A few months ago, one of my closest friends, an editor at Yoga Journal, presented me with one of the most challenging writing assignments of my career. She asked me to spend a few days in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW) to observe and report on the first-of-its-kind yoga teacher training for inmates.
Not only was it eye-opening to get a taste of life in a women’s prison, it also reprogrammed the part of my brain that was conditioned to believe that exercise must be a take-no-prisoners assault on the body that involves puddles of sweat and a heart rate of 175 beats per minute. It took aim at my preconceived notions of the limitations of yoga. I saw with my own eyes that the 16 women in the yoga teacher training were better able to handle the stress that inevitably comes with life inside the prison—in many cases with no prospect of getting out—as a direct result of their yoga practice.
Yoga helped them breathe, it helped them find self-forgiveness, and it helped them stay embodied when their instincts told them to retreat into the recesses of their minds and disappear.
I went home and immediately signed up for 10 sessions at my local yoga studio in Doylestown, Pa., and then I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes, please!” when my editor friend invited me to Yoga Journal Live! in Estes Park, Colo., a 5-day retreat in September.
So last week, I scoured my drawers for all the yoga duds I could find and headed out to Colorado, fairly certain I had bit off more Om than I could chew. I pictured myself plied with vegan food, awash in mala beads and essential oil. I imagined myself choking on fresh mountain air and counting down the seconds until I could stop pretending to meditate and start speed-walking to my next session
And on the surface, I ate my fair share of lentils and whiffed more lavender than ever. Throughout the week, yogis and teachers streamed in and out of classrooms and auditoriums across the YMCA of the Rockies, a stunning campus about an hour from Denver that was wallpapered with big blue sky and majestic mountains and inhabited with a few dozen carefree elk that would park themselves inconveniently in the middle of the road and poop in the grass. It’s a magical place in which brilliant double rainbows give way to star-swept skies.
In each workshop and class, dozens of earnest and rosy-cheeked Lululemon-clad participants would unfurl their yoga mats, neatly stack their foam bricks, and prepare to twist and stretch their bodies, from the first Downward-facing Dog to Savasana, chanting their Oms, finding their breath, opening their chakras, and freeing their third eyes.
But toward the end of the first session, a restorative yoga workshop for women led by the mother-daughter duo Judith and Lizzie Lasater, I took stock of myself. After a quick inventory of my body and check-in with my brain, I couldn’t believe what I discovered. With my legs splayed up against a wall and my body carefully rigged on a short stack of blankets in a Lasater-prescribed configuration, my breath became a happy, steady metronome, and my surging blood was replaced with a slow, quiet current. I was relaxed. I was present. I was content from the inside out.
To my surprise, this new kind of calm continued throughout the weekend. From Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee’s fast-paced flow class called Shanti Sweat to Bo Forbes’s lecture on finding balance and avoiding burnout, I gradually gave myself over to the yoga under the paint-by-numbers sky. And I became reflective. I thought about my life, my amazing husband at home with our beautiful sons, frantically running from karate to acting class so I could marinate in this experience. I let myself luxuriate in deep, satisfying breaths, and I felt one thing so consistently that I wrote it down in my new journal. Six words that I rarely take the time or have the courage to think, much less speak out loud. I am grateful for my life.
I’m headed home with a duffel bag full of tank tops that say things like “Hanging With My Om-ies” and the mala beads my editor friend brought back from her life-changing trip to India.
And while I’ll be back to cardio sweat sessions at the gym soon enough, I know yoga will be a permanent fixture in my life. The practice endeavors to connect the body and the mind, and whether we’re clearing our third eyes, chanting words from an ancient language, or struggling to find literal or metaphysical balance, we can all use a reminder to stop and be present in the moments that make up our lives.