers respond to this by using the body as a metaphor: if you push it too hard, it breaks. Of course, this holds relevance to anyone who has experienced self-punishing behaviour.
Most importantly, a mindfulness-based practice explores the edges between comfort/discomfort and effort/non-effort. It provides a useful exercise in empathy, self-compassion and self-control. By repeating such practices, inmates become more sensitive. They see how much pain they have routinely caused themselves and others. They see how trauma has impacted on their behaviour.
“I have been hurt, and so I hurt others.”
Naturally, it requires strength and bravery to admit vulnerability, especially in a prison environment. It usually takes multiple personal catastrophes before an individual is ready to address their trauma, and hence PYP teachers provide important support. This is equally true for those of us making changes on the outside of prison, where we might feel supported by mindfulness, yoga and/or psychotherapy.
James took us to a different part of the prison after each yoga class. We met the newspaper team at the San Quentin News. In 2012 they were handing out newsletters within the facility. They have now grown to distributing quality newspapers to 69 prisons across the USA. We were interviewed by the award-winning prison radio station. We found both prisoner-run departments focus heavily on issues such as victim support and offender education programmes.
During these meetings I discovered I’d practiced yoga next to men who are giants in every sense. Men who are warm, compassionate, kind and charismatic. These men had received the support to achieve deep personal self-insight. In turn, they use their healing and growth to help others. Their self-compassion has led to compassion for others.
The men I met are leaders; they have achieved success against the odds and are driven to inspire others by example. It felt sad and unjust to think some might never get out.
It was raining as we tried to leave. We were unexpectedly held between locked gates at the prison exit. It was dark and there was only a tiny glimmer of natural light visible at the top of the gate. Everything went quiet. I could smell the damp stone and old metal. We waited and waited. I felt the pit of my stomach experience powerlessness, frustration, and uncertainty. I got a very small taste of what it’s like to live there. It felt like San Quentin prison was giving us a parting gift. A final lesson.
The gates opened and I felt a surge of relief to be outside again.
Thank you to Josefin Wikstrøm, James Fox, and the men and staff of San Quentin prison for making this experience possible.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Arnulfo Garcia, former editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News, and one of the fine men who inspired this article. Tragically Arnulfo was killed in a car accident two months after being released, at the age of 65.
Men’s mental health has been much featured in the press recently. Stormzy and Prince Harry have discussed their own depression or trauma, encouraging other men to confront their own inner demons.
This has been fantastic in bringing greater awareness to men’s mental health. Phrases like ‘man up’, however, still exist.
‘Man up’, ‘grow some balls’ and similar expressions reinforce the ideas that masculinity means being able to withstand discomfort or pain, and that courage, bravery and resilience are male-only qualities.
These attitudes are damaging to men, their loved ones, and society.
First of all though, lets look at pain…
How does emotional/psychological pain or trauma manifest?
Historical pain and trauma is usually buried deeply in the mind/body, hidden away out of conscious awareness.
Pain and trauma projects itself both inwards and outwards. It can projects inwards as a dissociative ‘numbing out’ with alcohol or addictive behaviours (sex addiction, drug addiction etc), or depression, anxiety or eating disorders.
It can project outwards in the form of aggression, and/or controlling or manipulative behaviours.
Pain and trauma manifests in a multitude of ways, but generally as patterns of behaviour that render life unhappy, difficult, unfulfilling and painful.
So why not just ‘man up’?
Bracing against pain generally creates tension and brittleness. This is as true of the emotional or psychological as it is the physical.
Bottled up emotions create a pressurised, destructive force that turn inwards, outwards or both.
Therefore, if we develop the ability to recognise when our internal forces are being destructive, we can effectively prevent such damage.
Martial Artist Bruce Lee’s advice was ‘be water, my friend’. He taught the wisdom of remaining flexible in response to one’s surroundings. Crucially, this means being able to be soft as well as hard. Lee understood that practicing such skills enhances mastery of mind, and body.
Does talking about how I feel make me less of a man?
‘Masculine’ qualities of strength, decisiveness, courage etc are useful and important to all humans. However, the unwise application of such qualities can undermine strength, rather than maintain it. Sun Tzu, the 5th century Chinese General, and author of The Art of War said that one of the five essentials for victory is “knowing when to fight and when not to fight”.
Masculine and feminine qualities exist within all of us. These qualities have nothing to do with our bodies, or gender. We can see such qualities when we explore the self in a safe and trusting space. This does not mean suddenly trading our lumberjack shirts in for a pair of high heels. Although for some of course, it might.
In this famous Monty Python lumberjack song, the singer’s fellow men are so appalled by his confessions that they run away. The lumberjack is baffled as to why his sharing the joys of cross dressing AND being a lumberjack have been so badly received. His female companion cries out “I thought you were so rugged‘, bitterly disappointed at his hapless confession.
Clearly, he is left wondering…Is it not acceptable to enjoy both?
The lumberjack song is over 40 years old, and it is still seems funny to see a traditionally ‘male’ man unselfconsciously explore a different, more ‘feminine’ side of himself. We now have artists like Grayson Perry and Eddie Izzard proving that it is possible to be at ease moving between different aspects of their own male and female identities. They remain in the minority. Most men still fear ridicule and rejection if they choose to step outside of imagined boundaries of acceptability. These boundaries are created by society and enforced by self. They form prison walls that crush creativity, authenticity and true spirit.
And to be clear. The issue here is not just about transvestism. It is about feeling able to honour whatever is within; with self-compassion, and self-acceptance.
How can psychotherapy help?
Seeking support is a proactive and responsive way of acknowledging pain and discomfort. Not everyone wants to be like the lumberjack in the Monty Python video. Not everyone feels safe to stand in front of work colleagues or a partner to explore their deepest needs, fears, or hopes. Sometimes it’s safer to explore with someone who you don’t know socially. Someone you feel confident won’t judge.
A broken ankle might mean a visit to A&E to get a cast. A cast helps to hold, and contain such brittleness whilst new pathways are developed. With such support, flexibility, and a deeper, more integrated strength can be developed.
Psychotherapy works in much the same way. It is an opportunity to heal and to grow. It’s an opportunity for men’s mental health to be just as important as their physical health.
How can I find out more?
I offer a free 15 minute telephone or Skype/VSee consultation if you would like to discuss whether my work might be relevant to you. I’m based in Harley St, in London W1, but work internationally via Skype/VSee. Please get in touch now!
Why yoga, mindfulness and group psychotherapy in Brixton?
When I worked as an Honorary in a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) for South London and Maudsley (SLAM) NHS Trust, I met many folks whose psychosis had been brought on by an accumulation of stressful life events.
My own experience (as well as countless studies) of yoga, mindfulness and group psychotherapy demonstrates that they provide very real tools for coping with stressful situations. With practice, we can develop a ‘radar’ that allows us to see potential problems on the horizon.
It got me thinking – why not offer such a combination for those who experience psychosis?
How is stress a factor in psychosis?
Stress is a major factor in all mental health conditions, whether psychosis, PTSD, bipolar and/or personality disorders. When we feel stressed, we are in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. In this survival mode our vision becomes narrowed, we see the world as threatening. Our coping strategies will be more likely to surface.
Such coping strategies might be addictive behaviours such as drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in risky sexual activities. It might involve acting defensively or aggressively in work or social situations, or it might involve pushing ourselves harder at work. It might involve all of the above – and more besides!
The combined forces of psychological, emotional and physical stress makes a psychotic episode more likely.
What is psychosis?
The experience of psychosis is unique to each individual affected by it. It might include delusions such as hearing voices, hallucinations, or unhelpful or confusing thought patterns.
It can feel very frightening to have such experiences. Such delusions might not appear real to anyone else, but they feel very real to the person experiencing them.
How can yoga, mindfulness and group psychotherapy in Brixton help?
Yoga Share aims to provide a small, contained group where attendees can share their experiences in a safe, non-judgemental space. Some folks might like to attend and say nothing – that’s fine! Some might have had a difficult day, and wish to curl up under a blanket with a cushion – that’s fine too – and there’s blankets, mats and cushions provided!
For thousands of years, yoga, mindfulness, and talking to each other has been a supportive way of dealing with the challenges that life throws at us.
Yoga Share aims to share some of that knowledge, in a healing space.
Fridays 5:15pm -7:15pm at the Mosaic Clubhouse, 65 Effra Rd, Brixton, London SW2 1BZ. It begins on March 17th 2017.
How do I book a free place?
Please call Jon Gee on 07973 524201 to book your free place. Please note there are a limited number of spaces.
When negative or difficult emotions build up in intensity they create discomfort or pain. We often find ourselves dealing with such discomfort in ways that are unhelpful to ourselves, and our relationships.
What are the commonest ways of dealing with pain or difficult feelings?
We might express our pain outwardly, through words or actions, such as passive-aggression, controlling behaviour, or angry outbursts.
We might deny or repress our pain. We might hold it tight in our bodies, hunching our shoulders, or clutching our stomachs.
Or we might withdraw completely, and become silent and dissociated from our pain.
This list is not exhaustive, and sometimes a combination of these ‘coping strategies’ takes place.
Depression, self-harm, anger issues, addiction or otherwise destructive behaviours can all be indications of pain, a result of unresolved emotions or trauma. However, even if we ‘know’ the reasons behind our behaviour, it can be incredibly hard to learn new ways of being.
Why is it so hard to talk about feelings?
Generally, most of us don’t like to feel vulnerable (and certainly not most men). We see vulnerability as equating to weakness. So we try to stay protected. It’s a survival mechanism – we imagine if we present as weak, we would be more open to attack.
Our ego, or sense of identity can become constructed on the belief that we must stay ‘strong’ and ‘in control’. The thought of expressing ‘weakness’ can be experienced as destabilising and quite frightening. This in turn leads to increasing ‘armouring’ of the frightened ego.
We are trying to stay safe.
Perhaps our upbringing taught us that emotions should not be discussed.
Or perhaps emotions were so chaotically expressed by our family members, that we retreated into ourselves, to a place of safety.
Why is it useful to talk about feelings?
Unresolved emotion leads to pain and often destructive behaviour. The process of talking about feelings shines light on those dark corners. It begins to examine the boxes in our attic with the help of a torch, and a supportive other. Once those boxes are slowly and carefully unpacked, things can be processed, used, or discarded.
In doing so, there is less weight bearing down upon the structure of the whole house. Things can feel lighter, easier and more spacious. This space allows for new things to develop, relationships, attitudes and ways-of-being.
How is it possible to start talking about emotions?
Psychotherapy, counselling, and talking therapy seeks to build a safe container, where fears and vulnerabilities can be explored with a trusted other. For more information on psychotherapy and counselling in Harley St, London W1, please get in touch.